Cardinal Ambongo: The Congo faces similar problems to the ones we see in the Amazon

A man carries water in the mountains near Goma, Congo, Aug. 14, 2019. A representative of the Catholic bishops of Congo have called on multinational corporations working in the mineral-rich country to contribute toward local development. (CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters) A man carries water in the mountains near Goma, Congo, Aug. 14, 2019. A representative of the Catholic bishops of Congo have called on multinational corporations working in the mineral-rich country to contribute toward local development. (CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters) 

“I see many similarities between the problems of Amazonia and those of the Congo Basin,” Cardinal Friedolin Ambongo Besungu, O.F.M., told America, as the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region reached its final week.

The cardinal expects the synod’s final document to highlight the different levels of “responsibility towards Mother Earth, towards the natural environment, and on this we are all in agreement. What is said of Amazonia is also true of the Congo basin.”

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Everyone, in different ways, has responsibility here, he said. “We must all do something so as not to burn the common home” is the consensus in the synod on this, he said.

In an hour-long long interview on Oct. 21, he spoke about three of the main issues discussed at the synod—the ecological question, the ordination of married men and women’s role in the church. The 59-year-old Capuchin was made a cardinal by Pope Francis on the eve of the synod. He said that having heard so much about the devastation of the Amazonian rain forest, “one of the lungs of humanity,” and the damage that is being done to the Pan-Amazonian region and its indigenous peoples, he was returning home with a message for his people.

“I do not go back to speak about Amazonia, but about our responsibility in the Congo towards the equatorial forest and all that is in it: the soil, the questions related to water,” he said.

“I do not go back to speak about Amazonia, but about our responsibility in the Congo towards the equatorial forest and all that is in it: the soil, the questions related to water,” he said.

“Everyone says that the wars that we will have in the Congo will be related to water. Everyone wants our water,” he said. Moreover, he said, “there are minerals underground, and so the responsibilities that we have to these goods that God has given us, how to manage them for the good of all, thinking also of the future generations, it is important for us to speak about these things in the Congo, so that everyone understands.”

In November 2018, he succeeded the legendary Cardinal Laurent Monswengo Pasinya as archbishop of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country of 87 million people. Catholics account for around 50 percent of the population; Protestants for another 30, while eight to 10 percent follow traditional religion and Muslims count for another 6 percent.

The Catholic Church is highly respected and trusted by the people in Congo; it has played a major role in the country, helping it navigate through many political crises and conflicts. In past years, he said, as president of both of the Commission of Justice and Peace of the bishops’ conference and of its Commission for Natural Resources, he had “worked a lot on the issues of the environment, natural resources, the relation between natural resources and the poverty of the people, and the conflicts that we are living through.” He has been threatened for his work in this field, also by the government, but “not physical threats, just verbal intimidations.”

He said that as he listened to the synod fathers “I see many similarities between the problems of Amazonia and those of the Congo basin.” First, “the violence against nature in Amazonia is the same that we have in the Congo basin. They destroy the jungle, beginning with the trees; there are mining companies. As ‘Laudato Si’’ says, it is a violence against Mother Earth. They leave [holes]; they leave desolation; and the jungle which was beautiful is without trees, it no longer exists, and they have gone.”

A second similarity is “the situation of the people who live there and who feel obliged to leave the zone and go away.”

But “in the Congo basin, the people who live in the jungle are not like the indigenous peoples of Amazonia; only the pygmies live there, but many of them today live in towns.” Former President Mobutu Sese Seko ’s policy was “to make them come out of the jungle, and today only a very small part of them live in the jungle.”

In the Congo, many people live in the basin but “those who exploit the natural resources do not give work to these people. They exploit the primary resources and take them away. They do not transform them in this place and give some work to the local people; they do not help these people have a little income.”

Many people live in the basin but “those who exploit the natural resources do not give work to these people. They exploit the primary resources and take them away. They do not transform them in this place and give some work to the local people; they do not help these people have a little income.”

He reported too, that “in the Congo, where there [is extraction] of the minerals, there are conflicts and armed groups and violence. A sizable part of the exploitation of the minerals is illegal. There’s also artisanal mining exploitation, which is taken to Rwanda.”

Both regions, he said, also experience “grave human rights violations of women and children.” Bukavu in the eastern part of the country, he said, “is considered the world center of violence against women, sexual violence, and all this is connected with the exploitation of natural resources. Furthermore, these armed groups use child soldiers.”

The Congo basin, he said, also has to contend with “the multinational corporations and companies [that] come to get the natural resources.” These interests from the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and China, he said, “have no concern for human rights.”

He recalled that when he was president of the commission on natural resources, he traveled to the major Western capitals to speak about these situations and typically spoke to members of legislatures, “but at one point we came to realize that we do not know how to speak with China. If we go to Beijing, to whom do we speak because all is in the hands of the government.”

Given the major role China is now playing, doing business with little concern for ethics or the environment, he said, “we think this synod should mention the case of China.”

America has learned that the question of China’s role has surfaced not only in the English/French language groups but also in other groups at the synod and stirred some strong discussion.

Cardinal Ambongo: “If we had to wait for the ordination of all these before giving them responsibility, we would never have the church that we have today.”

Cardinal Ambongo, however, said that there is “a difference” between Amazonia and the Congo, regarding the pastoral work of the church. He explained that “in many aspects, we are ahead of them in Amazonia: the church is a local church, it is more ‘Africanized’ in the Congo. It is more present, and it is the lay people who carry the weight of the church because there are not many priests.”

He said the local church in the Congo “has found the solution by giving more responsibility to the laity, who are the chiefs of the community in the towns. Lay people conduct the celebration of the word, they give homilies, all is done without priests.”

The archbishop of Kinshasa, who did some of his studies in Rome, said, “The bishops can do much at the local level. In Africa we do it this way. We do not need to come to Rome for a synod to find a pastoral solution for what we have to do, if there is a pastoral need.”

He took, as an example, the case of women’s role in the church and said, “In Kinshasa we have women who are heads of the Christian communities and we have pastoral institutes for the formation of the laity, and then we give them responsibility.”

He compared the Congolese approach to what he had heard at the synod and said, “It seems to me that in Amazonia, they have put the accent on ordination, but we do not live this as a pastoral priority because the risk with this proposal is to reinforce clericalism. It gives the impression that to be effective, to do something valid in the church, one needs first of all to be a priest or a deacon. We do not share this logic.”

But when it was put to him that in Amazonia the Eucharist is lacking for some months, or a year or more, the cardinal said, “The same is true in the Congo in some towns.

“In these situations, the catechist conducts the celebration of the word and distributes communion.” He recognized that “there are less Eucharistic celebrations in the Congo” but “the upside of this is that afterwards there are many vocations from such families.”

He remarked that “if we had to wait for the ordination of all these before giving them responsibility, we would never have the church that we have today.”

He agreed that all recent popes have emphasized the centrality of the Eucharistic celebration for the building of the Christian life and community, adding, “but that is the Second Vatican Council.”

But, he said, “Not all those who have the possibility of participating in the Eucharist every day are better than the others. I do not believe this. We think that a Christian community is always on the move, we cannot say that it is a perfect Christian community if it has the Eucharist.

“One can deal with this question, the ordination of women deacons, and I have no difficulty with this, nor do I have a problem with viri probati. Our difficulty is why to approve this only with a synod that deals with the situation of Amazonia, when it is a question that interests the whole church?”

He agrees with the proposal made by some at the synod that the issue of the ordination of married men should be discussed at another type of synod “when bishops are present from other parts of the world.”

He added, “It is not a taboo question for me, one can talk about this, the church is dynamic,” but “it would be better to find a more suitable moment to discuss it.”

He said that a few at this synod “had the impression that some came with an agenda, with an ideology that they seek to get this passed, hidden behind a synod,” but he made clear that he did not share this belief.

At the same time, he felt that “it is better to deal now with the issue of Amazonia because this is a matter that interests the whole of humanity.” He remarked, “that is what everyone expects in the Congo, they are now waiting for me to return from here to tell my people that now we can ordain married men as priests. They are not hoping for that. What they are hoping for is that we protect the jungle, the natural resources and the interests of the people that live there.”

Aware that Pope Francis is under attack from some conservative groups who say the synod is heretical and that he wants to change the law of celibacy, Cardinal Ambongo said, “for this reason we must be very prudent.”

Asked about the position of women in the church, the cardinal affirmed that “at the beginning of the church there were women deacons. The church was like that.” He said, “One can talk about it today too. Women do so very much for the church in Africa, and for me what they do is part of a diaconate. One can organize it better and give more responsibility to these women in the communities.”

This was the third time he has participated in a synod: the first was on Africa, the second was on young people last year and “that was a very joyful one.” But he said, “this synod is different, we spoke about grave things. Our Mother Earth is suffering, so too are [its] peoples. It’s a sad climate, heavy, that pains the heart.”

But he felt it was most important that the synod had focused on all this, for the sake of all humanity as well as the people in the Pan-Amazonian region.

Cardinal Ambongo said he knows Pope Francis well. “I have great admiration for his courage. He is doing work that is changing things in the church. It’s not easy to change a structure like the church, and not everyone understands this, and so you sometimes have opposition against him.

“But I believe he is very brave, and I believe things are clear for him: he knows where he is going. He knows. It is clear. But he has to find the right moment, the right strategy because we are all men. He is very good.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Scott
3 weeks 6 days ago

Same as in the Amazon, leave the people in the Congo alone, let them worship Mother Earth and Father Moon because evangelization is racist and exploitative. The Church needs to focus on re-evangelizing the fallen away Catholics in Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, the US and Canada... that’s where the real need is. What is the plan for that?

John Walton
3 weeks 6 days ago

Congo has never recovered from the genocide of the late 19th/early 20th century. It was on an unprecedented scale and only exceeded by Germany a half-century later.
Indeed, the record of Belgium and France and their colonies is horrific.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

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