At age 60, he's likely to be a strong voice in the Church for years to come.
He is a staunch defender of the rule of law in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Pope Francis has just appointed him to his council of cardinal advisors. By joining the “C7” on October 15, Fridolin Cardinal Ambongo Besungu, archbishop of Kinshasa, becomes, at only 60 years of age, an important figure in the landscape of the government of the Universal Church.
The appointment of the Congolese archbishop is a clear sign of the Argentinean pontiff’s confidence in a man who tirelessly carries the voice of his people scarred by misery. It’s also undoubtedly due to Rome’s desire to maintain a certain balance within this circle of cardinals, with representatives from the four corners of the world. The only African and the only French-speaking person to be present, Cardinal Abongo is in fact filling the post left vacant by his predecessor as archbishop of Kinshasa, Cardinal Monsengwo, since his retirement in 2018.
The rise of this member of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin has gained momentum over the past three years. Appointed bishop in 2004 by John Paul II at the age of 44, he became involved in the mid-2010s in the “Justice and Peace” commission of the Congolese Episcopal Conference.
At the beginning of 2018, he was called to be Coadjutor Bishop of Kinshasa in order to support Cardinal Monsengwo, then close to retirement, and to prepare to take over from him. In November 2018, he was installed as archbishop of the capital. One year later, Pope Francis raised him to the dignity of cardinal in the consistory of October 2019. He then expressed his “surprise” and considered the pope’s decision as an encouragement from the Church for him to continue his mission as a pastor who “gives voice to a people without voice.”
“Congo has fallen into the hands of brigands.”
This son of a rubber tree farmer made questions of justice his bailiwick very early on. In a country marked by social, economic and ecological misery, the moral theologian distinguished himself by his fight against a political caste which, together with international economic powers, holds captive the country’s natural wealth. “Congo has fallen into the hands of brigands,” he denounced during the Night of the Witnesses 2019, organized by Aid to the Church in Need in Paris.
Rather than taking side of the “predators” who exploit the country, “the Church has chosen to put itself on the side of its people,” continued the cardinal, in line with the thought of Pope Francis. It’s a discourse that’s being put into practice, since the Catholic Church in Congo is making up for the shortcomings of the State. Half of the country’s health and educational structures are managed by the Catholic Church.
A solid opponent of the Kabila regime
A strong opponent of the regime of Kabila, who was the President of Congo from 2001 to 2019, Cardinal Abongo threw himself into the battle for a democratic transition in the 2019 elections—in vain. The archbishop condemned a “denial of truth” following a ballot that led to the election of Felix Tshisekedi under dubious conditions.
In the aftermath of this failure of democracy, the young archbishop wrote in the prestigious French newspaper Le Figaro, defending the need for the Church to stand up in the DRC as a counter-power. “Faced with an abandoned people, left to itself, despite the abundance of the country’s wealth, the Church has behaved like a Good Samaritan who comes to the rescue of a people wounded on the roadside, a people who cry out for help.”
This image is dear to Francis who, in his last encyclical, Fratelli tutti, dedicated an entire chapter to the figure of the Good Samaritan.