In Congo-Brazzaville, the Church is fighting uphill battle
A DELEGATION of our organization recently visited the Diocese of Dolisie in the small nation of Congo-Brazzaville, which suffered through Marxist rule until 1992 and is presently coping with a host of challenges, including aggressive proselytizing by Protestant sects and inroads made by Islam. Bishop Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou of Dolisie gives an overview of the situation.
How are things in your diocese, the youngest in the country?
We have learned to walk, but we still don’t know our right hand from our left! We still face many challenges—syncretism, the Protestant sects, even Islam. But, above all, sickness and ill health. There is no safe drinking water here; many adults and children die from drinking contaminated water, and even the children that you can see here in our Catholic school of Saint Paul.
With the fall in the price of crude oil, poverty is also growing. Hundreds of people are buried almost every day since the situation has deteriorated greatly. The average Congolese is a poor man living in a rich country, with oil reserves welling up beneath the ground—yet the wealth is only shared among a handful of the rich and powerful. The social crisis further complicates the situation. The state hospitals have been on strike for months, because the state is no longer providing any money to fund basic medicines.
If a priest falls gravely ill, will he not receive any care?
Only the Dioceses of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire can afford to pay healthcare insurance for their priests. The rest have to get by as best they can. In my diocese my priests’ first concern is to get enough to eat. If one of them were to have serious health problems, I don’t know what we’d do.
One of them was actually attacked, just a few months ago?
Yes, because of the syncretism. At the time of the municipal elections in 2017, one of the candidates brought out a fetish onto the streets at night time, in order to gain the good graces of an animist god and so secure a victory. Two weeks later, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the priest organized a procession with the Blessed Sacrament in the same part of town. Since the candidate had lost the election, he accused the priest’s God of having overpowered his own fetishist god—and the priest was violently beaten.
How are vocations holding up?
They have never been lacking. And it’s wonderful to see today that they no longer come only from the south—where the missionaries mainly worked—but also from the north.
A plentiful supply of vocations is generally a sign of vitality in the Church, but are there some vocations motivated only by the economic crisis?
Discernment plays a crucial role here. As one form of screening, we do not recruit anyone older than 22 in my diocese. I have found that after that age, a young person not having found a satisfactory professional solution, can sometimes ‘fall back’ on the priesthood. And before entry into the seminary, we also organize retreats with the candidates and observe them closely. But even then some of them play the game very well throughout the course. So, what we need to do above all is to deeply root the faith of the ordinary people.
How do you manage to evangelize indepth?
By getting out of my Bishop’s House! At first, even the other bishops wondered what I was about. I go out onto the market square and, each of the seven days of the week, together with a lay helper and a religious sister, we preach, explain the sacraments, and so forth. We also make good use of our local Catholic radio station, which is widely listened to, and each year in May we organize a large Marian procession.
So do you preach to the people in the streets, like the Pentecostalist Churches and the other evangelical sects that seem to be everywhere?
We have a popular approach, certainly, but we also focus on Adoration. During our evangelization campaign, on the first day I dance with the people, and then from the second day onwards, I quote them Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
However, the Catholic Church, although still widely listened to, is no longer the Church of reference. Between 1995 and 2005 we shrank from Catholics comprising 60% of the population to 40%. We felt as if we had been wrung dry. It was something like a hemorrhage.
Why this exodus?
The politicians identified the Catholic Church as the sole institution capable of overshadowing them. They wanted to weaken her by financially strengthening the Pentecostalist Churches and assembling them into a federation. They pilloried the Catholic Church. It was high time for me to go out into the streets!
Are things going better now?
Yes, a number of people are returning to the Catholic Church, but there are new threats on the horizon, including Freemasonry—a real calamity—and also Islam. Given the poverty in the country, Islam and its money are seducing the young people, even including some of my altar servers!
Can you give us an example?
Alain. He was one of our choirboys; then he disappeared from one day to the next, and there was no sign of life from him for two years, until when one of our parishioners found him performing his ablutions in a shop. I asked him since when he had become a Muslim. He replied: “Father, when I was your altar server, did you give me a penny? With Islam I was given a scholarship, a wife and my shop.” They had sent him abroad to study the Koran. In return he was given work, and today he is in charge of recruiting other young men! That story really shook me up.
How has Islam managed to gain this influence?
Before, when Muslims were generally regarded as strangers from West Africa, they married Congolese women, who became Muslims by marriage, while still remaining Congolese. And in addition some Muslims arrived in the area from nowhere and built an mosque, that did not have a congregation but stood in readiness for the return of their young scholarship holders who had been sent to study in Saudi Arabia, for example.
And in your own diocese?
There are at least three newly built mosques—and a number of future jihadists.
Over the past 10 years, we have funded almost 250 projects in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville). Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, we have given some $30M in aid during this time, above all for religious formation projects and the support of priests via the provision of Mass stipends, and we have also helped fund construction projects and provided essential means of transport for pastoral work.