The “Democratic Republic of Congo” is a far cry from Scotland’s Morayshire Vale of St Andrew – especially when the DRC’s hot and humid rain forest is remembered in a freezing winter at Pluscarden Abbey. But more striking than that is the contrast of atmosphere. Pluscarden is renowned deservedly for its Peace; the DRC, deservedly, is not! I am anxious to get back to my beloved troubled Congo. But I am revelling in the Benedictine Pax here; “In loco isto dabo pacem (In this place I will give Peace)” …. and I will get the monks’ powerful prayers for the DRC into the bargain too. In this Peace I am still grateful for the Mission I have been privileged to be sent on. I was encouraged here in Pluscarden many years ago to respond to that “foreign missionary” call, and have been supported ever since. What we have in common, in a contemplative life in northern Scotland or in an active ministry in ‘the Heart of Darkest Africa’, is that basic truth: ‘Nil carius Christo’ - Christ and His Love is more important than anything else.
This Congo, the old Belgian Congo, is 80 times the size of Belgium; our diocese of Basankusu just over twice the size of Belgium. I have been active as a Mill Hill Missionary there since 1980, but the MHMs have been in this area since 1905. A lot was accomplished with up to 60 feet-on-the-ground missionaries there at the same time. When I arrived there were nearly 40. But at present only 3!! However, our general council are planning to send more …. from our new, growing body of African and Asian members.
We may move our training of local missionary candidates down to Kinshasa. But back up in Basankusu we will need to discern what aspects of Mission to take on, alongside the local Church personnel who are covering much of the pastoral work – a good number of Congolese priests and sisters, and some brothers, along with dedicated lay men and women. Our diocese now has its second Congolese bishop; the first one was appointed back in 1975, when he was already much involved in inculturated liturgy and youth work.
Both bishops have stressed a ‘pastorale d’ensemble (combined pastoral approach)’- Firstly, combining Evangelisation; as Message (catechetics, liturgy, movements); as diaconia/service (development, health and ’Caritas’ work, education, and justice and peace and natural resources); as ‘communion’ and spiritual accompaniment (working together as fellowship or family); as managing the material and financial side of things; - then having priests, consecrated people and laity working together in teams, councils, commissions etc. The vision is clear and ambitious; and of course has varying degrees of implementation.
This dynamic pastoral approach has been hampered by years of war and political tension, and the consequent deterioration of the socio-economic life and the degradation of the infrastructure. Our dirt roads which were bad keep getting worse – in many places impassable. For instance we can get to Waka parish, 50 miles to the East of us, in four and a half hours by Land cruiser; a bit further you need a strong motor-bike …. and the diocese goes on for another 300 miles. That also means that people can’t get their cash crops to port. Then, if they do get some through, there are much fewer boats than there used to be. So there is little cash-flow and people are becoming more and more disheartened. On top of that, there is no regular plane anymore, for the better off trader (or the ‘poor’ missionary!).
As if all that was not enough, there is a major political crisis on-going.
The President’s second and final mandate came to an end on 19 December 2016; but elections have not yet been held. A political compromise, reached (with the competent neutral service of the Episcopal Conference) on 31 December: allowed the president to stay on until the end of 2017, by which time a presidential election should have been held; called for an interim government, with representatives of the main political groupings, with a prime minister chosen by the opposition groups and appointed by the president; established a monitoring body presided over by the veteran opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. Unfortunately this unifying figure died at the beginning of February and the whole peace process is again in jeopardy. Some observers say there is again a serious danger of violence. Our bishops had issued a press statement (20 October) on national dialogue and the security situation. They issued another challenging message, “Non au blocage!: No to blocking the integral and rapid application of the 31 December agreement”. They call yet again for a non-violent, peaceful solution built on inclusive dialogue, for the superior interests of the Nation . They remain very concerned about reports of insecurity in various parts of the country.
This political tragedy in such a vast country dwarfs other more personal dramas like the Mill Hill house-fire in Basankusu, where the main house went up in flames after the paraffin-fired fridge blew up. Benedictine ‘detachment’ and Ignatian ‘indifference’ are great in theory ….. but losing everything is not easy to take!
I hope the country avoids serious violence, and that I can get back to my people soon. The ‘ordinary’ people are lovely, and deserve a better life. Resilient and faith-full as they are, things are getting very hard. So, don’t just leave the praying to the monks. Please join in!! Thank you.
John D Kirwan MHM