The African face of Christianity

What heritage has the colonial past left behind? Where would he take Pope Francis? Are the ancient religions and beliefs compatible with Christianity? And how could Europe help his continent? Szilárd Szőnyi’s interview with Rigobert Kyungu Musenge SJ, Provincial for Central Africa Province.

The African Jesuits have a very colourful logo with an African mask at the foot of the holy cross. Could you explain the symbolism behind that in a few words?

According to Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ, the President of the Jesuits Conference of Major Superiors in Africa (JCAM), the Cross represents redemption, atonement. Taking the meaning from the teachings of Christ, Jesus issues a rather harsh-sounding invitation: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me… (Mark 8:34-35)

The IHS emblem representing ‘communion’ within the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and the starburst or ‘solar rays’ depicting the Ostensorium, etymologically a vessel designed for the more convenient exhibition of an object of piety intended for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in this case. The three nails represent the nails of the crucifix.

The Mask of Queen Mother Idia (from Kingdom of Benin) represents African art, which was a functional and necessary part of everyday life. Much of African cultures are embedded art. The arts were deeply woven into the very fabric of social life and played a central role in binding together all members of the community through corporate activity.

Sculptures figured prominently in the religious circles which were a central force in African life giving social cohesion through common belief and participation in ceremonial life. The masks and figures used in such rites though respected and honoured, were not worshipped.

The Cross and Mask combination: The mask of the “Queen Mother” represents an African worldview of Christianity, that it is not separate from the other aspects of one’s culture, society, or environment. There is an element of African spirituality in Christianity in Africa which involves beliefs and practices that touch on and inform every facet of human life. This spirituality is holistic and cannot be separated from the lived realities of people. 

The mask placement: The mask is reminiscent of the courageous women at the foot of the cross and alludes to the adoption of Christianity in Africa. It recalls that “solidarity with women as integral to our mission.” (GC 34, decree 14, no. 16). The African Christian pilgrimage is interwoven with the Cross and climaxes in the Resurrection. 

As for the colours Schemes, Gold means triumph of Christ Jesus over death and Christ’s royal wealth of abundant life for all; burgundy represents the heaviness of the blood of Christ on the Cross and the passion of Christ; and green means renewal, new life, regeneration and hope.

“Although (…) earlier missions had retained some connection with colonial occupation, the greater freedom experienced in Africa after the war seems to have had a positive impact on the spread and effectiveness of the Jesuits in Africa”. I read the previous sentence in a study by Festo Mkenda from 2016. Could you summarize the situation in this regard after Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960?

The Catholic Church in the DR Congo (Zaire) has experienced two periods of evangelisation. First, in the 16th century, with the Portuguese missionaries who arrived in the Kongo Kingdom, which included Angola and the present Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The Jesuits, sent by St Ignatius to the Kongo Kingdom, arrived in San Salvador in 1548 and opened a college there. San Salvador was erected as a diocese in 1585. The Capuchins arrived in 1645. 

This first phase of evangelisation was later interrupted because of the political situation in Portugal, to whom the evangelisation of the Kingdom had been entrusted. Missionary action resumed in 1865, when the French Fathers of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans) began their mission in the Kongo Kingdom. With the beginning of the Belgian penetration, other missionaries arrived in the Congo: the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), founded in 1868 by Cardinal Lavigerie, and the Missionaries of Scheut (CICM) in 1888; the Jesuits returned a second time in 1893, this time with the Belgian missionaries. 

The history of the evangelisation of the Congo, particularly in its second phase, was often accompanied by that of its colonisation, with tensions. The first Congolese priest, Stéphane Kaoze, was ordained in 1917. In 1956, the first Congolese bishop, Bishop Pierre Kimbondo, was consecrated in Kisantu. In 1959, Bishop Joseph Malula became Archbishop of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), and ten years later he was created a cardinal.  

Before independence, the missionaries were more concerned with training local clergy. Therefore, they did not generally accept Africans. The missionaries were numerous thanks to the abundance of vocations observed also in the West. But little by little, the missionary congregations also began to open up to the natives and so they began to welcome them into their houses of formation. 

Between the end of the First World War and independence, very few entered; it was more after independence that they were welcomed. Today the Church in Africa is predominantly black. There are only a minority of missionaries left! Even in our Province of Central Africa, the missionaries are to be counted with the tips of their fingers today!

“We don’t have to go to the frontiers – we live in the frontiers!” I have just quoted Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar from the interview I made with him back in 2019. Could you name the three greatest problems you have to face in the Central-African Jesuit Province?

In view of the various difficult situations that we are experiencing and going through in DR Congo and Angola, it must be said that we are really at the borders. These countries are naturally very rich, which attracts all the covetousness of the world. In the DRCongo, we have one of the largest reserves of coltan (colombo tantalite) and cobalt, materials that are needed for electric cars today and to run computers and telephones. In Angola, there is oil. International multinationals are rushing to exploit our soil at low cost, often through fraudulent means by bribing some of the big players. 

In this marasmus, I can say that the three major challenges for us are: 1. poverty suffered because of Western imperialism and the negligence of our leaders, with several social consequences such as the decadence of the education and health system, insecurity and banditry 2. Wars in the Great Lakes Region, especially in DR Congo 3. The proliferation of sects and the resurgence of false prophets and pastors.

If you had the chance to invite Pope Francis to your province, what places would you show him?

I imagine that Pope Francis will not come only for the Jesuits. So it will not be up to me to draw up an itinerary for him, because the government and the bishops will take care of that. On the other hand, I know that wherever he goes, he likes to set aside little moments with the Jesuits. So I imagine that in Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, or in Luanda, the capital of Angola, he will gladly greet the Jesuits. We could give him a topo of the Province and tell him about our various establishments in these two countries. We would suggest that he visits, for example, Mbanza-Kongo, where Ignatius sent the first Jesuits to Africa. But as far as I know the Pope is not interested in the places but in the people. What kind of people would I show him? Our students, the street children we care for, the refugees, the poor in our midst, and our lay collaborators.

By the way, I heard that he has a desire to visit Hungary and the DRC. What a coincidence with this interview? Your magazine thus links the DRC and Hungary, and soon the Pope’s visit as well… This is already a common experience of the universality of the Church. 

You have just organised a symposium on Christophe Munzihirwa, Jesuit Bishop of Bukavu, who was killed in Eastern Congo in 1996, and on whom you wrote your thesis last year. What is the message in the present circumstances in Congo, when Christians still suffer radical Islamist attacks, kidnapping, sexual slavery and other forms of persecution?

I spoke about insecurity as a consequence of poverty in our country. Human life is exposed in all circumstances. In the city of Lubumbashi in the DRCongo, armed robberies at home have been noted. One wonders to what extent the police protect their population, as many believe that this is done with the complicity of the police. In the Beni-Butembo region, there have been massacres for almost 10 years. And yet in the same area, there is a high concentration of UN forces (the largest UN force in the world). We have the impression that there is an invisible hand behind all these killings. There is a lot of complicity at the local, national, regional and international level. Human dignity is not respected in our country, neither by the Congolese nor by foreigners. In such circumstances, Bishop Christophe Munzihirwa would speak out in defense of the dignity of the human person, whoever he is! Here we can recall the title of one of his articles which is very evocative: „Les Nations veulent-elles se server de l’Afrique des Grands lacs? ” (to mean that the nations of the world simply want to use the countries of the Great Lakes of Africa to serve their own interests) see: de DORLODOT, P., Les réfugiés rwandais à Bukavu au Zaïre. De nouveaux Palestiniens? L’Harmattan, Paris 1996, 97-101.

Speaking of the spirituality that shaped the life and commitment of the Archbishop of Bukavu, you once said he wanted to “highlight the marriage between Ignatian spirituality of (Western) European origin and African culture.” Could you tell us some examples when this “marriage” proved to be a fruitful one?

The encounter between two cultures can result in the domination of one over the other. In the encounter between the West and our African cultures, many of our African values have been overturned. Some Africans are only African in their skin. On the other hand, this encounter has also been accompanied by certain cultural prejudices, for example statements such as that Africans were incapable of certain achievements. It is therefore fortunate to find in Bishop Munzihirwa a man who was able to be fully African and fully Jesuit. He has preserved African values such as the mastery of his native language and all its genius; he has applied the richness of the orality of his culture, especially in the correct use of proverbs, etc. But this attachment to his culture did not make him less of a Jesuit, on the contrary. In our work we have shown how he internalized the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and how he practiced the art of discernment while building on what his culture had already given him. In his culture, he learned the value of listening and prudence. It was from these fundamental values that he built and forged his great sense of discernment. The fruit of such a „marriage” is certainly the attraction of other African vocations to the Society of Jesus. Those who saw him succeed in his experience understood that it was possible to become Jesuits while remaining African. Another fruit is the challenge to Africans, myself first, to appreciate the values of their culture and even to try to know them better in order to preserve them and to build one’s own identity. In the Church, we talk a lot about inculturation. Bishop Munzihirwa is for me an example of inculturation. The example of Bishop Munzihirwa is therefore a challenge for the contemporary African.

Traditional religions in Africa are said to embody such concepts as monotheism, animism, vitalism, spirit and ancestor worship, and even witchcraft. According to the Jesuit concept of inculturation, can you tell us some guidelines as to what Christianity may incorporate from ancient beliefs, and what not?

The concept of inculturation was introduced into theology by Jesuits, notably with the „quarrel of the rites” in China in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, in 1953, the Belgian Jesuit Charles Pierre used it at the Jesuit theology faculty in Louvain, and another, Joseph Masson, took it up in 1962. The 32nd General Congregation also took it up in 1974-1975, and mandated Father Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General, to „advance and promote more widely the work of inculturation throughout the Society”. 

Father Arrupe took this call of the 32nd General Congregation seriously. In accordance with this mandate, on 14 May 1978 he wrote a letter on inculturation, which he addressed to the whole Society of Jesus. 

In the encounter between the West and Africa, the error of the missionaries was that of sweeping everything under the carpet without entering deeply into what the Africans believed. In fact, when we go to a mission country, we should not necessarily think that we are going there to bring God, because God is already there and always preceding us. 

The traditional African religions have a substratum that must not be abandoned in any proposal of evangelization. In fact, the traces of these religions remain despite the encounter between the West and Africa. The veneration of ancestors, for example, has been integrated into the „Congolese rite” of the mass. As there are not many Africans already canonized, Africans also need to have role models whom they consider to have a certain power because they are close to the Supreme Being.

What is to be given up? Thanks to the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who reveals to us the Father who is only love, we should abandon practices that tend to harm the other, to harm him, in order to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and solidarity. Thus, witchcraft to harm the other must be abandoned by those who believe, as must the use of evil spirits. However, the worship of ‘right-hearted’ ancestors and the use of traditional medicine, especially for herbal healing, should be promoted. 

It is an exciting dual phenomenon that when it comes to liturgy or the incorporation of ancient beliefs into Catholic practice, African Christianity seems to be very flexible. But when comes to dogmatic and moral issues like gender or same-sex marriage, African Christians are more Conservative than many Westeners. How do you see the two sides of this coin?

It seems to me that in these discussions, Africans are basing themselves on two foundations: culture and faith. On the one hand, culturally, Africa has a great respect for everything related to sexuality. We don’t talk about sex easily. Maybe we exaggerate a bit. But this taboo rather helps to preserve the sanctity of sexuality, which aims at procreation. African morality has always sought to avoid the trivialization of sex or the relativisation of sexual morality. It also helps to educate young people to avoid indulging in promiscuity. On the other hand, the African being deeply religious, those who adopt Christianity or Catholicism are very attached to it. Africans therefore speak the same language as the Church when it comes to these matters, following Christian doctrine. On the other hand, we must also recognize that the West is not as Christian as it has always been.

Finally, I would say that Africa has other priorities at the moment, notably the issue of peace. Isn’t pushing Africa into these debates a distraction from the real problems of the moment? There is a tendency to force Africans to take on the concerns of the West. Even if the problem is universal, peace issues are more urgent, it seems to me. For example, I would like to see a debate on the possibility of a vaccine against malaria. These are our real concerns at the moment.

Having said that, I am not minimizing these issues and their pastoral implications. They should be seriously addressed where they arise. 

According to the statistics, there are some 1600 Jesuits in Africa. How many of them are indigenous Africans, and how many are missionaries from other continents?

There are already more than 1700 Jesuits in Africa. We will reach 2000 in the next five or ten years. When we do the statistics, we really don’t count in terms of skin colour; we are all Jesuits and that is enough. In my province there are about 400 of us. The non-Africans are a minority. I think the reality is somewhat the same in the other provinces. Roughly speaking, I would say that there are no more than a quarter of non-Africans in Africa today.

African Christianity is far from being elderly, in every sense of the world. You yourself are 53 years “young” as a provincial, and the African members are among the youngest ones in the entire Society of Jesus. What are the most important fruits of your special age pyramid?

I should point out that I am already 54 years old and in my 55th year. In Africa, at this age, one is not so young anymore. In the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolas spoke of the „demographic shift”. If the Society is decreasing in number in the West, it is rather the opposite in Africa and India. The youth of our provinces goes hand in hand with its demography. We are „young” and numerous. One of the fruits of this reality is the apostolic contribution within the universal Society. There are more and more Africans in the international structures of the Society of Jesus. When I was studying at the Gregorian almost thirty years ago, there were only one or two African professors. But today there are well a dozen at the Gregorian and at Biblicum. Elsewhere too, the same phenomenon is taking place, if not more. In other congregations there are already quite a few Africans who are Generals. And in the various General Councils, it is rare not to find Africans or Indians. But this remains a great challenge for us because we must ensure quality formation in order to offer the world the best we have. 

In Hungary many politicians keep saying that since we are not traumatized by a remorse over colonization, we can seek real answers to the migration. As the slogan goes, we should not “import” the problem here, to Europe, but we should help on the spot, at the root of the problem. Can you agree with that? What problems could be handled or even solved by Europeans in your country, and what not?

I totally agree. What Europeans can do for us today is to stop exploiting our wealth to the detriment of our people. For example, in the Congo, we need peace to organize ourselves and build our country. But we are witnessing a war that has several faces. And many of our wars are remotely controlled from outside. Our country is being „invaded” by international multinationals from all those countries that talk about democracy and human rights. But it is also these countries that supply us with weapons to make us kill each other while they exploit our wealth. The DR Congo is a victim of a great international complicity that should be dismantled one day!

Solving these problems in Africa means allowing African countries to organise themselves, to become strong so that they can take control of their own destiny. If the conditions of Africans are improved, they will not leave their countries to go elsewhere. In fact, some Africans say that they will reclaim the property that belongs to them and that has been confiscated by those who exploit their countries.

Moreover, the phenomenon of migration is quite natural. It has always existed. The West should not ignore it; it should be approached with humanity and responsibility, as Pope Francis keeps reminding us. 

In Hungary many people are committed to help the Christians in need and even persecuted all over the world, including Africa. What do you think could be the best way for us to help?

I think the best way to help Africa is to advocate for an end to wars, for example by influencing an end to the arms trade. One can also try to study the actions of multinationals in our countries to denounce their misdeeds and ensure that they operate in a way that respects human rights and the local population. In addition, there is also a way to intervene in the social field, to help raise the level of education and health structures. There are still places where there are no schools, and where they do exist, conditions are still difficult compared to those in the West. The same is true in the field of health. Finally, I think that one can also help by praying that the Lord may support the peoples of Africa in their struggle for true liberation and independence.

Frissítve: 2021. december 09.