The following translations of the two conversations Pope Francis had with the Jesuits in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, with whom he met on 2 and 4 February, respectively, during his Apostolic Journey in Africa, are courtesy of “La Civiltà Cattolica”.
On February 2, 2023, during his apostolic journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pope Francis met with 82 Jesuits working in the country. Provincial Fr. Rigobert Kyungu and Bishop Donat Bafuidinsoni of Inongo, sj , were among them. The meeting took place in Kinshasa at the Nunciature at 6:30 p.m., after the pope returned from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Congo, where a prayer meeting had been held with priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and seminarians. After Fr. Kyungu presented the province, space was left for questions from those present.
Holy Father, the Society of Jesus receives its mission from the pope. What is the mission that you give to the Society today?
I agree with the universal apostolic preferences that the Society has developed, which consist first of all in pointing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment.
The second is that of the mission of reconciliation and justice, which must be done by walking together with the poor, the excluded, those whose dignity is wounded. And then young people: we need to accompany them in creating the future. So collaboration in caring for the common home in the spirit of Laudato Si’.
I approved them, and now the Jesuits must embody them in each specific local reality in the most suitable and appropriate ways, not in a theoretical and abstract way. Here, you are to apply them here in the Congo.
Of course, it is clear that issues of conflict and factional strife are strong here. But let’s open our eyes to the world: the whole world is at war! Syria has been living through a war for 12 years, and then Yemen, and Myanmar with the Rohingya drama. Even in Latin America there are tensions and conflicts. And then there is this war in Ukraine. The whole world is at war. Let’s remember that well. But I ask myself: will humanity have the courage, the strength or even the opportunity to turn back? It goes forward, forward, forward to the abyss. I don’t know: that’s a question I ask myself. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m a bit pessimistic.
Today it really seems that the main problem is the production of weapons. There is still so much hunger in the world, and we continue to manufacture armaments. It is difficult to come back from this catastrophe. And we are not talking about atomic weapons! I still believe in the work of persuasion. We Christians have to pray a lot, “Lord, have mercy on us!”
These days I am struck by the stories of violence. I am especially struck by the cruelty. The news coming from the wars around the world tell us of a cruelty that is hard even to think about. Not only is there killing, but it is being done cruelly. This is something new to me. It gives me pause for thought. Even the news coming out of Ukraine tells us about cruelty. And here in Congo we have heard it in the direct testimonies of the victims.
You have a good relationship with Patriarch Bartholomew. How is the Church preparing for the 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea in 2025?
I take my cue from your question to remember a great Orthodox theologian who died today, John Zizioulas, who was metropolitan of Pergamum. He came to the Vatican to present my encyclical Laudato Si’. He was an expert on eschatology. He was once asked when there would be Christian unity. He replied, with healthy realism and perhaps even with subtle irony, “At the end of time!” Let us remember him in our prayers.
Yes, we are preparing a meeting for 2025. With Patriarch Bartholomew we want to come to an agreement for the date of Easter, which just happens to be the same date for both Churches in that year. Let’s see; if so we can agree for the future. And we want to celebrate this Council as brothers. We are preparing for it. Just think that Bartholomew was the first Patriarch after so many centuries to come to the inauguration of a pope’s ministry!
As a professed Jesuit you vowed not to seek roles of authority in the Church. What prompted you to accept the episcopacy and then the cardinalate and then the papacy?
When I made that vow, I meant it. When they proposed me to be auxiliary bishop of San Miguel, I did not accept. Then I was asked to be bishop of an area in northern Argentina, in the province of Corrientes. The papal nuncio, to encourage me to accept, told me that there were the ruins of the Jesuit past there. I replied that I did not want to be guardian of the ruins, and I refused. I refused these two requests because of the vow I made. The third time the nuncio came, but already with the authorization signed by the superior general, Fr. Kolvenbach, who had agreed to my accepting. It was as an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires. Therefore I accepted in a spirit of obedience. Then I was appointed coadjutor archbishop of my city, and in 2001 cardinal. In the last conclave, I came with a small briefcase to return immediately to the diocese, but I had to stay. I believe in the Jesuit distinctiveness about this vow, and I did my best not to accept the episcopate.
Holy Father, the Congo River Basin, the planet’s second green lung after the Amazon, is threatened by deforestation, pollution and intensive and illegal exploitation of natural resources. Do you think it will be possible to have a synod on this region like the one held for the Amazon?
The Synod on the Amazon was exemplary. Four “dreams” were discussed there: social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial. They also apply to the Congo Basin: there is a similarity. The planetary balance also depends on the health of the Amazon and the Congo biomes. There will not be a Synod on the Congo, but certainly it would be good for the Bishops’ Conference to engage synodically at the local level with the same criteria, but in order to pursue a discourse more related to the reality of the country.
There has been talk of your possible resignation. Are you really intent on leaving the Petrine ministry? What about the General of the Society? In your opinion, should his post remain for life?
Look, it’s true that I wrote my resignation two months after I was elected and delivered this letter to Cardinal Bertone. I don’t know where this letter is. I did it in case I had some health problem that would prevent me from exercising my ministry and I am not fully conscious and able to resign. However, this does not at all mean that resigning popes should become, let’s say, a “fashion,” a normal thing. Benedict had the courage to do it because he did not feel up to continuing due to his health. I for the moment do not have that on my agenda. I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam. I see no reason why it should not be so. Think that the ministry of the great patriarchs is always for life! And the historical tradition is important. If, on the other hand, we are listening to the “chatter,” well, then we should change popes every six months!
About the Society of Jesus: yes, on this I am “conservative.” It has to be for life. But, of course, the same question arises as about the pope. Father Kolvenbach and Father Nicolás, the last two generals, resigned for health reasons. It seems to me important to remember as well that one reason for the life-long generalship in the Society also arises to avoid electoral calculations, factions, chatter…
What is it about Congolese inculturation and especially the Congolese rite that fills you with joy? You have celebrated this rite twice in the Vatican. And the third time was here. You appear to like it very much. Then I would like to ask you a question about the image of the Church as a hospital. How can you explain it to us?
I like the Congolese rite because it is a work of art, a liturgical and poetic masterpiece. It was done with ecclesial sense and with aesthetic sense. It is not an adaptation, but a poetic, creative reality, to be meaningful and suiting the Congolese reality. So yes, I like it and it gives me joy.
The Church as a field hospital. For me, the Church has the vocation of the hospital, of service for healing, care and life. One of the ugliest things in the Church is authoritarianism, which then becomes a mirror of society wounded by worldliness and corruption. And the vocation of the Church is to the wounded people. Today this image is even more valid, considering the war scenario we are experiencing. The Church must be a hospital that goes to where people are wounded. The Church is not a multinational spirituality corporation. Look at the saints! Heal, take care of the wounds the world experiences! Serve the people! The word “serve” is very Ignatian. “In everything love and serve” is the Ignatian motto. I want a Church of service.
You wanted Jesuit bishops and among us is a Jesuit called to the episcopate. What do you expect from them?
The choice of a Jesuit as bishop depends solely on the need of the Church. I believe in our vow that tends to prevent Jesuits from being bishops, but, if it serves the good of the Church, then the latter good prevails. I’ll tell you the truth: when the general or provincials know that a Jesuit is being considered for bishop they intervene and know how to “defend” the Society well. If, however, it is then decided that it is necessary, it is done. Other times — and I am thinking of a specific case — if the first of the terna is a Jesuit, but then there is a second one who can still fit, the second of the three is chosen. I believe in the vow, but the needs of the Church prevail.
What are your greatest consolations and desolations?
The greatest consolation is when I see simple people who believe. It is good for me. My consolation is God’s holy faithful people, sinners and believers. On the other hand, the elites, sinners and unbelievers, make me feel desolate. Let priests be shepherds of the people and not monsieur l’Abbé, nor even “clerics of the state.”
In some countries there are agreements between Church and state. I have a fear that this gives great power to the bishops. What do you think about that?
This often concerns relations between the Vatican City State and various countries. The point of these agreements is to help the Church move forward, and certainly not to cover up ecclesiastical worldliness. Security is needed for teaching, ministries, open preaching of the Gospel. The goal, then, is not to protect other interests. The agreement must be about service, not worldliness.
The meeting ended with a group photo and the presentation of some gifts to the Holy Father, who greeted everyone present, one by one.
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During his apostolic journey to South Sudan, on 4 February, at around 11:15 a.m., Pope Francis had a meeting in Juba with the 11 Jesuits working in the country and Fr. Kizito Kiyimba, Superior of the East Africa Province, which includes Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Francis had just returned from St. Teresa’s Cathedral, where he had met with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and seminarians. The provincial presented the activities of the Society in the country and in the province, and then each of the participants gave a brief presentation of themselves. Questions followed.
Holy Father, faith moves to the Global South. Money does not. Do you have any fear, any hope?
If you have no hope, you can close the door and walk away! However, my fear is about the very generalized pagan culture. Pagan values today matter more and more: money, reputation, power. We must be aware that the world is immersed in a pagan culture that has its own idols and gods. Money, power and fame are things that St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises points to as the fundamental sins. St. Ignatius’ election on poverty — to the point of making the professed take a special vow — is a choice against paganism, against the god of money. Today ours is also a pagan culture of war, where what counts is how many weapons you have. These are all forms of paganism.
But then, please, let’s not be so naive as to think that Christian culture is the culture of a united party, where all gather together in order to be strong. In that way the Church would be a political party. No! Instead, Christian culture is the ability to interpret, discern and live the Christian message that our paganism does not want to understand, does not want to accept. We have come to the point that if one thinks about the demands of Christian life in today’s culture, one believes that they are a form of extremism. We have to learn to move forward in a pagan context, which is not that different from that of the first centuries.
What is your dream for Africa?
When the world thinks of Africa, it thinks that, one way or another, it must be exploited. It is a collective unconscious mechanism: Africa must be exploited. No, Africa must grow. Yes, the countries on the Continent have gained independence, but from the ground up, not on the wealth that is underneath. On this issue last November, I had a meeting with African students via videoconference for almost an hour and a half. I was impressed by the intelligence of these young women and men. I really liked their way of thinking. Here, Africa needs politicians who are people like this: good, intelligent, who make their countries grow. Politicians who do not allow themselves to be distorted by corruption, above all. Political corruption leaves no room for the country to grow; it destroys it. It affects my heart. You cannot serve two masters; in the Gospel this is clear. You either serve God or you serve money. Interesting that it does not say the devil, but money. Honest politicians must be formed. That is also your task.
What is the secret of your simplicity?
Me, simple? I feel I’m too complicated!
What guidance can you offer us for situations where a strong faith clashes with a strong culture?
But the conflict is not on the same plane! Culture and faith are in dialogue and must be. Of course, it may be that a strong culture does not accept faith. And this aspect of paganism has never died out in history. But beware: a form of paganism is also the outward formalism of going to Mass on Sunday exclusively because one has to, that is, without soul, without faith. Strong culture is an advantage if it is evangelized, but it cannot be reduced to an impossibility of dialogue with faith. In this regard, the General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate held in Puebla in 1979 was important. The expression “evangelization of culture and inculturation of faith” was coined there. In the encounter between culture and faith, faith becomes inculturated. That is why you cannot live a faith here in Juba that is fine in Paris, for example. We need to preach the Gospel to each specific culture, which has its own inadequacy and richness.
Holy Father, how do you pray?
Clearly, I say Mass and recite the Office. Daily liturgical prayer has its own personal density. Then sometimes I pray the rosary, sometimes I take the Gospel and meditate on it. But it depends a lot on the day. For personal prayer, I, like everyone, have to find the best way to live it day by day. In Kinshasa, when I met with people who were victims of the war in the east of the country, I heard tremendous stories of the wounded, maimed, abused… They told unspeakable things. Clearly, I could certainly not pray with the Song of Songs afterwards. One has to pray immersed in reality. That is why I am afraid of prayer preachers who make abstract, theoretical prayers, who talk, talk, talk, but with empty words. Prayer is always embodied.
When will Father Arrupe be beatified?
His cause is moving forward, because one of the stages is already completed. I talked about this with Father General. The biggest problem concerns Father Arrupe’s writings. He wrote so much and you have to read all of it, and that slows down the process. And I come back to prayer. Arrupe was a man of prayer, a man who wrestled with God every day, and that’s where his strong call for the promotion of justice comes from. We see it in his “testament,” the speech he gave in Thailand before his stroke, when he reiterated the importance of mission with refugees.
How did you feel when the trip to South Sudan was cancelled?
I felt discouraged. I was supposed to make the trip to Canada, but I was told to postpone the trip to Africa because I would not be able to sustain it because of my knee. Some ill-thinking people said I preferred to go to Canada to be with the rich, but that was not the case. That was a trip to meet abused indigenous. I went there to console the abused and to make peace with the indigenous people who were victims of the school system in which the Church was involved. But as soon as it was possible I came. I longed for this trip! However, in Goma — a planned stop last year — unfortunately, I could not go because of the war and the consequent risks to the people.
How has Laudato Si’ been received in Africa?
Well. Amazonia and Congo have oxygen reserves for the world. And both are exploited areas. Africa is even more so because of the minerals in which it is rich. A discourse on creation care is important for both countries. The Jesuits in Kinshasa asked me if there will be a synod on the Congo, as there was for the Amazon. I replied that in that Synod and in the post-synodal exhortation there are already the elements and criteria that are useful for Congo as well.
What do you expect from the Jesuits here in South Sudan?
Let them be brave, let them be tender. Don’t forget that Ignatius was a great one for tenderness. He wanted Jesuits brave with tenderness. And he wanted them men of prayer. Courage, tenderness and prayer are enough for a Jesuit.
Do you have a special message for East African Jesuits?
Let them be close to the people and the Lord. The basic attitudes of the Lord are: closeness, mercy and tenderness. Closeness is clear. Institutions without closeness and tenderness will also do good, but they are pagan. Jesuits must be different.
Are you considering resignation?
No, it has not crossed my mind. I did, however, write a letter and gave it to Cardinal Bertone. It contains my resignation in case I am not in the condition of health and awareness to be able to resign. Pius xii also wrote a letter of resignation because of fear that Hitler would take him to Germany. That way, he said, they would only capture Eugenio Pacelli and not the pope.
The Pope thanked everyone present. The provincial said he did not bring a gift, but a song. “But the gift is yourselves!” said Francis. Everyone stood up and, taking each other by the hand — including the pontiff — they raised this prayer song together. Then Francis greeted a group of lay people working for the Jesuit Refugee Service.
After greeting everyone one by one, the Pope commented: “Beautiful. There is life here....”
By Antonio Spadaro