As Pope Benedict XVI welcomed Bishops from the Democratic Republic of Congo today, he told them that despite widespread violence in that country, the continued spread of evangelization and strengthening of Christian communities are the key to liberation and true freedom.
He particularly challenged the bishops to build up the priests and religious under their charge and strengthen lay Christian communities.
The prelates, all part of the Episcopal Conference of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in Rome for their regular "ad limina" visits.
The Holy Father began by pointing out that bloody conflicts which have spread throughout Congo over recent years have "deep scars left in people's memory." He likewise praised the Congolese bishops for calling on local leaders "to demonstrate their responsibility and courage, so that people may live in peace and security," and encouraged them to "accompany the progress currently being made."
During the address, he frequently visited the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Africa," which celebrated its tenth birthday in 2005.
"In calling that synodal assembly," Benedict said, "John Paul II wished to promote an organic form of pastoral solidarity for the African continent, so that the Church can bring a credible message of faith, hope and charity to all men and women of good will, and give a new missionary impulse to particular Churches."
He also pointed out that some Congolese dioceses are celebrating 100 years of evangelization, marking what he called an apt occasion "to renew the apostolic enthusiasm of pastors and faithful," and for "moral, spiritual and material reconstruction to unite communities into one family, a sign of fraternity for your contemporaries."
Continuing his address, Pope Benedict told the bishops: "You have highlighted the need to work for a profound evangelization of the faithful.”
He said that “The living and vibrant ecclesiastical communities in all your dioceses well reflect this 'hands-on' evangelization which makes the faithful ever more mature in their faith, in a spirit of evangelical fraternity that brings them to reflect together on the various aspects of ecclesiastical life.”
“These communities”, he pointed out “also constitute a valuable bulwark against the onslaught of sects, which exploit the credulity of the faithful and lead them astray by proposing a false vision of salvation and of the Gospel, and loose morals."
The Pope went on to encourage "the permanent formation of the leaders of these communities, especially of catechists," and the importance that such groups "not only welcome the Gospel of Christ, but that they bear witness to Him before human beings.”
“In these times that are so important for the life of your country,” he said, “the lay faithful must be reminded of the urgent need to begin the renewal of the temporal world, calling them to 'bring to bear upon the social fabric an influence aimed at changing not only ways of thinking but also the very structures of society, so that they will better reflect God's plan for the human family'."
The Pope also expressed his gratitude for the priests and the male and female religious who work throughout the African continent.
"I am aware," he said, "of the difficult conditions in which many of them exercise their mission," and gave thanks for their "frequently heroic service."
Likewise, he called on the bishops to maintain "the excellence of the moral and spiritual life of priests, particularly reminding them of the unique bond that ties the priest to Christ, of which priestly celibacy, lived in perfect chastity, is an expression of profundity and vitality."
Benedict also told the group; "continue to develop the bonds of communion with your diocesan presbyterium," bearing in mind the fact that in the country "long-term conflicts have sometimes had negative repercussions on the unity of the presbyterium, favoring tribalism and power struggles, bringing fateful consequences for the construction of the Body of Christ and confusion to the faithful."
"I exhort you all”, he continued, “to rediscover the deep-rooted fraternity that is particular to priests." He also challenged the bishops to encourage their priests "to exercise fraternal charity, particularly by offering them certain forms of communal life, in order to help them grow in sanctity and in faithfulness to their vocation and mission, and in full communion with you bishops."
Pope Benedict concluded his time with the prelates by inviting them “to hope.”
“For more than a century”, he said, “the Good News has been announced in your land. ... May your communities, supported by the witnesses to the faith in your country - especially Blesseds Marie-Clementine Anuarite Nengapeta and Isidore Bakanja - be prophetic signs of a humanity renewed in Christ, a humanity liberated from rancor and fear!"