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Vatican cardinal, in Congo Republic, offers critical assessment of missionaries’ work

June 07, 2023

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, spoke about the “ambivalence” of missionary work in the Congo Republic, using a “decidedly critical and objective lens,” because of its association with colonialism, in a June 3 address as the Church in the African country celebrated the 140th anniversary of its evangelization.

Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Czerny, the prefect of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, as his special envoy to the celebration. In his Latin-language letter appointing Cardinal Czerny as legate, Pope Francis paid tribute to the evangelization of the nation, “supported by many heralds of the Gospel, announcing Christ the Savior to the nations with intrepid labor and charity.”

In his address the cardinal said that he would “proceed with genuine ‘realism’ with respect to the history of evangelization in your country, avoiding any sort of mystification of the past.” He explained: “The proclamation of the Gospel in Congo-Brazzaville happened in conjunction with the colonization process under Belgium. Today, the ambivalence of this historical fact, which is filled with both darkness and light, calls us to look at the past through a decidedly critical and objective lens.”

Cardinal Czerny said that the Church must distance herself from the “abusive excesses of colonialism.” While Catholic institutions have provided medical care for many thousands of needy people, “their approach is judged too ‘paternalistic,’“ he observed. And although Catholic schools have done extraordinary work in advancing the education of Congo’s youth, they have been dedicated to “the imposition of ‘alien’ cultural forms, sometimes with little respect for native customs and traditions.”

“As in the Gospel parable, the wheat and the weeds grow together, but it is not possible to separate one from the other without harming the harvest,” the cardinal said. “Perhaps it is still too early to initiate a process of historical review that would lead to taking stock of the past, in order to discern wisely and in balance between gains and losses, between seeds of good and works of evil.”

Turning to the work of Catholic missionaries in the field of education, Cardinal Czerny said:

Overcoming the identification between Western culture and the Gospel has occurred only recently in the history of the Church, with Gaudium et Spes. The conciliar ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium has allowed us to rethink the identity of the Church as unity in difference and, consequently, also the way of conceiving its missionary nature, in order to see it in terms of inculturation.

The following day, Cardinal Czerny was the principal celebrant at the Mass marking the 140th anniversary of the nation’s evangelization. In the French-language homily at the Mass, at which President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and other civil and military leaders were in attendance, Cardinal Czerny offered praise for the missionaries who brought the Gospel to the region.

“Since 1883, thanks to the missionary zeal of Fathers Antoine-Marie-Hippolyte Carie and Prosper Philippe Augouard of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, ‘the joy of the Gospel fills the heart and life of those who encounter Jesus’ (citation) here in the Congo,” Cardinal Czerny preached. “While saluting the memory of the first workers of this harvest, we do not forget the most humble perhaps, but just as deserving: our valiant catechists who knew how to be one with this recommendation of Christ: ‘Go, make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19).”

The Congo Republic, a nation of 5.5 million (map), borders the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo, which Pope Francis visited earlier this year. Cardinal Czerny’s visit began on June 2 and concluded on June 6 (videos).

The nation is 90% Christian (66% Catholic) and 5% ethnic religionist. The Church there has been blessed with priestly vocations: the number of diocesan priests in the Archdiocese of Brazzaville, the nation’s capital, has increased from 53 to 120 since 2004, and the number of parishes has risen from 35 to 53.

 


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