Having lived for a long time under a communist regime, the Republic of Congo for many years left its Christian faith on one side. But today the Catholic Church in the country is gathering new strength to deal with its problems – which are not few – and move forward. Kinga von Poschinger, of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), heads its project section covering the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). She recently travelled to the country to gain a first-hand impression of the situation there. She was interviewed by Monica Zorita about the challenges facing the Congolese people and the current and future aid projects of ACN in the country.
What were the main reasons for this visit?
The visit to Congo-Brazzaville was a priority for ACN for a number of reasons. After having been subject to a communist regime for many years, its people have to an extent abandoned their faith, relegating it to something of secondary importance, so there is a need now to return to it, to revisit it, revive it. The last time ACN visited this country was in 2002. So with this visit and the new projects we are proposing to fund, we are hoping to give new impetus to the Church here and to Congolese society.
What is the situation here at the present time?
Like many other African nations, they are going through a very difficult economic situation. People are living in poverty in countries which could be very rich. The region in which the diocese of Impfondo is situated is in the north of the country in the midst of the rainforest. Many of the houses here are simply mud huts; it is a region of rivers and high rainfall and the exuberant forest vegetation makes it difficult to get about, except by boat – or occasionally by car when the road conditions allow it. This is the poorest part of the country. On the other hand, in the southern region – and specifically in the diocese of Point Noire – there are extensive oil reserves, but the fall in world prices, combined with corruption, has plunged this African country into a profound economic crisis that has had profound consequences for everyone. Obviously, it is a situation that has brought great uncertainty, but this has been responded to by the optimistic spirit of the Congolese people – especially in the Catholic areas, where there is a strong family spirit and a spirit of ongoing mutual support.
What are the major religions in the Republic of Congo?
Despite the fact that the Republic of Congo is officially a secular state, a majority of the population are in fact Christians, while others follow local animist beliefs and a small minority follows Islam. Within the Christian population, the majority belong to Protestant Pentecostalist groups, while between 30% and 35% are Catholics.
Congolese Catholics have a very living and joyful faith and tend to be somewhat calmer in their forms of worship. This is something very much emphasised by Bishop Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou of the youthful diocese of Dolisie, who reminds his Catholic faithful of the importance of silence and quiet interior prayer.
The Catholic Church in the Republic of Congo currently has nine dioceses, two of which were created in 2013, and is planning to erect more in the next few years, as the country is a vast one and it is very difficult to cover it with so few bishops.
What are the principal challenges facing the Church in Congo?
There is no lack of them… Poverty, the rapid increase in the Pentecostalist sects, masonry, exorcism, the disrespect shown by some of the local animist groups, with their fetishes, towards the Catholic faith – and also the fact that the parishes are so far from one another and so isolated that many of the priests feel very much alone and can sometimes lose their sense of vocation and mission. That is why ACN wants to help with various forms of spiritual retreats and other projects aimed at the formation of priests and religious, especially the younger ones, in order to renew their strength and provide the example they need.
What other kinds of projects do you envisage as a result of this visit to Congo?
We want to sponsor certain projects in the national seminary – the only seminary in the whole of the country – to encourage the careful discernment of authentic vocations.
We also saw for ourselves the lack of financial resources for evangelisation – both the lack of religious books, such as missals for example, and the lack of transport, such as boats, to reach all the Catholic faithful. And there is also a need to repair and renovate the houses and convents of the priests and religious sisters. Many of them are living in appalling conditions, and some without drinking water.
In the Church’s year we have just celebrated the Resurrection of Christ. What kind of Paschal message, what message of hope has stayed with you since your journey?
We recall in particular the hard work, the inner light, the goodness and hope that shine forth from people like Bishop Manamika Bafouakouahou. He is filled with energy in his desire to help his people move forward and overcome, little by little, the problems they face. He has a very deep faith and a very clear vision. He goes out into the streets himself to talk with the people and he organises a regular “week of evangelisation” that inspires thousands of people to come and listen to him.
What for you was one of the most moving or emotional moments of your journey?
We had a wonderful experience in the diocese of Impfondo, where they were celebrating the first Holy Mass of three new priests who had been ordained on 6 January this year. It was a traditional ceremony, and afterwards they danced and sang with an exceptional spirit of joy. The priests were dressed in garlands of greenery over the top of their priestly dress, round their necks and round their waists, while the faithful themselves were dressed in their traditional garments and danced with a sort of broomstick made of branches – as a symbol of unity, flexibility and endurance. The happiness and also the pride of these people in their three new priests, and despite their many sufferings, were most impressive.