The Gospel in Sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Egidio Picucci

The Gospel in Sub-Saharan Africa

Egidio Picucci

Capuchin missionaries' evangelization efforts throughout history

A fundamental figure in the evangelization of Sub-Saharan Africa is without doubt Dom Afonso I, a convinced, unwavering Catholic, a man of irreproachable conduct, a shrewd and farsighted politician, in spite of the fact that he lived in a period that was particularly difficult for his country. The territory now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was discovered in 1482/83 by Diogo Cão, who moored his fleet at the mouth of the Rio Poderoso, or Rio do Padrão, (later called the River Congo). During his long reign (1506-1542), Afonso pledged himself to the diffusion of Christianity, begun in 1490 by an entirely Portuguese group of Diocesan, Dominican and Franciscan priests, by regular tertiaries and loios (Canons Regular of Saint John the Evangelist), an evangelization which was compromised at a certain point by the arrival of Christians coming from the island of São Tomé, ex-prisoners who began a trade which was far from honest, distancing from the faith those good Congolese who had received Baptism.

Jesuit missionaries, discalced Carmelites and Dominicans shored up the general moral relaxation, but the slave trade and the undue interference of the Portuguese in the mission impelled King Alvaro II (1587-1614) to ask the Holy See to remove his kingdom from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese missions, and to transform it into an Apostolic Prefecture under the direction of the Capuchins.

The willingness of these religious came up against the squabbles between the crowns of Spain and Portugal, delaying their departure. The first missionaries, led by Fr. Bonaventura da Alessano, arrived at the mouth of the Rio Poderoso in May 1645 in a Spanish ship which was attacked the following day by a Dutch sailing ship. The danger was great; the hero of the moment who managed to save the situation was Fra Francisco de Pamplona, an ex-Field Marshal and Captain General in Catalonia under King Philip III: having taken command of the ship, he succeeded in coming alongside at Pinda and disembarking some of the religious. Two days later the other missionaries were able to land. The superior had them leave their supplies on board in order to begin their work of evangelizing "in the name and on the basis of Holy Poverty, and Divine Providence".

The beginnings were more than promising, so much so that a request was sent for other missionaries with whom the Prefecture Apostolic of the Congo at Luanda was set up, which would remain active until 1835. As the years passed, however, various instances of incomprehension arose, complicated by the political situation and by the untimely zeal of some of the missionaries, to the point where King Dom Garcia II confiscated the goods of the religious, accused them of plotting against him, and intercepted their correspondence, their supplies and even their communications with Rome.

The storm died down, but did not come to an end. In fact, after the long reign of the bloody Queen Ana Njinga, an apostate returned to the Faith after conversion, the expulsion of the missionaries and their substitution with solely Portuguese religious was called for. The story ended with the advice to allow the Capuchins to die a "natural death", both in the Kingdom of Congo and in that of Angola. In reality they were simply ignorant victims of the resentment of the Portuguese towards the presumed interference of Rome in the rights of patronage (Patronato Real).

A war between King Antonio I with the Portuguese, during which Fr. Francesco da San Salvador, a friend of the king, died, "brought further trials and disorientation to the Capuchins".

"The Congo plunged into political, administrative and economic chaos. The Jesuits withdrew, the Capuchins decreased in number and were forced to adopt a prudent silence, in order to avoid being accused of partisanship. To all this was added a progressive decline in the number of missionaries and the anti-clerical policies of the Marquis of Pombal, who was determined to suppress the missions in the Congo and in Angola.

The last missionary in the two Kingdoms, Fr. Bernardo da Burgio, was sent home on 19 May 1835. With him the missionary experience of the Capuchins in the two Kingdoms came to an end. It had lasted for 190 years.

In order to understand such a complicated history, certain points must be taken into consideration: the events, the price to be paid and the hinterland on which the "new mission" of the Capuchins in Angola would later be born. These events were characterized by the missionary ardour of the generation of Capuchins of the first half of the sixteen hundreds, and by the  interference of first the Spanish, then the Portuguese Protectorates. The missionaries did their utmost to avoid any kind of protectionism which might he seen as an instrumentum regni, but it cannot be denied that someone paid for aid with a certain conniving silence. And it was "paid for" at a very high price, with the life of too many missionaries.

Although it is impossible to give exact figures, these numbers can be quoted: in the six expeditions, which took place between 1645 and 1666/68, out of the 434 Capuchins who came on mission, 228 died. More than half, enough to justify an expression that has entered into the history of missionary work: the Congo, Cemetery of the Capuchins.

In the period of the missio antiqua, the Capuchins carried out a capillary apostolate, leading an irreproachable life of itinerant preaching, behaviour which drew the admiration of the authorities and the veneration of the masses. Even if their frequent alternation did not favour the birth and consolidation of a robust and profound Catholicism, it did create a vast and fertile one.

The missionaries were acquainted only with the lexicon and rituals of European Catholicism, so at the beginning it was not clear to them what should be eradicated and what transformed. But they gradually progressed to a closer study of the local populace, to esteem them, to the "discretion of the spirit", as Fr. Bernardino Ignazio da Asti wrote in 1747, which consisted in "not setting up Chairs of Philosophy and Theology", but in understanding the traditional culture and structures, in respecting and promoting them. To this end they opened schools, learned languages, composed grammars and dictionaries, prepared catechisms and catechists and wrote fundamental reports for the understanding of the two Kingdoms.

The Capuchins returned to Angola on 13 March 1948 with religious from the Province of Venice, invited by Archbishop Moisés Alves de Pinho of Luanda, who entrusted to their care a parish in the capital and the missions within Camahatela and Damba, where they were received "with wild enthusiasm". A good sign for the linking of the new undertaking with the missio of the century before. In 60 years of presence, they have accompanied the Church in the passage from a colony to Independence, (1975), and assisted the entire population during the bitter civil war between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, paying personally the price for fulfilling their apostolate.

In diverse circumstances, five missionaries have been killed: Fr. Lazzaro Graziani, Fr. Piergiovanni Filippi, Fr. Picrgiorgio Cavedon, Fr. Giuseppe Moretto, Fr. Amedeo Giuliati, and the young seminarian Abraão. Bishop Afonso Nteka, the first Bishop of the renewed Diocese of Mbanza, Congo, who died in a plane crash on his way back from the former Zaire, where he had gone to invite three hundred thousand co-nationals to return to Angola, and Fr. Carlantonio Pastorella, hit by an army lorry while he was driving back to the mission with a load of supplies for the poor, were two indirect victims of the war. The missionaries lost another victim after the end of the war, with the death in a plane crash of Fr. Giorgio Zulianello. In proportion, the missio nova has cost more lives than the antiqua.

It would take too long to enumerate the initiatives and the works of promotion and development founded by the Venetian Capuchins (who were joined in 1954 by a number of Portuguese confreres): it is enough to say that, working tirelessly towards the implantatio ordinis, in 60 years they have succeeded in forming a strong group of local religious, making it possible to erect first the Custody (March 1983) and then the Vice Province (3 April 1988).

Today this comprises 84 religious (66 Angolans, 14 Italians, 4 Portuguese) among them six Bishops (three indigenous, one Italian, two Portuguese). The present directive body is composed exclusively of local religious, a prelude to the constitution of an autonomous Province, which will be the Order's fourth on the continent of Africa.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 April 2009, page 10

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