On rare occasions has a Papal visit generated so much enthusiasm and hope as Pope Francis’ planned visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Holy Father will be in the DRC from July 2-5, before heading to South Sudan. But for the DRC- a country not only vast in geography (2.345 million km²) but also vast in natural resources, Pope Francis’ visit could just be the balm that would soothe the wounds of a nation whose natural wealth has become a curse, rather than a blessing.
Estimated at over 24 trillion USD, the DRC’s minerals make the country potentially one of the richest on earth, but colonialism, slavery, and corruption have conspired to make it one of the poorest.
In what historians have qualified as “the world’s bloodiest conflict since World War II” and which still rumbles on to this day, at least five million have been killed, millions forced to flee from their homes, and millions of women and girls rapped.
The current violence is the result of invading Rwandan and Ugandan forces, coming following the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as Rwanda suspected that the Congo has become a hiding place for Rwandan rebels.
The Pope will visit not only Kinshasa, but also Goma to the East, where foreign forces are still very much present, and where ethnic strife between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema ethnic groups still run riot.
“The Pope wants to look at the Congolese people in their eyes, and speak to them from his heart, to comfort them and encourage them in the faith of Christ, in love for the Church and hope for the future,” said the Apostolic Nuncio to the DRC, Mgr. Ettore Balestrero at a press conference recently.
“At the same time, he is calling for reconciliation and for the building of brotherly ties, so that all Congolese people can develop feelings of being all brothers and sisters,” he said.
It’s a strong statement that resonates across the political and religious spectrum in a country where nearly 95% of the population identifies as Christian, and over 57% identify as Catholic.
Mgr. Marcel Utembi, the Bishop of Kinshasa and President of the Episcopal Conference who leads the preparatory Committee noted that Pope Francis is visiting to “revive the spirit of the Congolese people who need peace, security, and wellbeing.”
And the country’s lone Cardinal, Fridolin Ambongo described the Pope’s coming as “a priceless gift God has given to our country, our people-a people who today are going through a difficult time.”
“The Pope is coming for me. He is coming for you. He is coming for my family. He is coming for my country. He is coming for us all,” the cleric declared.
“May this visit be for us a moment of national communion, national reconciliation. May it be for us all a time for true conversion,” he concluded.
And then the Secretary-General of the Bishops’ Conference, Mgr. Donatien Nshole noted that Pope Francis “Isn’t coming only for Catholics, he is coming for all the Congolese people.”
The country’s Prime Minister, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Joined the clerics in expressing the wish that the Pope’s visit could bring peace and reconciliation to a troubled people.
“It’s a thing of joy that the Pope is coming,” he said and added that the government was thankful that Pope Francis responded favorably to the invitation extended to him by President Felix Tsisekedi.
“This visit is one for peace and reconciliation,” he emphasized.
The Premier spoke at length about the choice of Goma as one of the towns to be visited by the Pope, explaining that it fits into the context of the rising insecurity in the area.
“When you look at the town of Goma, it’s in the East of the country, and everyone knows the atrocities being committed in this part of the country-atrocities carried out by terrorists who target the zone.”
He said the government was committed to routing the terrorists and restoring peace to the troubled region-a region also blighted by ethnic strife.
For instance, President Tshisekedi has since May 6, 2021, imposed a state of emergency in parts of the eastern regions in desperate efforts to drive away the assailants.
“So, it’s important that these populations should be reconciled among themselves. It’s important to cultivate peace because there can’t be development without peace, and we hope the Pope’s visit will help us achieve that.”
“The Church, the government, and the entire population will prepare for this visit,” he concluded.
Even as Pope Francis’ visit holds so much promise, Catholic Bishops in the DRC have called on warring parties to silence the guns.
“Let the leaders of the armed movements and their political sponsors silence the weapons once and for all because we are all brothers.”
It will be the third time a Pope is visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo. Saint Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1980 and 1985.
Mgr. Utembi said this third visit demonstrates that the DRC occupies a special place in the Papacy.