Updated February 1, 2023 at 2:52 p.m. EST|Published February 1, 2023 at 5:19 a.m. EST
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The schools were closed, and most work was called off, meaning all the chaotic roads in this megacity led only to one place Wednesday: a domestic airport, with a temporary stage and then a vast field, where hundreds of thousands were arriving, some before sunrise.
“I’m here just to catch a glimpse of him,” said Erick Kwele, a 53-year-old civil servant, though from where he stood in the field, Pope Francis would be no larger than a fingernail.
Francis’s morning Mass, his first public event in a six-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then South Sudan, led to an outpouring both celebratory and escapist, as one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities had the chance to welcome a popular pope. Authorities put the crowd at more than 1 million.
Even before Francis arrived, the field was a spectacle of scale and energy: so many young people, so much bass-heavy music, crowds of dancing children, roaring choirs. Some said they’d set their alarms for 3 or 4 a.m. just to negotiate traffic and secure a spot for the 9:30 ceremony. Still others said they’d come from the city’s sprawling outskirts, using the omnipresent yellow vans — inevitably dented and overloaded, sagging with weight, people hanging off the sides. Kwele said that in his neighborhood, some of the poorest people had to travel for miles on foot.
Kinshasans say that sort of hustle is required for daily survival in a city typified by mismanagement and meager resources. But the hustle is also a civic point of pride.
“People will do anything they can to get beyond their difficulties,” Kwele said.
Congo is hosting Francis for three days, andthe nation makes a fair emblem for so much of Africa’s potential, its problems and its importance to the Catholic Church. The country is roughly the size of Western Europe, with all the complexities to match — something quite apparent Wednesday, when Francis followed his joyous Mass by meeting with victims of violence who’d traveled from the country’s east.
But the pope is staying solely in Kinshasa, a city that is renowned for its unchecked growth — a 35-fold increase in population since the 1960s — and that figures to only keep growing. By 2100, it is expected to have 60 million people, compared with 15 million now. For a Catholic faith that is losing followers in the West, Africa is emerging as Christianity’s new center.
Kinshasa, so far, hasn’t been able to manage that growth. Its infrastructure largely dates back decades. Belgium’s devastating colonialist rule gave way to decades of turbulent independence, with periods of autocracy, violence and corruption. The city is short on planning, good roads, rail lines, electricity and running water. Jobs are disproportionately situated in a sliver near the center, and given the spread of new slums — 10, 15 miles away — many Kinshasans spend hours a day in crammed vehicles, braving potholes, heat, fumes and shakedowns.
An elite class lives in an area along the Congo River with embassies and international hotels, including one hosting the Vatican’s press delegation, where a club sandwich costs $29. But most in Congo live on less than $2 a day.
The inequities were visible even at Wednesday’s Mass, where the vast majority of people were spread out in fields, with no shade and no seats, while VIPs reclined on gold-colored padded seats.
“I’m just resting before the Mass begins,” said Keto Esperence, 64, who was lying on a tarp in a field two hours before Francis arrived. She said she woke up at 3 a.m. and walked a small part of the way from her home. She said her energy would return for the Mass.
“You’ll see,” said Esperence, who owns a pharmacy. “We’ll be staying here until the night if we have to.”
Francis, forced to cancel a 2022 trip to Congo and South Sudan because of knee pain, was greeted by roars as he arrived at the airport in the back of a pickup truck retrofitted as a “popemobile.” He cruised through the crowds, offering gentle waves before being taken toward the stage, where he joined Congo’s bishops and led the Mass. His homily nodded again and again to the convulsions of violence in Congo’s east, where the government is battling rebels in a conflict imbued with ethnic tensions that also involves Rwanda.
“We need to believe that we Christians are called to cooperate with everyone, to break the cycle of violence, to dismantle the machinations of hatred,” Francis said.
He said it was the Lord’s message to “lay down your arms.”
Later in the day, Francis trained his focus more directly on the conflagration, meeting with victims of violence from the eastern part of the country. The conflict, which has intensified in recent months, forced Francis to back out of a planned stop in Goma, a major city in Congo’s east that is within striking distance of resurgent rebels.
Attacks by a convergence of armed groups, most notably M23, have displaced hundreds of thousands, while dramatically escalating tensions between Congo and neighboring Rwanda — which Congo accuses of supporting the rebels. The International Crisis Group says the “risk of prolonged conflict” between Congo and Rwanda is now greater than at any time since the early 2000s, the period of a disastrous war that dragged in nine countries and left several million people dead.
Before speaking, Francis heard astonishing testimonies from a sampling of the several dozen victims who’d traveled to meet him. One boy spoke about how his father was killed in front of him, “cut into pieces.” Some held up their arms, hands severed. One girl talked about being raped several times a day for 19 months by a rebel commander and then giving birth to twins, whom she’d brought to Kinshasa. Those giving testimony knelt before Francis, who laid his hands upon them, as well as the twins.
When it was Francis’s turn to speak, he ticked off the names of specific towns in eastern Congo that “the international media hardly ever mention.”
“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” Francis said. “To every family that grieves or is displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to the survivors of sexual violence and to every injured child and adult, I say: I am with you.”
He proposed that people not only reject violence but also aspire to contend with its roots, pushing back against feelings such as greed and resentment. Doing so does not mean “granting immunity or condoning atrocities,” the pope said.
“What is asked of us, in the name of peace, in the name of the God of peace, is to demilitarize our hearts — to remove all venom, reject hatred, defuse greed, erase bitterness,” Francis said. “Saying no to all these things may seem like weakness, yet in fact it sets us free, for it gives us peace.”