africa logoROME – Over the years, and in a variety of places, African Catholicism has had a rich history of Catholic prelates who became major social and political forces in their countries.

Cardinal Anthony Okogie of Nigeria risked life and limb to stand up against military rule; Cardinal Christian Tumi of Cameroon has long been a thorn in the side of his country’s strongman and president-for-life, Paul Biya; Archbishop Peter Sarpong of Ghana has been a frequent critic of government waste and corruption; and Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria once basically shamed the country’s president into not trying to amend the constitution to seek a third term.

Yet even against that backdrop, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo of the Democratic Republic of Congo stands out – because, let’s face it, he’s still basically the only African Catholic prelate ever to serve as his country’s de facto head of state.

During the 1990s, when the rule of strongman Mobutu Sese Seko was crumbling in what was then called Zaire, the country needed a figure of universal trust to broker a transition. They turned to then-Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo of Kisangani, who had earned a reputation as a man of integrity as well as an outspoken advocate of democracy and civil society.

When a transitional “high council” was formed to rule until elections could be held, Monsengwo was named its president. I asked him on Thursday if that made him the official head of state, and he said he didn’t think of it that way, although foreign countries treated him as the head of state and most ordinary Congolese thought of him that way, too.

So, if it quacks like a duck, then …

Since then, Monsengwo, now 77 and the Archbishop of Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, has emerged as one of the most trusted and admired figures in the African church. Among other things, he currently serves on Pope Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, and is in wide demand as a speaker, especially in Francophone regions of the world.

Most recently, he and the other Congolese bishops organized talks between the country’s major political parties, with an aim towards keeping the peace heading into elections originally scheduled for last November, which have now been delayed until 2018. Although the situation remains fragile, pretty much everyone believes it’s better than it would have been without the bishops’ intervention.

Monsengwo is in Rome for a March 22-25 conference on African Christian Theology sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, and being held at the university’s Global Gateway center.

Among other things, Monsengwo said that although the possibility of a papal trip to Congo in 2017 has been widely rumored, Francis has said he won’t come this year.

Monsengwo sat down with Crux on Thursday, and the following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: In your experience, what are three or four characteristics of the Church and of Catholicism in Africa?

Monsengwo: In the first place, Catholicism in Africa is very much alive, ‘living.’ It’s active and the bishops are busy as well as the priest and the nun. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any problems, there are plenty of problems. But (the Church) is active in spite of that, and does many things for the population and society. For example, schools are in the hands of nuns and priests. In Kinshasa, we have 590 catholic schools entrusted to the Church.

Did you say 590? That’s impressive.

Yes, it’s impressive, but it’s the reality. There are also 35 private parochial schools, meaning that we have influence over the population. If the schools work well, it means that we have responsibility over the education of children and their mothers. That is a great responsibility. If the schools don’t work, it’s painful but still very important.

The Church in Africa also handles hospitals. In Kinshasa, for example, (the Church) handles 60 percent of hospitals and health centers. This is important, but it also means that there is much to do and much to say. In Kinshasa, we have a population of 12.5 million people. In the projections, they say that within eight years there will be 25 million people living there. Now we must prepare lay people, religious and priests, seminarians, so that the future population will be in the hands of educated and prepared people.

We have 6 million Catholics in Kinshasa, about half the population, so it’s critical.

Looking at your biography, a characteristic of your episcopal career is a strong involvement in the social and political life of your country. In the 90s, you led the transition from Mobutu into a new country. Recently you and other Congolese bishops were involved in negotiating between the various political parties in order to guarantee social peace. Where does this sense of responsibility for social and political life come from?

It comes from pre-colonial and colonial times. During colonization, there was a pact between the Holy See and Belgium which said that all schools and hospitals were under Catholic control, and that meant the Church cared for the majority of the population.

There’s a sense in which the Church has played the role of a substitute for the government, to the extent that when independence arrived it was necessary for the Church to be next to the people. The people said that they wanted “a Congolese Church in a Congolese state” (nous volouns an Eglise Congolese dans un etat Congoles) … slowly, the people started thinking that [the Church] taking care of society is normal.

That substitution for the state isn’t just a result of a historical negotiation, but also the fact that in some African nations the State has failed, meaning it doesn’t work and doesn’t serve the interests of the people. So the Church, including the bishops, basically can’t say no, correct?

That’s true. When we [in Congo] had our National Convention [in the 1990s], other places were doing the same such as Gabon … when the country no longer wanted to live under the Mobuto dictatorship, we helped it become a democratic state. We created a new constitution, and created a nation.

What’s interesting is that throughout the entire process, the Church played a central role. African people generally have more faith in the Church than the government, right?

Yes. Most believe that it is necessary for the Church to take care of us, and that the Church should take a stand in such a way to help the nation develop.

There’s been a lot of talk at the conference about the impact of colonization, and whether there are new forms of colonialism today. Do you see that as a threat?

Yes, it’s a threat. For example, people are coming to Europe. Why? Because according to them, in Europe they have a better chance at living their life. I remember the stories of those migrants being found frozen to death in the baggage hold of an airplane. When asked why, they answered that they believe they can live better in Europe.

So, what’s to be done? We have to help these people to stay home, we have to promote their development in their home, and not just take away their minerals to take them to Europe. We have to make sure that they can live well where they are, and not have to go in search of it someplace else.

The pope also speaks of “ideological colonization,” for instance Western governments and NGOs that try to force African governments to distribute condoms or to legalize abortion. In your view, is that real, and is it a new form of colonization?

Yes, it is, for sure. They do everything they can to arrive at [legalized] abortion, condoms, and so on. We can’t accept that.

You believe there’s a real effort by Western organizations to achieve that?

Yes, I do. It’s clear, very clear. For example, they bring 14-year-old kids [in our countries] condoms and encourage them to use them, even organizing courses before school to show them how. They do that instead of giving them other alternatives. That goes against the culture of the people.

It’s an imposition from outside?


Last thing: You’ve said that at this point, it doesn’t seem that Pope Francis will come to Congo this year.

The pope has said he can’t come this year. He said he’s going to South Sudan. So, things standing as they do right now, the pope isn’t coming.

But if he decides at some future point to come, what would it mean to the people of Congo?

The presence of the Holy Father, above all, would get across that the people must hold onto their values, their Christian values. The people must help the country to reconcile and to dialogue, including in politics. The people need to be able to talk among themselves. In Bangui [capital of the Central African Republic], that’s the first thing the pope said. People have to be able to sit down and talk to each other, that’s what he said.

Naturally, the first thing we expect is for the pope to help the bishops in the work they’re doing, and he’s done that. He’s received us in the Vatican, for instance.

I don’t think the story is over, and we’ll continue to insist that the pope must come!