As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his Apostolic Journey to two African nations, we offer an overview of the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By Lisa Zengarini
The Church of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the oldest Churches in the sub-Saharan region, dating back to 1491. In that year the King of Kongo Nzinga-a-Nkuwu (King João I) and his family were converted and baptized by Portuguese missionaries. He was succeeded to the throne in 1506 by his son, Nzinga Mbemba (King Alfonso I), who strived to convert Kongo to a Catholic country. In 1596 the Diocese of Sāo Salvador (now Mbanza Kongo) was erected. However, Christianity took root in the Congolese society only three centuries later.
The Congolese Church under Belgian rule
Roman Catholicism was firmly established during the Belgian colonial rule of the country pioneered by King Leopold II of Belgium (1877-1960). This period saw the arrival of the first Missionaries of Scheut (also known as White Fathers) and nuns, preceded by the Spiritan Fathers.
The Belgian rulers authorized and actively supported the creation of Catholic schools and hospitals. In 1954, the first University of the Congo, the Jesuit University “Lovanium”, was inaugurated in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa).
1956 saw the consecration of the first Congolese bishop, Monsignor Pierre Kimbondo, followed in 1959 by the appointment of the first native Archbishop of Leopoldville, Monsignor Joseph Malula, who became the country’s first cardinal.
In 1930 Pope Pius XI established an Apostolic Delegation to Belgian Congo, which was elevated to Nunciarure in 1963, after Congo’s independence.
The Church under Mobutu’s regime
Good relations between State and Church began to deteriorate during the long tenure of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who among other things, imposed the nationalization of Catholic schools and universities.
Those policies led to tensions with the Congolese episcopate, a vocal critic of Mobutu’s authoritarian and corrupted regime.
Tensions and intimidation against the Church went on even after Mobutu was forced to step back on school nationalization, and after Pope St. John Paul II’s two Apostolic Journeys to the African nation in the early 1980s. The late Pontiff visited then-Zaire in 1980, for the centenary of evangelization, and in 1985, for the occasion of the Beatification of Sister Anuarite Nengapeta, the “St. Agnes of the African continent”.
Congolese bishops continued to voice criticism against ongoing corruption, violence and abuses inflicted on the Congolese people after Mobutu’s death and his succession by President Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the 1990s, even at the cost of risking their life. This happened to Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa of Bukavu who was murdered on 29 October 1996 by Rwandan militias allied with Kabila, for denouncing injustices and war projects in the Great Lakes region.
A vital Church
Despite the ongoing political instability in the country, the Congolese Catholic Church continues to be one of the most vital Churches in Africa. This is testified by the ever-growing number of Catholics, who account for about 33% of the population (90% of which is Christian); high Church attendance even among young people; flourishing vocations; Catholic lay activism and its widespread presence in society and in the media.
The RD Congo has a total of 4,602 diocesan priests ministering in nearly 1,500 parishes and 48 dioceses, and there are also many Fidei Donum Congolese priests working in Africa, Europe and America.
They are assisted by 11,000 Congolese men and women religious engaged in various areas of pastoral care, and whose major superiors are gathered in two bodies: the ASUMA (Association of Major Superiors) and the USUMA (Union of Major Superiors).
An important feature of the Congolese Church is lay activism, with several lay associations and movements gathered in the Council of the Catholic Apostolate of the Laity (CALCC), many catechists and lay men and women bearing witness to their faith in the political, economic and cultural fields.
Laypeople in the RD Congo therefore contribute significantly to the vitality of the local Church, which is also actively engaged in the field of communication, with over 30 radio stations, several diocesan television channels, newspapers and publications.
Moreover, the Congolese Church is a leading social actor and is, in fact, the first partner of the State in the educational and health fields, compensating the lack of public services through its network of hospitals, social centers and renowned schools, which have formed many Congolese leaders.
On the other hand, the Congolese Church also faces several challenges. Superstitious beliefs and practices, witchcraft and magic are still widespread even in Catholic communities. Furthermore, independent sects are spreading in the country. Another important challenge is preventing young people from becoming involved in gang violence and in the several militias fighting in conflict areas, namely in the Eastern part of the country.
Addressing ongoing political and conflict
Over the last thirty years, the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO) has continued to follow closely the local socio-political situation. It has addressed several messages and statements in critical moments, denouncing the widespread scourge of corruption, bad governance and abuses by the authorities.
CENCO has also promoted concrete initiatives to educate Congolese citizens to the values of peace and democracy, and to encourage the lay faithful to participate actively in the national political life.
The Catholic Church has been involved in the organization of national elections with its own observers, and has insistently reiterated the need to guarantee the effective independence of the National Electoral Commission (CENI) to prevent disputes that have punctually followed each electoral round.
Owing to its reputation and credibility, CENCO has also been invited several times to mediate in the conflicts that have ensued the end of Mobutu’s regime. Over the past years the Congolese Bishops have reiterated appeals for peace in the Eastern provinces, lamenting the presence foreign forces, who continue to destabilize the region with violence and illegally exploit their extraordinary mineral riches, including coltan, a key component of electronic devices.
Pope Francis’ closeness to the Congolese people
Pope Francis, whose Apostolic Journey to the country scheduled for July 2022 initially also included a stop in the war-torn Eastern province of North Kivu, has repeatedly expressed his closeness to the Congolese people enduring ongoing violence and conflict.
During the special Prayer vigil for peace in Congo and South Sudan he presided over in St. Peter’s Basilica on 23 November 2017 the Pope once again called for adequate efforts for peace in the two countries through dialogue and negotiation.
On 4 February 2018, following the first postponement of his ecumenical trip to South Sudan alongside Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, he invited Christian worldwide to join a Day of Prayer for peace in the two nations on 23 February.
In a video message released on 2 July, 2022, after the second postponement of his Apostolic Journey to Africa, Pope Francis reaffirmed his affection for the peoples of DRC and South Sudan: “I carry within me, in prayer, the pain that you have endured for all too long” he said, urging the Congolese and South Sudanese not to let themselves “be robbed of hope”