Roman Catholic missionaries were amongst the most important explorers during the European Age of Discovery, venturing where no others would dare in the hope of inculcating ‘primitive heathens’ into their all-powerful church. Today such missionaries receive little attention yet they remain active nonetheless, seeking not only to spread Christian doctrine across the globe but also to translate bibles into indigenous languages in an attempt to create a more uniform Christian teaching within ethnically-diverse states.
A good case in point is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Accurate statistics are hard to come by in this vast and war-torn nation, although it is possible that up to 80% of the population identifies itself as Catholic. Either way, this branch of the Church certainly makes up the overwhelming majority.
The Kingdom of Kongo (as the western part of the DRC was then known) was one of the first states in the African interior exposed to the proselytizing missionaries of Europe. Diogo Cao – the famed Portuguese navigator – first reached the Congo River in 1482 and on a subsequent voyage in 1485 he is recorded to have penetrated deep inland and met with the Manisono, the chief adviser to the King (the Manicongo). Several African natives accompanied the return voyage to Lisbon, on which Cao died.
In 1490-91 another voyage set sail for the Kongo with the stated purpose of converting the natives to Christianity. Much historical debate remains over which Catholic order undertook the mission. Contemporary chroniclers suggest it was the Franciscans, although subsequent claims have been made for both the Dominicans and the Order of St John the Evangelist taking the lead. Either way, the mission was remarkably successful. The Manisono was converted, along with several provincial chieftains, and it was not long before the Manicongo himself had taken the cross, being christened Joao in honour of the Portuguese king.
There is a paucity of first-hand sources for this period, as one might expect. However, the ease with which the Manicongo and his people were converted has been attributed by some to the belief that several friars remained in Kongo after Cao’s second voyage. Either that, or the natives that were returned to Portugal were instructed in the European tongue and were therefore well-placed to translate the necessary sacraments – with their supposed merits – to their kinsmen.
It was certainly one of the more successful of the European missionary ventures and Catholicism has retained a presence in the Congo region ever since, with a variety of orders picking up the mantle of whoever first converted the natives.
Of course despite this, animist and other traditional forms of religion have persisted, sometimes cloaked within the guise of Christianity. This explains why the Congo mission has never ended. During Belgian colonial administration great efforts were made to translate the bible into the plethora of native languages that existed across the country, making a simultaneous push to improve literacy rates and thus help the proliferation of Christian doctrine.
One persistent problem for the Christians – in their purest form – is that their religion is historically associated with conquest and colonisation. Therefore, traditional practices – such as the worshiping of ‘false idols, shamanism, spiritual healing and even human sacrifice – have persisted in certain provinces.
As such the role of the missionaries – at least as far as the Church is concerned – will never end. Their duties have taken on a more educational and humanitarian aspect over the past century, rather than simply existing to swell the numbers in the Christian ranks and to eradicate ‘pagan’ beliefs.
It is perhaps a more respectable role that these ‘soldiers of God’ now play, though no doubt examples remain of over-interfering, self-serving proponents of the faith. It also demonstrates the sheer absurdity of the early Catholic missions. They had a goal – and a staunch belief – that they would convert all in their path, smash the heathens and find long-lost Christian tribes dwelling deep within the interior of undiscovered states.
Presumably such sentiments have long been forgotten…and we move into a new age of the Christian mission.
Whatever your views on Christianity, these people have taken a central role in history. Let us hope that they continue to do so.
Boehrer, G.C.A, ‘The Franciscans and Portuguese Colonization in Africa and the Atlantic Islands, 1415-1499, Academy of American Franciscan History (Jan, 1955)