Congolese Jesuit on Pope Francis’ Africa visit: ‘Women are expecting some changes to happen’
Pope Francis has begun his visit to the peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan from Jan. 31 through Feb. 5 for his 40th apostolic visit abroad. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the first stop on his visit to the African continent, where he will remain until Friday, Feb. 3. Pope Francis has said he is on a “mission of peace” to these African nations.
The D.R.C. is rich in mineral wealth, and though it won independence in 1960, it has continued to be embroiled in political, tribal and even interreligious conflicts. It is also the largest Catholic community in Africa—45 million Catholics, about 50 percent of the D.RC.’s total population.
I interviewed Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, S.J., a priest, political analyst, and the director of Centre Arrupe, a center for research and formation in Lubumbashi, on the country’s southeastern tip, ahead of the first visit a pope has made there in 38 years.
This excerpt of the interview has been edited for length, clarity and style. You can also watch the interview in full on our YouTube channel.
I know the eagerness, the joy, the preparedness that people have put into just welcoming this moment and living through it, because it’s such a unique moment.
Ricardo da Silva, S.J.: This visit of Pope Francis was postponed last July when Pope Francis could no longer travel because of the problems he was having with his knee. What does the visit now mean for the people and for Pope Francis?
Toussaint Kafarhire, S.J.: In early July, the Congolese people and South Sudanese people and the entire continent of Africa, I would say, were very eager to receive Pope Francis. And I can tell you the amount of disappointment that they felt when the visit got canceled.
Pope Francis was able to make a trip to Canada where he met with the Indigenous community and apologized for all the wrongs that the church did in the past to the community. And at that point, I believe, in Africa, people started feeling bad. They felt as if they were not considered. They felt that because Africa has always been at the bottom of the world’s interests, that Pope Francis just canceled that trip. But that was not the reason.
On Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints, Pope Francis held a synodal conversation with the youth from Catholic universities across the continent of Africa. I can remember very clearly the question that a young Congolese lady put to Pope Francis, directly. She asked Pope Francis, teasing him, I guess, “Holy Father, can you tell us whether you were scared by all the wars and conflict and violence going on in the Congo that made you cancel your trip?” And she added, saying, “People from different religions around us are actually teasing Catholics that their pope is a coward.” And Pope Francis, of course, laughed about it. “But,” he said, “I have recovered. I am strong enough. I’m still in a wheelchair, but I promise I will be coming by the end of January.”
I know the eagerness, the joy, the preparedness that people have put into just welcoming this moment and living through it, because it’s such a unique moment.
We believe there is no other consolation the people in the Congo, or in Africa, would expect. It is really a moment that we want to live in spiritually and humanly.
What is the significance of this visit? Tell me what the emotion and feeling is like on the streets.
Now the disappointment is getting vindicated, I would say, because Pope Francis is holding his word. And he is not that well; I mean, he is an old man of 86 years, but as soon as he recovered from the injury in the knee, he was on the way. He was like a pilgrim, like St. Ignatius Loyola himself, going on a pilgrimage to the peripheries.
People are waiting for this moment to just be in the presence of the Holy Father. It is in itself a message—just his being there is a reminder that this is what the Gospel is supposed to be. We are hopeful, we are joyful, we are excited. We are just waiting for this moment to happen, to be able to pray together with the head of the Catholic Church, who is our father in faith. In this regard, we believe there is no other consolation the people in the Congo, or in Africa, would expect. It is really a moment that we want to live in spiritually and humanly.
Give me a sense of what is going on, on the ground. What is this need that Pope Francis is coming to respond to? What are the conflicts?
Pope Francis, if you look at most of his trips, is not someone who is going to the places of power and wealth and luxury. Pope Francis is not coming to this wilderness of human rights, of the suffering of people to just shake the hand of the head of state. No.
Pope Francis is coming to this existential periphery, to express the closeness of God and the compassion of God for the people who have suffered so much. And the choice of South Sudan and the D.R.C. is very meaningful.
The D.R.C.’s entire history has been fraught with a lot of violence. From colonization to this day, the Congolese people have suffered a great deal because of the wealth of the country. And even now, as Pope Francis is coming to express that closeness, compassion of God, he is very much aware that the problem is not the Congolese people, who are very hospitable, loving people.
The powers of the world that covet the wealth of the Congo want to keep a very weak government in the Congo so that they can continue to get the advantages of timber, coltan, gold, all the minerals, even the soil. When you get to the Congo nowadays, you’ll just be appalled by the way a handful of rich people have monopolized the land, the wealth, almost everything, at the expense of the poor. And Pope Francis is coming to remind us that what we need is love, human rights, social justice, right distribution and just the dignity for which every single human being was created.
The Catholic Church has been very, very outgoing, and we are very lucky. We are very grateful also to have such a committed, dedicated Catholic Church.
These are covetous international powers that have come to plunder the country of its mineral wealth, among those, many developed nations? The D.R.C. has a troubled history with the United States?
Yes. It is unfortunate that the United States and most of these powerful countries, developed countries, as you call them, they speak one thing and they do the opposite. They call it politics, they call it realism. When you read “Fratelli Tutti,” I think it is a powerful message that the pope is getting out there reminding politicians that really, politics is not about lying to people or exploiting the people that we are supposed to serve. Pope Francis is reminding us that the younger generation of people are getting disinterested, completely, in politics because of those corrupted actions, because of the fraud, because of everything that goes against the common good. Pope Francis is reminding us that we need that conversion to come back to do the right politics.
Can you talk to us about the country’s Catholicity? What does “Catholic Congo” look like?
The country has for the last 30 years been completely destabilized; partly because of the international policies of neoliberalism, which even Pope Francis has been stigmatizing, in many ways. Privatization and the death of the public service and the public sector is felt almost everywhere.
And the Catholic Church has been one of these institutions that has come in to fill out the vacuum of whatever the government was supposed to be doing, in terms of public education, in terms of health provisions, in terms of so many other social actions and commitments.
The Catholic Church has been very, very outgoing, and we are very lucky. We are very grateful also to have such a committed, dedicated Catholic Church. I believe most people in Africa would agree that the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Congo is the most vocal and the strongest on the continent when it comes to matters of politics and social issues.
There is so much hope in Africa, despite every single challenge that people are going through, and it gives you a pause, and you wonder: How can you explain this paradox? Where is this joy coming from?
If you were advising Pope Francis, what would you say he needs to bring when he comes to the D.R.C.?
If I had to expect any words of wisdom from Pope Francis, it is to continue to be outspoken as the church has to be, as it has always been, and speak truth to the powers. The people in Africa are not at the neck of each other, but most of the time it is politicians who instrumentalize their background, their communities, ethnic communities, to just get access to that power, to that wealth, and so many other things. I believe what we really need the most now in Africa is to set the record right and speak the truth. And that truth needs to be spoken to politicians who want to relativize everything.
Human life has become relative to wealth and power, and we don’t need any of that. We need to put the human person at the center of communities, societies, structures, institutions, wealth, work, everything we do. We are doing it so that human beings can be human beings again. And so we want Pope Francis to remind us of those truths that no one can change, no matter where you are, the color of your skin, the amount of education you have acquired, the wealth that you have accumulated: that a human being is a human being and deserves respect unconditionally.
One of the ways in which we often hear Pope Francis refer to Africa is he says, Africa is the heart of Catholicism, right? It has joy. There is significant joy. And so what is that—as an African myself. What is the joy amid the strife?
There is so much hope in Africa, despite every single challenge that people are going through, and it gives you a pause, and you wonder: How can you explain this paradox? Where is this joy coming from? How can these people still be so human, or so humane—I don’t know how to put this—despite every violence? I believe, first of all, that we have to agree that the quality of faith among our people is something we cannot take away from them.
Last year, Pope Francis sent a group of theologians from across the world to the existential peripheries. And Pope Francis reminded the theologians, you are going to listen to people. You are not going there with the amount of knowledge that you have acquired in universities and degrees. You need to go to these people and listen to how God can surprise you through their life stories.
How much voice are we giving to the female body of the church?
Perspectives on the Synod on Synodality: women, sexuality, clericalism
You’re referring to the Synod on Synodality. We often hear that women in Africa aren’t speaking up, gay people in Africa aren’t speaking up. And yet we are getting this from the synthesis document in the synod saying that across the world, people are speaking up, women and the L.G.B.T. community. What are the issues that you’ve heard coming from the D.R.C.?
We are still very strongly a hierarchical church. The church is still a very strong, rigid institution where power is distributed, of course, among the male bishops and priests. But the world is really on the move, and it is because of those rigidities of power that many other abuses of power happen. I know that African theologians are actually looking into spiritual abuses, sexual abuses—that we are not talking about. Maybe people are still very shy to talk about the gay issue. Although the gay community still exists. I mean, there are gay Africans who are out there and invisible, not-recognized people.
But it’s part of what maybe we need to listen to because synodality is about listening. We need to be prophetic enough not to listen to ourselves and our fears, but to really listen to what Pope Francis would call the “promptings of the Holy Spirit.” Where is God calling us in today’s world to be witnesses to the Gospel? I was listening to the pope recently, and he was saying, it is not right to mistreat people simply because they’re gay because it is not a crime to be a gay person. But in Africa, I think we are lagging behind because people will tell you we have more pressing issues than those of sex, sexuality and whatever. It’s like a luxury topic.
From what I am hearing you say, you are saying that people are aware that the church has a hierarchical nature, that the church has systems which contribute towards systems of violence, and they are speaking out, they are saying it’s enough. We need to revise who we are as church.
Changing the culture might be very difficult. People want to shake off the clericalism of the church. I believe actually we simply need to recognize that the way power within the church is distributed is biased. I mean, it is skewed toward the male figures. And so what is the role that women have been playing within the church? How much voice are we giving to the female body of the church?
Pope Francis is going to say to young people, “It is very important, the work that you’re doing, the torch, the lights, that you are bearing, you are carrying, and we need to keep running with that.”
I remember a lady who reminded us: “Fathers, when you are preparing your homilies, please do not insult our intelligence. Because in the audience, you have many women who came with a hunger, the thirst for the word of God, and they really want you to prepare rightly and properly your homilies. But do not come to tell us the rubbish said simply because you have that stole around your neck and because you have been ordained. Remember there are many female theologians now who know better than you who were your professors. And don’t just abuse your power to tell us anything.” I found it very deep and very powerful. And so women are expecting to see some changes begin to happen, to have spaces open for discussion, for conversation, for rethinking the kind of communities that we want to build as a Catholic Church in Africa: authentically African, authentically Catholic.
We know that Pope Francis is going to meet with priests and consecrated religious people while he is in Kinshasa. What else is of significance?
Pope Francis is going to be meeting with the victims of violence and wars from eastern Congo. We are sure Pope Francis is coming to express compassion to this group of people. After that, Pope Francis is talking also to the youth and the catechists.
Pope Francis is the hope of this vibrant but also growing church, within the youth and the catechists. So if changes have to happen, what kind of message, what kind of legacy or faith are we handing down to the younger generation, but at the same time, what is the content that we are putting in our catechism today? Pope Francis is going to talk to these groups to say, “It is very important, the work that you’re doing, the torch, the lights, that you are bearing, you are carrying, and we need to keep running with that.”
It is our hope that the political sphere is another area where Pope Francis will be addressing another existential periphery within the Congolese periphery.
After that only is when Pope Francis is going to meet, maybe, with the priests and religious men and women. I believe Pope Francis is going to remind religious men and women that we need to play that prophetic role. Because we talk about clericalism. And clericalism is when maybe we content ourselves with a minimum, bare minimum, actually, because we are covered by the institution. It is almost like that parable that Pope Francis likes to quote very often about the Good Samaritan, right?
You have a priest who passes by and goes his way because he’s on duty. He doesn’t want to defile himself. And that clericalism style is what Pope Francis is telling us: “You quit that attitude, that position. There are many expectations from people, and you need to be out there with the people of God without fear. The spirit to receive is not a spirit of fear, St. Paul would say. But it is a spirit of freedom that sets us out there to profess, to proclaim Jesus.”
Another area I really believe [in] strongly is that of addressing the political class, the politicians. Many of them are Catholics. We have 45 million Catholics; half the population, meaning they come to the church every Sunday, they receive Communion every Sunday. But when it comes to the sphere of acting just or acting rightly, our structures and institutions overwhelm their willingness to do what is right. How can they be good Christians and good politicians at the same time? Good Catholics and witnesses of the Gospel in places where they’re working? It is our hope that that is another area where Pope Francis will be addressing another existential periphery within the Congolese periphery.
You spoke about light, and bearing light. What is the light that you are most hoping for with this visit?
I see Pope Francis reviving our way of being Christians in the 21st century.
We are coming from a past that is heavy. We are going to a future that is lighter but with the light of Christ. Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and I love when Pedro Arrupe tries to define a Jesuit, and he says, “It is just looking at Christ and trying to imitate Christ.” The light is, “How can we begin to be Christ to one another again?”
That is the light, the hope that I hope.