Congo has a surface area of more than two million
kilometers, which is equivalent to four times the size of
France and five times that of Spain. It was the goal of the
first Teresian Carmelite mission in April of 1582, which
ended up shipwrecked, six months before the death of St.
Teresa of Avila, and the place of the first missionary of
the Carmelites between 1584 and 1587. From 1585 to
1632 a lot of effort was put into realizing the dream of
planting the Teresian Carmelite nuns, which was not realized
for another three centuries. It was here too that the
two intrepid explorers, Livingston and Stanley met each
other. There are two martyrs from this great country, at
least two that have been honoured by the Church: Blessed
Isidore Bakanja (+ 1909) and Blessed Anwarite Nmengapeta
Poor yet rich
Congo used to be a Belgian colony, formerly Zaire before
becoming the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has been
an unstable country for a long time. The reasons for
this are many. First, there was the arbitrary
partition of Africa at the Berlin Congress (1884-85), which
began the colonial period. Congo managed to obtain
independence in 1960. But since then there has been a
lot of violence and unease, perhaps at its worst under the
dictator Mobutu (1965-66).
Then there was the invasion of refugees from neighbouring
Rwanda in 1994, which led to more destabilization. The
people feel insecure as guerillas roam free in many areas,
as well as foreign troops who enter the country to loot the
rich mines. Congo is rich in natural resources which
are the envy of its neighbours but also the reason why it is
not at peace.
They say that there is no war in the Congo. But there are
military factions who violently oppose each other, in order
to get their hands on the rich territory. In the cities and
populated areas death is a common occurrence, as is
kidnapping and people suddenly disappearing, constant
shooting, incursions, entire days of military confrontation.
Unofficial curfews are imposed for security reasons.
The saddest factor in all this death and destruction is the
tacit approval and responsibility of the international
community, which allows the situation to continue without
making any effort to stop it, which it easily could.
But a lot of money is made here on the sale of arms to all
factions of the divide. The situation is worse in the
east of the country, where there are many gold and even
diamond mines. It is our western superpowers that both
control and destabilize the area through Uganda in the north
and Rwanda to the east.
Most of the Congo’s money is taken up in fighting the
insurgents, though nothing is ever said officially. The
country suffers from neglect as a result of this. For
example rice, a stable crop, in one area is left to stagnate
as there is no transport to move it around the country, so
people have to buy rice from Pakistan. And people who try to
challenge the situation, who ask questions of the government
or army, including a bishop, missionaries and some priests,
are targeted and often killed.
My trip began in Kinshasa, the capital of the Congo. The
airport with its noise and confusion, its corrupt officials,
often underpaid or not paid at all, is but a reflection of
the situation in the country at large. None of this
surprised me as I know the place well, having lived here
myself as a missionary.
I met our local community which was still in mourning for
the recent death of Fr. Laurent Kapuku, aged just 46.
He had been superior in Goma and died in a clinic in
Kinshasa that lacked the necessary medication.
As I took in the city it was clear that it was in decline.
We arrived at St. Joseph’s priory, next door to the cemetery
where our brother had been buried. There I met so many of
I then visited our Carmelite Nuns.
Next the theological college and the centre of spirituality.
There are more houses of spirituality in this Delegation
than in any other Province of the Order. There was a
real shortage of water. But the community were happy
and the liturgy vibrant and full of joy. If only we could
have this participation in our European churches, this
recollection and respect.
After Kinshasa I flew to Goma, where the plane was forced to
taxi halfway down the runway, as the rest of it was still
covered in lava following the eruption of a local volcano in
Our parish has been without a superior since the death of
Fr. Laurent. Here I met the most recently ordained priests
of the Delegation. They are an example to all for their
commitment to the house and parish. They spoke matter
of factly about the dangers the city is facing. I got the
same reaction from the local Carmelite sisters even though
they had recently evacuated the place while opposing
factions fired rockets and mortars over their heads.
My next stop, Bukavu, was a three hour trip across the lake
from Goma. Here is where our students study philosophy, in a
college which we run, shared by five other congregations,
and hoping that others will join. The centre is accredited
to the Congolese State University. In spite of limited
resources they have built a new centre and plan to build a
new Carmelite house nearby. The first college, established
in 1990, has since been converted into a spirituality
centre. Our friars are involved in the daily running of the
college and the construction of the new centre, as well as
their Carmelite apostolate and looking after 26 postulants.
It is one of the most challenging situations of the entire
Order, in great part because of its location. We owe our
brothers here a great debt of gratitude and hopefully we can
help them with our finances.
The student house of Bukavu is a landmark in the missionary
history of the Order, because it managed to convert itself
into a centre of Philosophy for the Conference of Religious.
Our community consists of two with Doctorates and two with
Licentiates. The local Bishop looks to the Carmelites
to consolidate the education of his clergy, his religious,
friars and nuns, and committed laity. Here, on the
other side of the river, which serves as a border, is the
Rwandan town of Cyangugu, where there is a Carmelite convent
of our nuns, all of them African.
In concluding my visit I asked my self if other members of
the Order would be capable of such serenity, trust,
happiness and normality in an area convulsed by violence. It
is true that Carmel has turned upside down many things in
the Congo: with hope, finances, patience and prayer. The
results are revealing: there are more Carmelites in the
Congo than anywhere else in Africa with 39 in solemn vows
and 16 novices who recently made their first profession.
As a sign of its maturity we see a missionary orientation.
Carmelites from the Congo are helping out in Italy,
Belgium, where they have their own community, in Chevremont,
in Germany, Uganda, in the Central African Republic and in
the Holy Land.
The country’s Episcopal Conference wrote recently: “Our
citizens must confront an uncertain future, a growing
insecurity, an intolerable poverty… Our people do not
deserve to continue shouldering this same yoke…” I
read and meditate on these words thinking of our own