Pope Francis greets the crowd at the start of a meeting with young people and catechists in Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 2, 2023. Riding in the popemobile is Congolese Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) — The hands that will save Congo and build a future worthy of its people belong to the Congolese people, to each one of them, but especially the young, Pope Francis said.
The pope met Feb. 2 with 65,000 screaming, singing, swaying young people in Kinshasa’s Martyrs’ Stadium, a soccer stadium named to honor four politicians hanged there in 1966 by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The country still struggles to find stability, peace and a way to ensure that its vast store of natural resources benefit the Congolese people and not primarily foreign governments or the multinational corporations that extract the minerals and gems and leave behind little more than a scarred earth.
Pope Francis asked people in the crowd to open their hands and look at their palms.
“God has placed the gift of life, the future of society and the future of this great country in those hands of yours,” he said. “No one has hands just like yours, and that is a sign that you are a unique, unrepeatable and incomparable treasure. No one in history can replace you.”
Even in a very complicated political and social situation, where poverty and violence literally take lives every day, Pope Francis told the young people, “Ask yourself, what are my hands for? For building up or for tearing down, for giving or for grabbing, for loving or for hating? Notice how you can squeeze your hand, closing it to make a fist. Or you can open it, to offer it to God and to others.”
“Young people, you who dream of a different future, from your hands, tomorrow can be born,” he said; “from your hands, peace so lacking in this world can at last come about.”
UNICEF has estimated that 67% of Congo’s population is under the age of 25.
David Bode Nguamba, chosen to speak to the pope on behalf of the young people, told him their lives are challenged by war and violence, which disrupts education and sometimes includes forced conscription into armed militias, unemployment and tensions, even hatred, between ethnic groups.
“The dowry system sometimes risks becoming the buying and selling of women for the economic benefit of her family,” he said. “Young women are culturally discriminated against even though often they are the ones who carry the weight of their families.”
People cheer before the start of Pope Francis’ meeting with young people and catechists in Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 2, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis peppered his speech with ad-libbed advice — “When you are discouraged, pick up the Bible and look at Jesus; he will give you strength” — and prods meant to rouse a crowd that already was excited. A veritable roar followed his request to “repeat after me: Stop the spread of corruption!”
Hands also must be used for prayer and healing, he said.
“Dear friends, to create a new future we need to give and receive forgiveness,” the pope told them. “That is what Christians do: they do not merely love those who love them, but they choose to halt the spiral of personal and tribal vendettas with forgiveness.”
Pope Francis told the catechists that they, too, have an important role in building up the Congolese Catholic community and the whole society.
According to Vatican statistics, close to 77,000 catechists serve the church in Congo. Bishop Timothée Bodika Mansiyai of Kikwit, president of the bishops’ commission for laity, told Pope Francis that in the cities the catechists instruct young people and prepare them for the sacraments, but in villages without priests, they lead Catholic communities.
Olivier Buluza Onkon, speaking on behalf of the catechists, said that in Congo and throughout Africa whether the life of faith is transmitted or blocked depends, “in large part, on the witness, zeal and preparation of catechists.”
“It is a beautiful thing to serve others, to care for them, to do something without expecting anything in return, as God does with us,” the pope said. “I would like to thank you, dear catechists: for so many communities, you are as vital as water; always help them to grow by the integrity of your prayer and your service. To serve is not to sit idly by; it is to get up and go.”
The choice to open one’s hands in service of God and neighbor is as old as humanity, the pope told the crowd.
“All of you, together, leave behind the pessimism that paralyzes,” he pleaded. “The Democratic Republic of Congo expects from your hands a different future, for that future is in your hands.”