Exclusive interview with the Cardinal Archbishop of Bangui in Central African Republic
Pope Francis visited Central African Republic in November 2015, where he officially opened the first « holy door » for the Jubilee of Mercy. The country was in the grips of a civil war that continues to this day.
A year after the papal visit, the pope named Dieudonné Nzapalainga, archbishop of CAR’s capital of Bangui, a cardinal.
The 53-year-old, who has been spiritual leader of Catholics in Bangui since 2009, remains the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.
In his 11 years at the helm of the archdiocese, Cardinal Nzapalainga has had to deal with war, famine, displaced persons and refugees.
And, as he told La Croix‘s Lucie Sarr, now he and his people are facing the COVID-19 pandemic….
La Croix: In the Central African Republic, and more precisely in the diocese of Bangui, what measures have been taken to combat the coronavirus?
Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga: The coronavirus is a pandemic that affects many countries, including the Central African Republic where, on March 14, we had our first case.
The government published measures to prevent the contagion, including closing bars, closing schools and universities and calling for social distancing measures, especially in the context of funerals, which are now held in a restricted circle.
The health authorities have also called for regular hand washing with soap and water and for a cessation of hand shaking and hugging.
The Church, which is an entity within the State, has taken these measures into account, because this concerns the life of our faithful.
We don’t want to be a hotbed of coronavirus transmission, not to mention death. Christ came to give us life, not death.
That is why we have stopped the public Eucharistic celebrations which attract a lot of people and which often require contact.
We asked the priests to celebrate Mass in the parishes in the name of the entire community.
To all those who have just returned from a trip, priests, religious, lay people, we asked them to quarantine themselves out of prudence because the first case of coronavirus was a priest.
A day of prayer was organized by the Platform of Religious Confessions on April 4, what was it about?
As we do at every important moment in the history of the country, we, members of the Platform of Religious Denominations, decided to meet from the very beginning of the epidemic.
We said to each other that the role of the believer is to sanctify their relationship with God and neighbor to the protection of all humanity.
Otherwise, whatever happens breaks the bond between the Creator and ourselves.
We decided to invite all our believers to a day of fasting or prayer on April 4th.
On that day, imams spoke about fasting in the Koran and pastors in the Bible.
All Central Africans – through, in particular, the radio and television stations that were mobilized – listened to Koranic verses and biblical passages. We took communion through prayer.
We also invited the President of the Republic [Faustin-Archange Touadéra], who said a prayer, as well as the representative of the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic [Mankeur Ndiaye], who delivered a message of peace.
Likewise, the doctor in charge of the Institut Pasteur spoke to explain the origin of the coronavirus. So, we combined faith and science that day to fight the coronavirus.
The cessation of public liturgical celebrations has resulted in financial difficulties in some African dioceses. Is this the case in Bangui?
Yes, the same problem arises here.
Today [Thursday, April 23] I am speaking to you and I have just come from a meeting with all the parish priests of the diocese.
Three-quarters of them are already having problems because most of our parishes live off the generosity of Christians, many of whom have been called home and cannot go to church.
It is, therefore, difficult to mobilize them or to ask for their contribution to the life of their parish.
I have appealed to Christians, asking them if they can support their « brothers » so that they can continue to live. But not all the faithful can contribute even in normal times; in times of crisis it is, therefore, worse.
On the other hand, there are problems related to personnel expenses.
This month, some facilities will try to pay their staff, but if next month activities do not resume, it will be difficult.
The crisis has also allowed us to discover new forms of creativity.
Since the public liturgical celebrations have been suspended, Christians are following Mass every Sunday and each week on the radio. We ring the bells every morning, not to invite people to go to church, but rather to follow Mass on the radio.
Masses are said by different priests, and on Sundays, as a father, I preach.
These Masses create a strong bond between the faithful.
The atmosphere is much the same as a football match, with Christians fervently following, applauding or shouting during the homily.
During a homily, for example, I had asked those in the government if they wanted to adopt a measure of confinement, to study the question well with anthropologists and sociologists, because most Central Africans live from day to day through small informal jobs.
We do not want people to die of hunger before they even get the coronavirus.