“I’m here just to catch a glimpse of him,” said Erick Kwele, 53, a 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, was a glimpse into the extraordinary hustle that is necessary — even on days of celebration — in one of Africa’s fastest-growing and most mismanaged cities. That hustle, which Kinshasans see as a kind of civic spirit, is required for daily survival. But it was also part of the show Wednesday. Authorities put the crowd at more than 1 million.
Even before Francis arrived, the field was a spectacle of enormity and energy: so many young people, so much bass-heavy music, dancing children and 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 traveled to the Mass for miles on foot.
“People will do anything they can to get beyond their difficulties,” he said.
Kinshasa is hosting Francis for three days, and the city makes a fair emblem for so much of Africa’s potential, its problems, and its importance to the Catholic Church. The city is renowned for its unchecked growth — a 35-fold increase in population since the 1960s — and it 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.
But Kinshasa, so far, hasn’t been able to manage that growth. Its infrastructure largely dates back decades. A century of devastating colonialist rule has given way to 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 per 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 per day.
The inequities were visible even at the Mass on Wednesday, when the vast majority of people were spread out in the fields, with no shade and no seats, while VIPs reclined on padded seats colored gold.
“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, who was forced to cancel a 2022 trip to Congo and South Sudan because of knee pain, arrived at the airport to roars on 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.”
Alain Uaykani contributed to this report.