DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
”No one cares to visit us.”
Christine du Coudray, head of the Africa department at international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, just came back from a project trip to Democratic Republic of the Congo. She visited the Eastern part of the country, still suffering the consequences of the recent wars. Poverty, insecurity and isolation are the words which describe on a daily basis the people she visited, especially in the diocese of Manono, one of the most remote in the whole country. “In 24 years of my mission for ACN I haven’t seen anything like that, except in Sudan” – says du Coudray about the disastrous living conditions of the local priests.
“When flying over Manono you see a beautiful town, with straight streets covered with mango trees” recounts Christine. The town in the South-East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was built by Belgians. In 1950s they discovered the mineral richness of the region. They started a tin company. For the needs of the company they created an amazing city, which became extremely well known in the whole country. People had running water and 24-hour electricity. They had work in the company and the whole infrastructure regarding education, healthcare, etc. “So from the plane the city looks absolutely wonderful. And then you arrive and you discover a ghost town. The whole town has been totally destroyed by the war in 1999. The population left. The rest is in ruins, completely abandoned” describes Christine.
Once a lively place, today the Church in Manono is extremely isolated and poor. “Welcome. No one cares to visit us” said Bishop Vincent de Paul to Christine du Coudray upon her arrival in Manono. Strange words in a region so rich in natural resources. The local land contains numerous minerals: coltan, cassiterite, iron, cobalt, gold, amethyst, diamonds… just to mention a few. During the visit Christine was also greeted by another priest with the words “Welcome to the Triangle of Death”. Indeed, the mineral resources might bring life and wealth to the whole community, but they can also provoke greed and lead to fights and killings, as happened in Manono.
“The structure of the whole diocese is strictly connected to the tin company. For years Belgians were digging in the quarries in search for cassiterite. This changed the landscape – the quarries created artificial hills, and the valleys between them became lakes. All of a sudden in 2000 the local authorities realized that the cassiterite had been completely excavated, but coltan appeared. That is why the quarries remained and the people of the town were asked to bring coltan, which was not as well-known at the time as it is now.” Christine explains the current situation. “I met some children who were preparing for their school entrance, working in these quarries in order to gain a few dollars to pay their school fees” – she completes the picture.
When Bishop de Paul came, the diocese had been without a bishop for five years already. “For that reason when he arrived he decided to organize the local Church” continues du Coudray. “It has not been easy… Now the situation is much better but I talked to some of the priests and I saw that they suffer a lot of isolation” she says.
The concern in area is not only about the reconstruction of the church premises, the buildings, but about something much more complicated: rebuilding faith and the feeling of vocation in the priests.
However, small miracles happen thanks to the Holy Spirit. “The Lord does not want you to be state employees but to reveal His Face” said Bishop Vincent de Paul during a Sunday Mass attended by Christine at which two deacons and two priests were ordinated. “Three years ago I asked the Archbishop of Avignon in France, who was also formerly a missionary in Chad, to lead a retreat in Manono” says Christine. “The Archbishop accepted. In return Bishop Vincent de Paul sent a priest to the Notre Dame de Vie Institute in Avignon. The priest discovered the richness of his vocation. After finishing his pastoral theology studies he will come back to Manono. On one hand it seems there is very little hope, on the other there is this priest who might be one of these, who will contribute to the renewal of the whole diocese” says Christine.
Christine du Coudray stresses out the importance of visiting the priests in the diocese and showing them support. “Of course afterwards you need to take up concrete actions to help” she adds. “I proposed, for instance, to enrich the library, but in reality very few priests read nowadays. They complain about the conditions of life. Imagine that in this huge diocese there are only 3 vehicles. There are only seven sisters and only one congregation: Messagères de la Bonne Nouvelle. Out of seven actually only one has taken perpetual vows. In all other dioceses there is a number of sisters belonging to various local or missionary congregations”- comments Christine.
But this is not all. “In 24 years of my mission for ACN I haven’t seen anything like what I saw in the parish of Piana” says Christine. “We were welcomed there by the priest in charge of the parish. He said ‘Please come to my presbytery’. But this was not a presbytery! An outraged Christine continues “Imagine a room of some 6m2 separated by a small wall. Behind the wall there was a mattress with a mosquito net, but it was so dirty that no mosquito could go through. No way. Beside the mattress there was a bath – well, kind of. The walls were extremely dirty and there were no windows. I have never seen something like that to be called a presbytery. We wouldn’t put our dog there! But there is no other place for him to live. Really, it is a shame for us to see that.” She is distressed by the disastrous conditions in which the priest lives.
In Manono there is no curia and even in the Bishop’s house the roof is about to fall down and the chapel is in a poor condition. The Bishop says “What can I do? I cannot renovate my house when my priest in Piana parish lives in such conditions”.
“Fortunately two years ago we were asked by the Bishop to support construction of the presbytery. We didn’t know the place ourselves at the time but it turns out it is the same place. Beside this so called ‘presbytery’ in Piana there is a new one – a very nice one, with a small chapel. It is being completed and will be ready for the priest to move in soon” rejoices Christine.
Little by little change is coming. “But we need to remain by their side in order to make them feel they are not alone” stresses Christine. “Help the bishop meet with other bishops in the country and the region and organize retreats for the clergy with priests from abroad, from Europe. They are looking for those European facilitators, which wasn’t so obvious after 1960 (when the country became independent from Belgium). That is why a strong presence, contact, showing them that we care, is so important.”
For Christine everything starts with a relationship, a genuine communion: “We must build a bridge so that they can see they are important for us. And we are ready to do that.”
Among other priorities mentioned by Bishop Vincent de Paul, ACN would be involved in two crucial projects in the diocese. The first one concerns the completion of the Minor Seminary in a building of a former Bishop’s house, which was destroyed. The second project will be the rehabilitation of the presbytery in the also completely destroyed parish of St. Joseph the Worker.