PROFILE OF A MISSION
The Congo spadework is done
IN view of the universal interest in
the Congo troubles and the Catholic anxiety over the missions there, we publish this week this frank profile of a mission by one of Britain's leading journalists, Patrick O'Donovan, correspondent of the "Observer", who has recently returned from a four-week investigation of the Congo.
THE CHURCH IN THE CONGO
By PATRICK O'DONOVAN
The Belgians have little to be proud of in the Congo, except, perhaps, their Catholic missions. An over that vast and tragic country you would meet these practical, bearded no-nonsense priests, with bare legs showing under worn, white soutanes, cycling down the streets of provincial towns, busy, friendly, devoted and, above all, civilised.
In colonies and ex-colonies, Missions have a surprising tendency accurately to reflect the nature of their mother country. In French territory, they are proud and splendid, with tall, shining churches and priests, like the White Fathers, that reflect the austere pride of France; they have, even in Moslem areas, an air of permanence. In British territories, the priests seem all to be visitors, friendly, easy people, without illusions and a highly developed sense of humour. In the Congo they were—and are—thoroughly Belgian.
They were preoccupied with immediate problems. They avoided frills. They were devoted and professional and in a rule of white businessmen where profits were the only standards of judgments, they alone represented European civilisation and justified the high pretensions of Colonialism.
They did not rear up vast monuments in the French manner, In the capital, Leopoldville, their cathedral in a city that seems to have been built as some permanent colonial exhibition, was small and mean and ugly and tucked away from the overwhelming and artificial imperial splendour.
Yet the missions were closely linked with the political system and the Belgians could scarcely have survived without them. The clergy thought as Belgians and few of them questioned the system. They did not anticipate change or envisage the need of change. M. Kasavubu is now the President of the Congo and a devout and intelligent Catholic, yet when the Belgians briefly imprisoned him for political activity, his children were expelled from their mission school.
The education they gave fitted precisely the Belgian pattern of colonialism. And they could hardly have done anything else. They did not aim to produce future rulers. Only good citizens and good Catholics of a simple sort. They had primary schools where the Africans learnt to read and write and to speak French and to know the fundamentals of their Faith and they left it at that.
Only in their own affairs did they show any daring or imagination. Unlike the British, the Belgians were empty of personal prejudice against a different coloured skin. It is true that they never mixed socially with Africans. but this was from political design rather than any deep emotional conviction. In the Church there was no prejudice at all. The best, perhaps the only, educated Africans in the Congo today are bishops and priests.
Continued on page 5, col. 5.
One Sunday in Eliza bethvi Ile, which is the capital of the breakaway province of Katanga, I went to Mass in the cathedral. As in all the churches I saw, they had adopted the new French method, the altar reversed, the priest facing the people over a small crucifix and the candle set on each side. So popular, so democratic a method seemed at the time, an anomaly in the Congo A priest, a young Belgian who had been ordained the day before, was singing his first Mass. He was trembling with emotion. And his deacon and his subdeacon, and even the assistant priests who attends on such occasions to see that all is done well, were all Africans and that day the High Altar in the Katanga seemed to be the one happy and healthy place in all the Congo.
Or again, on another Sunday, I went to Mass in the Cite Indigene, the vast and orderly suburb of mud and concrete houses where the Africans live on the edge of Leopoldville, The church, again, was large and poor. The altar had been moved down into the nave and the Africans sat around it on low benches as if they were attending "theatre in the round".
The celebrant was African, and all the congregation except myself was African. The church was packed and they screeched out African hymns accompanied by a harmonium and drums. A stranger, kneeling. would have felt that here, in the flesh, was the universal Church.
Yet the Church is in trouble in the Congo. It is partly because it was so closely identified with the old regime.
it is partly because the first prime minister Patrice Lumumba is a man grown silly and useless with hatred who unthinkingly lumps the Church in with all he detests.
It is also because the local mission in each area has become part of a fierce tribal life of its people and when the tribe is attacked in the name of democracy or central government, the mission suffers with its people. It is a. sign of the strength of the Church, particularly in the Kasai, that so many of the recent massacres have occurred in and around churches.
The Church is deeply embedded in the Congo now. It has several hundred African priests and a handful of black bishops. Even under a reasonable government the clergy will now have no privileges. But the hard spade-work has been done and the Congo remains the nearest thing to a Catholic country in Africa. The future will not be easy — but then, it never is.