Every Holy Week begins with the celebration of Palm Sunday. For us in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is no shortage of palm leaves. In fact, here in our parish of St Perpetua, a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Congo, tall palm leaves were planted along the procession route and waved during the procession to commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Our procession began from a large private compound adorned with trees and flowers (it felt like the Garden of Olives) made available by a wealthy Christian. As we went along singing, in Latin as well as the vernacular, and waving palms, I kept on thinking that the crowd in Jerusalem did not pick the palms only because they were readily available. The palm tree, one of the DRC’s precious natural resources, is very life-giving. Therefore it symbolises Jesus.
It is clear that our country needs a better political class, as well as a clergy “purified of the old leaven, so that they become a new dough”, as St Paul puts it. In fact, Holy Thursday had a dual significance in Kinshasa. First, because Mgr Fridolin Ambongo presided over his first Chrism Mass as Metropolitan Archbishop of Kinshasa, during which he warned more than a hundred priests working in the Archdiocese of Kinshasa against “abusive use of the holy oils” which he blessed. “Make sure to respect the sacredness of these oils and make only an ecclesial use of them, without adding anything to what the Church recommends,” the archbishop insisted. Faced with the defection of some of their flock, some Catholic priests have resorted to rites practised in the “revival churches” to win them back, according to an investigation carried out by Jeune Afrique magazine.
Secondly, the Chrism Mass was celebrated in Notre-Dame du Congo Cathedral, designed in homage to Notre-Dame in Paris. The fire in Paris sparked a wave of reactions across the DRC from both religious and political leaders. Archbishop Ambongo said: “It’s as if one was witnessing the murder of his or her own mother.”
Although on Good Friday life went on as usual in the capital, with its customary traffic jams, flags were flown at half-mast everywhere – because the day coincided with a period of national mourning, decreed by the president after a motorised canoe sank in Lake Kivu. Some 13 bodies were recovered, and another 150 remain missing. Poor infrastructure puts the lives of many in peril.
However, there are many signs of hope here. The workers who are rebuilding the road leading to our parish are all Congolese. After a long experience of colonialism and troubled independence, the country is taking charge of itself.
Shortly before attending the Way of the Cross, three men digging while sweating under the scorching sun asked me for water. Remembering Christ’s words on the Cross – “I am thirsty” – I bought three packets of water for them. They really appreciated the gesture. Throughout the Way of the Cross, I meditated on the number three (the Trinity) and Jesus thirsting for the fulfilment of God’s will. The coincidence intrigued me.
Equally thought-provoking was the fact that, as the narrative of the Passion of the Lord Jesus was being read on Palm Sunday, a local cock crowed four times (not three) immediately after the part where Simon Peter denied Jesus. Little things like that happen in our lives but it takes the eyes of faith to see the meaning behind them.
The laity too are taking the initiative. In Lent, Mgr Edouard Kisonga, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa, came to our church to install our new parish priest, a missionary from Zambia, and lay the foundation stone for the building of a new parish church.
At the end of Mass, the bishop announced that he had run out of fuel. We had to take another collection. Then he surprised us by saying he was not in need of fuel after all. The last collection, he said, should be considered his contribution to the building of the new church. At this, we all burst out laughing. But the bishop said: “It is not a laughing matter. You must consider church affairs, parish affairs and national affairs as your very own affairs.” The trick paid off. Since then it has become a custom to take a second collection for the building of the new church during Sunday Mass.
More than 80 per cent of the Congolese are Christians. The percentage will have risen this Easter following the baptism of infants and many new converts who joined the Church during the Easter Vigil. I sensed a liberating joy among the congregation during the Vigil Mass. The choir sang in Latin, French, Lingala and Kikongo (two of the four national languages). All joined in the dancing and clapping, especially when the main celebrant said: “He is alive!” The congregation answered in chorus: “He is risen.” The priest then asked: “Who?” And the congregation said: “Jesus!” Then there was even more clapping. This rallying cry in faith is very popular in Catholic churches in the DRC. There is hope in the air here.