In the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the laity have always understood that the Church and the nation are everybody’s business.”
Vatican News staffer, Stanislas Kambashi SJ, interviewed Congolese Professor Justin Okana.
The Pope is visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country whose laity is known for its commitment and activism.
In an interview with Vatican Radio-Vatican News, Professor Justin Okana believes that the role of the Catholic layperson is to awaken the entire nation’s conscience and remind the authorities of the limits of their power in the face of the republican constitution.
Justin Okana, Emeritus Professor of the Catholic University of Congo and ordinary professor at the University of Kinshasa in the Faculty of Economic Sciences and Management, explained what he saw as the role of the Catholic laity in the DRC. Professor Okana is a leading member of the DRC’s influential Catholic Comité Laïc de Coordination (CLC), the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC).
Catholic laity in the DRC were at the forefront of widespread peaceful marches and demonstrations when the municipal, regional and national elections scheduled for 2015 and 2016 were postponed by the government of President Joseph Kabila several times. Finally, in December 2018, the government yielded, and elections took place. A new President, Felix Tshisekedi, was sworn in as president in January 2019.
A message of peace
Pope Francis is visiting the DRC. The clergy and laity in the DRC are known for their active participation in socio-political issues. From the laity’s viewpoint, what are your sentiments on the Pope’s visit to your country?
Pope Francis is the successor of Peter, upon whom the Lord built his Church. And as they used to say in Jesus’ time, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” His Holiness the Pope brings us a messenger of peace so that we can avoid the infernal cycle of war and violence, which we have lived for the last thirty years. This is the message of the Lord through his envoy Pope Francis. It is also a message of hope that the Holy Father brings to us. He wants the Congolese people to reconcile so that all the country’s children can live in harmony with one another.
Pope Francis’ visit to Kinshasa.
Gospel and Social Teaching of the Church
In the Church of the DRC, there is a strong sense of commitment to the Gospel and to the Social Teaching of the Church by the Catholic laity. What would you say about this?
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the laity have indeed understood that the Church is everyone’s business. Each of us must contribute to the construction of this Church. That is to say, each one must contribute to the proclamation of the Word of God. It is God’s family, and everyone must be committed to caring for each other, especially for the vulnerable in society.
Certain facts make this commitment and awareness visible. You notice, for example, that when the political authorities want to go outside the constitution, we remind them of the limits of their power. And we act as sentinels for our country.
We are not an opposition party
Before 2018, Catholic lay movements in the DRC played a valued role in the political renewal of the country. Have the laity continued with their activism and vigilance?
This momentum continues. It is indeed well and alive because we, lay people, continue to observe the trajectory of our country. We do not constitute an opposition political party. We are not civil society but give our opinions on the country’s affairs and direction. We cannot tolerate, for example, that the authorities disregard the republican constitution at will. We act in the interest of our population, and our interventions are aimed at defending the constitution. We do not act alone or on our own but with other societal actors. We are concerned about building a nation based on the rule of law. Whenever we feel things are not going well, I think it is within our rights as laypeople to speak up, denounce, and give well-intentioned advice. For example, we will soon have elections. The registration process has been launched. We are observing and will give our position to identify what is working and what is not. The idea is to provide authorities with some feedback to improve on matters. For us, this is not a rebellion but a pastoral commitment of lay people.
Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the DRC Wednesday.
Laity must live the Gospel
Specifically, what place do you give to the role of the laity within the Catholic Church of Congo?
The role of the laity within the Church is to awaken the conscience of the whole nation. Our Church is represented everywhere in the country. What interests us is what the laity do. How they are living the Gospel every day. We remind Caesar of what is Caesar’s. This also means reminding God’s children within the Church must lead by example and live the Gospel in society. This is why Caesar is obliged to give the people of God the means by which they can live decent lives. In Congo, we always say the laity have the obligation to remind the leaders of their obligations.
Words of peace and hope
What is your message to the world at this moment when the whole world’s eyes are focused on your country?
As Congolese laity, we have prepared for this visit. We look forward to the message of peace and hope from the Holy Father. With his words of encouragement, we must continue to believe in our country and hope for a promising future for our people. We must reconcile to build our nation and harmonise our relations among ourselves. We are called to see how we can improve the country’s situation together. And for those who are not Congolese, we need to find a way of co-existing with them in harmony.
Some of the laity that attended the Pope’s Mass in Kinshasa.
The Pope among us
What would be your last word?
We welcome His Holiness Pope Francis among us. We pray that everything about this visit will proceed as planned, in peace, and characterised by national harmony. May this visit of the Pope in the DRC bring great satisfaction to our people, and may no incident occur that disturbs this long-awaited and much-longed-for visit. And may the Lord help us as people.