· Vatican City ·

Horror, love and mystery

03 February 2023

“Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meannesses, that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst: you didn’t love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed”. Scobie is the protagonist of “The Heart of the Matter”, one of Graham Greene’s great novels, published in 1948 and set in Sierra Leone. Scobie’s feelings resemble the ones felt by the people who, along with the Holy Father, have left the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are heading to South Sudan, after three intense days among people who were overjoyed by the Visit.

First of all, a strong love, undoubtedly linked to the recognition of the naturalness of the people and a land which is not, but could have been, a paradise. Here geography and history took two different paths, as the Pope observed in his first discourse.

Then there is another feeling, linked to that “worst” of themselves we heard about: the horror. The testimonials of victims of atrocities that occurred in the eastern part of the country, uttered with painful dignity before the Holy Father on 1 February in the Apostolic nunciature, still resound vividly and searingly. A novel written 50 years before Greene’s, by another English author, may help us find the words (good literature also serves this purpose). It is “Heart of Darkness”, by Joseph Conrad. “The Horror! The Horror!” are the last words that the unsettling, tragic character Kurtz says from his deathbed to the novel’s protagonist, Charles Marlow, who had undergone a long voyage on a rickety steamboat up the Congo River, to find him. Marlow remembers his adventure while on board his boat, the Nellie, anchored in London’s River Thames, and tells it to some friends. His voyage, during which he entered the heart of darkness of the African continent, led him to discover that that same dark heart could be found in a calm and comfortable inlet of the River Thames.

Horror is the precise word, but on Wednesday afternoon in the Apostolic nunciature, there was not only horror. There was a greater strength, even greater than mankind, which allowed the victims to speak in that way, remembering all the suffering and all the injustice done by human beings, capable of doing “their worst”, and at the same time, going through it, overcoming it, having learned to “walk with their heads held high”, as the Pope said to Congolese Bishops, “never lowering them in the face of humiliation and oppression”. Mysteriously, there was a light that shined in that darkness. Mystery is the right word. Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s remark comes to mind: The mystery of evil is great, but the mystery of good is greater still. (Andrea Monda)

Andrea Monda