Congo, Republic of, The Catholic Church in
CONGO, REPUBLIC OF, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Republic of the Congo is located in equatorial Africa, and borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the east and south, Angola (Cabinda) and the Atlantic Ocean on the southwest, Gabon on the west, and the Central African Republic and Cameroon on the north. The terrain is varied, falling from a coastal plain at the Atlantic northward to a southern basin, then rising again to plateau before falling to lowlands in the far north. Humid and hot, the region's tropical climate is marked by a rainy season in the spring and a dry season that stretches from June to October. Small-scale agricultural concerns produce tapioca, sugar, rice, corn and ground nuts; most of the economy's wealth results from exploiting the region's natural resources, which include petroleum, timber, lead, zinc and uranium.
Once known as Middle Congo, the region became part of French Equatorial Africa from 1910–58 before joining the French Community as a constituent republic. In 1960 the Congo became an independent republic. A sequence of unstable governments culminated in the one-party rule of Marxist leader Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso in 1979. Sassou-Nguesso dominated the political realm for over a decade before the country's first democratic elections were held in the early 1990s. A civil war in 1997 was quelled following the return of the former leader. While a return to Marxist rule signified a shift away from democratic ideals, efforts were underway by 2000 to privatize parts of the Congo's industrial base.
History. Kongo tribes from the east and Pygmies from the north were the first to inhabit the region, arriving in the 15th century. Portuguese slave traders set up operations along the coast, their efforts hampered by Christian missionaries whose initial efforts proved ineffective in
comparison to the stable missions established to the south in Léopoldville and Angola. In 1663 Capuchin Bernardine of Hungary came at the invitation of the king of Loango (near Pointe-Noire) and converted him and more than 2,000 of his subjects. This brilliant beginning seems to have faded quickly, however; after 1666 no record remained of this community. A century later French missionaries revived the work of evangelization from 1766–76, albeit with slight success.
Another century passed before permanent missionary activity was established. In 1875 French explorer de Brazza initiated treaties with native leaders to bring the region under French control, and in 1883 the Holy Ghost Fathers set up a mission at Loango. Prosper Augouard (1852–1921), the "apostle of the Congo" and first missionary to penetrate the interior, reached Stanley Pool in 1883 and present-day Brazzaville in 1887. The Vicariate Apostolic of the French Congo was created in 1886. In 1890 it was divided into the Vicariate of the French Lower Congo, with its center at Loango, and the Vicariate of the French Upper Congo, with its seat at Brazzaville, where Augouard became the first vicar apostolic. When the hierarchy was established in 1955, Brazzaville became the archdiocese and metropolitan see for the country.
Political instability, communist influences, tribal rivalries and hatred of foreigners were among the main problems facing the mission following the declaration of independence on Aug. 15, 1960. In 1965 all Catholic schools not for the purpose of exclusive training in the faith were made the property of the state. In the 1980s, under a strong Marxist government, political life stabilized, and ties with France remained established. However, in 1990 an agreement was reached to establish a multiparty government. Indicative of the esteem in which Church leaders were held within both society at large and the political realm, Owando Bishop Ernest Kombo was asked to oversee the nation's parliamentary elections in 1992. The outcome was an unstable coalition government, and the results of the new elections held in 1993 were disputed. Violence between competing political factions
escalated during the mid-1990s, resulting in an Angola-backed military coup by Sassou-Nguesso, who returned to his former office. During outbreaks of fighting both before and after the coup, Congolese bishops issued repeated appeals for peace and denied accusations that they had aided efforts to unseat the new president. The Marxist government continued to extend freedom of religion to Congolese through 2000, and a military peace between Sassou-Nguesso and rebel factions was signed in November of 1999. Over 500,000 Congolese were estimated to be in hiding prior to the treaty. In a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 2001, the pope praised the bishops for making "your voices heard, calling for peace and reconciliation."
By 2000 there were 126 parishes tended by 185 diocesan and 89 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 50 brothers and 270 sisters, many of whom assisted in running the country's 13 primary and two secondary schools, as the government began to return schools confiscated in 1965 to the Church. Also demanding the attention of the Church was the continuing toll taken by HIV/AIDS; by 2000 the life expectancy for a Congolese was 47 years. Among the country's non-Christian population, many were followers of Kimbanguism,
a syncretist religion based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bibliography: j. bouchaud, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al., (Paris 1912—) 13:450–455. Bilan du Monde, 2:261–264. Annuario Pontificio, (1965) 74, 156, 341. For additional bibliography, see africa.