Before heading to South Sudan to continue his highly anticipated trip to Africa, the pontiff was in the Democratic Republic of Congo where he delivered a powerful speech, in a country where 40 million Catholics live.
PARIS — You may know the famous Joseph Stalin quote: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” Pope Francis still has no military divisions to his name, but he uses his voice, and he does so wisely — sometimes speaking up when no one else would dare.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Belgian Congo, a region plundered and martyred, before and after its independence in 1960), Francis has chosen to speak loudly. Congo is a country with 110 million inhabitants, immensely rich in minerals, but populated by poor people and victims of brutal wars.
That land is essential to the planetary ecosystem, and yet for too long, the world has not seen it for its true value.
The words of this 86-year-old pope, who now moves around in a wheelchair, deserve our attention. He undoubtedly said what a billion Africans are thinking: "Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered!"
The pontiff pronounced these strong words shortly after he arrived in Kinshasa. But unfortunately, those are only words, for the Pope does not hold the power to change things. Still, what he said will most likely resonate for a long time on the African continent.
Pope Francis in Kinshasa on Feb. 2
The shock of violence
But the Pope’s message was both an inaugural intervention, and a long-term ambition being finally voiced. The Pope has been able to witness what kind of violence the RDC is going through, by talking with victims of violence that is shaking the east of the country. There, indeed, are where most of the coveted minerals lie. And there, atrocious things happen: murders, mutilations, rapes.
The Pope listened "shocked" to all of the testimonies: He added, “We are left without words; we can only weep in silence.”
But how to end the spiral of violence that is occurring in the east of the country, which has lasted for decades, and killed millions? Even the presence of the largest force of UN peacekeeping “blue helmets” has no chance of changing the situation.
The Pope wants to place the Church on the people’s side.
The troubled role of Rwanda came into the conversation. Rwanda is accused by Kinshasa, but also by the international community, of fueling this violence; but it’s not the only country to blame.
Challenging local bishops
The pastoral ambition of the Pope’s visit is obviously to reinforce and perpetuate the presence of the Catholic Church in the African continent. Part of the Church’s future depends on this enterprise. The DRC illustrates that point particularly well: the country has some 40 million Catholics, and the Pope brings together more than a million people at each event.
By making himself the outspoken advocate of Africans facing the ambitions of the world’s most powerful countries, Francis wants to place the Church on the people’s side. Doing that, he appears more daring than the local church leaders on the continent, who often hold more conservative positions.
Pope Francis pointed out one of the greatest contradictions of our time during his trip: the minerals needed for the ecological transition largely come from the DRC. Their extraction is a source of conflict, exploitation, and greed. Perhaps the world could listen to this truth before the contradiction swallows us all.