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2 decades after death, Congo proclaims persecuted cardinal a national hero

July 30, 2010

Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, one of Africa’s leading prelates, has lauded a decision by Congolese President Joseph Kabila to proclaim the late Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula a national hero. The proclamation represents a dramatic reversal of fortune for the Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the past several decades.

In 1965, 35-year-old Gen. Joseph Mobutu seized power in a bloodless coup. His 32-year autocratic rule brought stability to the nation even as his corruption and nepotism helped impoverish it. A nominal Catholic – he had entered the army after expulsion from Catholic school for misbehavior – Mobutu embarked upon an “authenticity” campaign that sought to rid the nation of colonial and Western influence, and the nation was renamed Zaire. As the anti-Communist Mobutu fostered a personality cult more typically found in Marxist regimes – hymns appeared with Mobutu’s name in place of the name of Jesus – Church leaders did not kowtow.

In particular, Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula, Archbishop of Kinshasa (the nation’s capital) from 1964 to 1989, clashed frequently with the regime. At a Mass commemorating the tenth anniversary of the nation’s independence, the cardinal, in Mobutu’s presence, denounced the nation’s rulers for enriching themselves at the expense of the impoverished population. When Mobutu ordered all Christians to change their baptismal names to non-Christian names, the cardinal told the other bishops to ignore the order. Zaire confiscated Catholic schools, replacing crucifixes and pictures of the Pope with photographs of Mobutu, and Cardinal Malula was forced into exile for a time. At the height of the controversy, Pope Paul VI reminded the Zairean ambassador to the Holy See that the Catholic faith is not imposed upon Zaireans “like a foreign culture, since it comes from a gift of God.” Mobutu eventually returned Catholic schools to the Church.

Cardinal Malula’s opposition to Mobutu’s excesses was all the more credible in the eyes of his countrymen because of strong support of the Africanization of Christianity, an effort to separate the Gospel from extrinsic European cultural elements and replace them with African cultural elements. (The cardinal’s efforts culminated liturgically in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 1988 approval of the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire – the so-called Zairean Rite.) Cardinal Malula went so far as to support the ordination of married men; other proponents of Africanization argued that monogamy itself was a Western cultural accretion and tolerated polygamy.

In this context, a vigorous Pope John Paul II delivered 21 talks and homilies in four days in Zaire in 1980. Meeting with Mobutu, the pontiff pointed out that he had always worked to support the sovereignty of his native Poland, but sovereignty was not enough: citizens needed to have a say in their nation’s governance. Preaching to one million during a Mass in Kinshasa, he emphasized that monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage are part of God’s design for creation, not a later Western cultural accretion. Addressing the nation’s bishops, he emphasized the importance of the witness of priestly celibacy and reflected upon how the Gospel took root in Polish culture, saving, purifying, and elevating it.

Following Cardinal Malula’s death, as Mobutu’s hold on power began to weaken, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kisangani became a leading advocate for democratic reform. From 1991 to 1995, the archbishop led efforts to draft a constitution, oversee a peaceful transition of power, and hold elections in a post-Mobutu Zaire. Now one of the world’s leading churchmen outside the College of Cardinals, he was appointed Archbishop of Kinshasa in 2007 and played a major role at the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God after Pope Benedict named him the synod’s special secretary.


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