A loss of wages that were meager, to begin with. No further material or financial support from parishioners. Abject poverty. The Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) have had a severe impact on the Church. In addition to the support already approved by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for priests and seminarians, the pontifical foundation has now granted emergency subsistence aid to almost 70 communities of religious sisters in Bukavu, an ecclesiastical province located in the eastern part of the country, as part of a special Coronavirus project package.
On 22 June, there were 5,826 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 130 deaths in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With the arrival of the pandemic, the life of the religious sisters in Bukavu, an ecclesiastical province located in the eastern part of the country, became a veritable nightmare. Even in normal circumstances, the situation there is extremely difficult. In a region stricken by ethnic conflicts, in which life is marked by uncertainty, armed incursions by neighboring countries, kidnappings, and rape, the religious sisters eke out a living by teaching catechism and working in schools and health centers. However, the health measures imposed to protect against Coronavirus have cut them off from their supplies, making their situation extremely precarious.
Wages stopped being paid when a state of emergency was proclaimed by the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 24 March. What is more, medical workers, a group that includes many religious sisters, are compensated depending upon the number of patients they treat. However, out of fear that they will become infected with Coronavirus, the people are currently reluctant to go to the hospitals for care. This means that the religious have suffered drastic cuts or even a complete loss of income. Those religious who work in the schools depend upon the contributions towards their living expenses they normally receive from the parents of their pupils. In a time of school closings because of the Covid-19 pandemic, these contributions are also no longer forthcoming.
To ensure the survival of the religious even in the face of these hardships, ACN has approved aid for 69 communities of sisters from six different congregations serving in the six dioceses of the ecclesiastical province of Bukavu in response to a call for help from François-Xavier Maroy, Archbishop of Bukavu. The €120,000 donated by the foundation will benefit a total of 464 religious sisters.
“It is our duty to give them comfort in the face of these privations, a comfort that they will cause to multiply many times over to benefit those who have even less than they themselves,” explained Christine du Coudray, head of the section for ACN projects in the country. “While all of the non-governmental organizations have fled because of the ongoing conflict, the Church and in particular the religious are still there, close to the most severely disadvantaged groups, like good souls, unrecognized but fully in the spirit of Mother Teresa!” the head of the section continued before adding, “This conflict has been smoldering for 20 years; how often have I visited them after yet another attack by rival gangs, after they became victims of rape and massacres that spared no one, after they survived earthquakes, landslides or awe-inspiring floods, as has just happened in Uvira [located more than 100 km south of Bukavu]; catastrophes that obliterate everything in their wake and cut a wide swathe of destruction.”
The aid for the religious sisters is one more act of ACN support. Early in the crisis, the charity approved Mass stipends for priests serving in various dioceses across the country. The priests are also dealing with severe financial difficulties. Without Sunday collections or the other sources of income that are no longer available to them because of the suspension of pastoral and community work, many priests can neither earn a living on their own nor carry out their pastoral work. “In normal times, the faithful support the priests with food and other donations,” the bishop of the diocese of Mbuji-Mayi, located at the center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explained and then continued, “Now that their sheep all have to stay at home because of the lockdown, all of a sudden, everyone’s life is much more difficult than it was before because the majority of the people are affected by the very high unemployment rate (almost 96%) and are just somehow muddling through from one day to the next.” In a letter to ACN, Bishop Bernard-Emmanuel Kasanda expressed his gratitude that, at the beginning of the crisis, the organization had donated numerous Mass stipends to support the 289 priests and religious of his diocese.
A large number of Mass stipends have also benefited 25 priests of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Workers. The stipends truly are “relief”, wrote one of the beneficiaries, Father Alain Mwila Wa Ilunga, who decided to share the financial aid “with the poorest of the poor and the destitute sick so that they may have daily bread to eat.” The novice master of the order, Father Clément Mwehu Muteba, is also pleased to have received financial aid. He will use it for petrol so that he can carry out his apostolate at the chapel he has been assigned. Thanks to the Mass stipends, he can also “buy some sheets of paper, which are necessary to teach the young people” he works within Lubumbashi in the province of Upper Katanga.
Further beneficiaries of the Mass stipends were 40 priests in the diocese of Kilwa-Kasenga, which is located in the eastern part of the country. The stipends “secure our livelihood and safeguard the lives of thousands of believers who, through our humble efforts, hear the Holy Word of God and can receive the sacraments,” explained Father André Mpundu, who is delighted that the aid he received has enabled him to carry out his pastoral duties. Father Mpundu is vicar in the parish of the Blessed Anuarita in Kasenga. He reported that an 80-year-old former sacristan recently thanked him for his visit (a visit during which measures were of course taken to protect health). She confided in him, “A nurse regularly comes to visit me to treat my rheumatism, but when you visit me, Father, you who come with Christ, so that I may receive Holy Communion, my joy is vast and boundless.” “We often hear these and similar sentiments,” the priest joyfully reported. He continues to visit the sick, the elderly, and those who are lonely, and said in conclusion, “This is very encouraging for my service as a priest.”