When they ascend the altar alongside the priest, when they invoke their male and female ancestors at the beginning of the liturgy, when they dance and sing, and when they pray to Mary at the end of the Mass, Congolese women express their lives through prayer. They draw on a memory, on a history of faith that began before the advent of Christian missionaries. Today, this is expressed through “a joyful celebration, a true place of encounter with Jesus.” With these words, in the introduction to the volume Pope Francis and the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire, the pope himself defines the Zairean rite, the first example of inculturation of the liturgy, “a rite of promise for other cultures”, so reads the subtitle.
“This need came from within the Congolese people, who felt the need to pray to God according to the proper character of their culture. When the Congolese were evangelized, they prayed and sang in Latin, in French, but they did not feel comfortable and therefore did not pray well, because they could not even understand what they were saying”, states sister Rita Mboshu Kongo, the editor of the volume published by LEV. She is 57 years old, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a member of the Congregation Daughters of Mary Most Holy Coredemptrix, and a professor of spiritual theology and formation in consecrated life at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. The Congolese rite, she explains, “grew out of a long journey of dialogue between the National Bishops’ Conference of the Congo and the Holy See, and was the wonderful fruit of an ongoing commitment. With this spirit of dialogue, the conclusion was reached that the Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire is the work of a whole local Church in communion with the universal Church.”
Sister Rita’s biography helps to understand how the Eucharistic celebration has become the synthesis and memory of an entire life. The praying to rediscover the rights of African women and religious, and working for girls to become aware of their own strength, goes hand in hand with the role of spiritual leader that her clan, the kete, of a matrilineal tradition, recognizes for her. This draws on the prayers to her grandmother that she recites daily; with a spiritual life that has its roots in traditional religions in Africa and its theological strength in the studies she followed at the St Thomas Institute in Messina and at the Teresianum in Rome, where she received a degree in spiritual theology.
It is difficult to find any spare time in Sister Rita’s days. After all, she is also the president of the Fondation Pape François pour l’Afrique, in Kinshasa, which was established with the aim of responding to Francis’ call for a permanent and integral formation, centered on ecology, attentive to family, youth, orphans, the poor, the victims of many forms of violence, and especially to women.
However, liturgy remains central to Sister Rita’s studies. Let us start again from the Zairean Mass. “It was a need established by the Congolese, so much so that our Cardinal Malula, had begun to translate the chants into lingala, the Congolese language. He participated in Vatican Council II where he posed the problem of the liturgy and was listened to.”
Cardinal Malula said in ‘58 that Africans knew the Christian God even before the missionaries came. What does that mean?
“For they prayed to one God, not to the gods, or the moon or the trees. Through the greatness of nature, they saw the power of God. If a tree has so many branches, which gives us refreshment and rest, how great can God be who created it? In our traditional prayers, God is called Father Creator. Moreover, this was before evangelization. They were not talking about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, but about a greater being who gave life to everything that exists”.
In African spirituality, what role do women play?
“In traditional African society, a woman was considered the guardian of tradition, an educator, a mother, and above all she played an effective religious role recognized by men. A woman is the one who preserves, she guards. My clan, the Kete, from the Mueka area, for example, is matriarchal; a woman, who exercises it by giving advice to brothers and cousins, holds the power of spiritual and cultural leadership. Men are the ‘word bearers’, they speak in public, but report the woman’s ideas as they do so”.
How do you as a nun exercise this matriarchal power?
“As a nun, I am a reference point for so many people, not only from my family, and this is also because I did not consecrate myself for the family, I did so to serve God’s people.”
In the Zairean rite, what does female participation look like?
“Women serve Mass at the altar, and sing in the procession. Boys and girls serve with the priest. Parishes go on, as they do so all over the world, with the active participation of women. It is a liturgy that takes into consideration the human being as a whole”.
How does the religion of the ancestors enter into the Christian religion, do the ancestors have a special role?
“In the celebration of the Mass in the Congolese rite, the structure is as follows: at the beginning of the celebration there is the invocation of the ancestors “upright in heart”, together with the saints to establish the communion between the earthly Church and the heavenly community too. We invoke the intervention of the ancestors because we believe that the dead live with us, that they participate in our lives, and accompany us. They are people who loved me when they were on this earth and so even beyond, they continue to love me. It is a communion of the saints.”
You have repeatedly denounced the violent conditions that African women are subjected to, including within the Church.
“It is not a denunciation to try to light a fire. When there is a discomfort, we talk about it to find a solution. Besides, the Church is Mother of all. A child cannot go and denounce his mother, but he asks her for help”.
Did it work?
“Of course, the Church as a mother has responded in many ways. Now, for example, there are so many nuns doing doctorates, there are so many scholarships.”
You teach at the Urbaniana. You have made an important journey as a woman, as a religious, and as an African religious. What do you feel like telling your sisters?
“I have always said and I often repeat to them not to count on others, but on themselves. Every woman, whether they are educated or not, must define herself from herself, not from another person. You must be able to justify your ideas, your ‘nos’ and your ‘yeses’. With men we must collaborate, confront ourselves, and also with other women. This is the path I try to encourage. You have to put your feet on the ground, learn what you don’t know and not delegate to others”.
by VITTORIA PRISCIANDARO
Journalist at St Paul Periodicals “Believe” and “Jesus”