Listen to this story:
KINSHASA – On Wednesday Pope Francis met with representatives of various charities active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, praising their efforts to provide relief to the poor and victims of the country’s wars.
The pope thanked the charity workers for their efforts, saying, “In this country, where the sound of violence is heard like the loud crash of a felled tree, you are the forest that quietly grows each day and makes the air clean and breathable.”
“That is how goodness grows: in the simplicity of hands and hearts stretched out to others, and in the courage of small steps that approach the poor and vulnerable in the name of Jesus,” he said.
Pope Francis is currently in the DRC capital of Kinshasa as part of a Jan. 31-Feb. 5 trip that will also take him to South Sudan, where he will hold an ecumenical visit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.
After celebrating Mass for the Congo’s roughly 45 million Catholics and meeting with victims of the conflict marring the country’s eastern region, Pope Francis met with representatives of several charities present in the DRC, who are engaged in frontline support of the poor, refugees, and internally displaced.
Referring to the testimony of a woman named Cecilia, Pope Francis in his speech voiced appreciation for the fact that she did not just cite statistics or list problems, but rather “spoke with affection about the poor.”
“There is something wrong when a believer keeps Christ’s loved ones at a distance,” he said, telling the charity workers that while the poor are so often dismissed, “you embrace them; while the world exploits them, you encourage them.”
Francis said he came to Congo to be “a voice for the voiceless” and expressed hope that the world, and international media in particular, would give Africa more attention, highlighting what the continent has to offer, rather than just its problems.
Referring to the stark poverty rates in the Congo, compared to its vast resources, he called poverty and rejection “an offence against human beings, robbing them of their dignity.”
“They are like ashes that extinguish the fire he or she carries within,” he said, saying, “love alone removes the grime that conceals that image. Only by restoring dignity do we restore humanity!”
Pope Francis then posed two questions to the charity workers, asking them first, “is it worth it?” to do their work, which brings them into contact with deep suffering day in and day out.
Charitable work is a calling, he said, saying charity “attunes us to God and he surprises us with unexpected wonders through those he loves.”
Once goodness is put out there, “it spreads; it is not paralyzed by resignation or statistics, but impels us to give others what we ourselves freely received,” he said, saying young people in particular need to see this witness.
Youth, he said, “need to see faces that overcome indifference by looking people in the eye, and hands that do not wield weapons or misuse money, but reach out to those who are down on the ground and raise them back up to their dignity, the dignity of a daughter and son of God.”
“It is worth it,” he said, and praised a recent agreements between civil authorities and the national bishops’ conference supporting the activities of charities in Congo, whose workers are often among the last to stay in conflict zones and put their own lives at risk to help people in need.
This agreement, the pope said, “does not mean that we can systematically delegate to volunteers care for the most frail and vulnerable, or for health and education.”
“These are primary tasks for those who govern,” and as such, those in leadership “should be concerned to ensure that basic services are provided to those living far from large urban centers.”
However, even with government support, Christians “must never sully the witness of charity, which is a witness to God, by pursuing privilege, prestige, fame and power,” Francis said, saying, “No, our means, resources and goals are to be used for the poor.”
Pope Francis noted that the biggest cause of poverty in the DRC is not the absence of resources or opportunities, but rather “unequal distribution,” and said those who are prosperous, and Christians in particular, “are challenged to share what they have with those who lack the bare necessities, and all the more so if they are members of the same people.”
“This is not a matter of benevolence, but of justice. It is not philanthropy, but faith,” he said.
The pope told charity workers that doing good in society begins with “setting an example,” insisting that charity “is not simply something we do; it is an expression of who we are is. It is a way of life, a way of living out the Gospel, and it requires credibility and transparency.”
He also stressed the need to be far-sighted, saying, “It is vital that initiatives and good works not only respond to immediate needs, but also prove sustainable over time. They are not meant to be welfare oriented, but to consider what will prove most effective in the long term.”
To this end, he noted that the soil in the Congo is rich and fertile, and urged charities to form projects that teach citizens how to cultivate the land, thus “creating development projects that leave the future to their hands.”
“Rather than distributing goods that will always be in short supply, it is better to transmit knowledge and the tools that make development autonomous and sustainable,” he said, and also stressed the need to be connected, saying charities and their workers must network “not only virtually but concretely.”
Networking requires “ever greater cooperation, constant interaction with one another, always in communion with the local Churches and the region,” he said, and called charity workers “a great treasure,” asking them for prayers.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen