In his 10 years leading the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has called attention to the plight of refugees and the poor and to the plunder of the earth’s natural riches. He has traveled to the peripheries of the church to touch the wounds of its afflicted and most forgotten. And he has welcomed young Catholics, especially in the booming global south, to a more inclusive church.
On Tuesday, Francis landed in Congo, a country that crystallizes all those priorities. He is the first pope since 1985 to visit the nation, where local church leaders have declared a moral emergency desperately in need of the pope’s, and the world’s, attention.
The turnout to welcome Francis was overwhelming in Kinshasa, the capital. Tens of thousands of people lined the road from the airport, cheering and waving flags in colorful local dress and Catholic school uniforms under enormous billboards of Francis (often alongside the country’s president).
Overpasses were packed with thousands more people. They crowded bus stops and poured out of shanty streets and ran alongside the motorcade, accompanied by armed soldiers in open jeeps.
“Torn by war, the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to witness within its confines conflicts and forced migrations, and to suffer from terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity and of creation,” Francis said. “This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath.”
Francis, 86, who often uses a wheelchair, will also visit South Sudan, where the church is deeply involved in peace negotiations and democracy building, on a trip that will last until Sunday. He had originally planned to visit the countries last year but postponed the trip because of a knee ailment that has since improved.
In the meantime, violence in Congo’s embattled east has flared up again, with more than 120,000 people fleeing rebel attacks in the countryside and seeking shelter in the city of Goma. The fighting has forced Francis to scrap that leg of the trip, and victims of the region’s violence will instead come to see him in Kinshasa.
“The visit of the Holy Father can have a positive impact on how the country is governed,” said Boniface Deagbo, secretary executive of Caritas Congo, the charity arm of the Catholic Church. “We hope that the visit is a good opportunity for doing advocacy for ending the war and for security in the DRC.”
That is a tall order. Congo is home to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. It is fueled by a legacy of colonialism and the genocide across the border in Rwanda, which has helped fill refugee camps with more than 5.5 million people.
Rebel groups, some supported by Rwanda and Uganda, pillage villages, steal livestock, murder residents, and rape women. Vast rainforests are plundered for gold, cobalt, and other resources, partly to pay for weapons and war. Some local church officials say widespread corruption is at the heart of the problem.
But as much as Congo embodies the wounds that Francis hopes to heal, it is also a country with potentially great influence on the church’s future.
About half of Congo’s more than 95 million people are Catholic, making it the faith’s deepest well in Africa, the continent many hope will replenish the church as attendance shrinks in the West. In 2022, Agenzia Fides, a Vatican news agency, estimated that Africa’s 265 million Catholics made up about 20 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion followers. And that number is growing.
On Tuesday, Francis compared the country to a diamond, saying that its people were “of inestimable worth,” and that he and his church “believe in your future, the future that is in your hands.”
The Catholic Church has always played a role in Congo, especially in promoting democracy and human rights. John Paul II visited Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1980 and returned in 1985. Deagbo, the official of Caritas Congo, said that the church provided health care, food programs, and education to many millions of Congolese.
Since the 1990s, the church has also been instrumental in trying to hold the country’s leaders to account. The Congo bishops’ conference, the most vocal in Africa, did not shy away when President Joseph Kabila postponed elections after the completion of his term in December 2016. It organized protests and brought the issue to international attention, helping to force Kabila to renounce a third term.
The church later deployed about 40,000 observers for a presidential election in 2018, announcing that there was a clear winner, but stopping short of saying who it was. Experts agreed that it was Martin Fayulu, the leading opposition candidate, but another opposition figure, Félix Antoine Tshilombo Tshisekedi, took power. Still, it was the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since it achieved independence from Belgium in 1960.
In January 2020, Francis met Tshisekedi to discuss improved relations between the Holy See and Congo. Another election is set to take place this December.
On Tuesday, Francis called for “free, transparent, and credible elections” and urged an end to corruption and the manipulation of violence. Political exploitation gave way to an “economic colonialism” that was equally enslaving, he said. As a result, the country was “massively plundered,” he added.
“Power is meaningful only if it becomes a form of service,” Francis said, admonishing authoritarianism and greed.
Catholics have remained politically engaged. After celebrating Mass on some Sundays, congregations across the country have marched straight from church in large-scale demonstrations, making it more difficult for authorities to crack down on them. Protesters have demanded fresh elections and an end to the war in the east.