A Forgotten African Catholic Kingdom

A year before Columbus discovered America, the king of Kongo led his people to Christianity.

The ruins of the oldest cathedral in sub-Saharan Africa

Kongo’s Christianity did not break completely with its older religious tradition. The Kongo High God, Nzambi a Mpungu, became identical to the Christian God, and thanks to a number of apparitions and miracles, many local territorial deities became incorporated into Catholic saints.

The ancestors, venerated as active spiritual forces in Kongo as everywhere in Africa, were given a special place in the religion, and All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) was dedicated to them. On that day, Kongolese gathered at the graves of their family ancestors, kept an all-night vigil with lighted candles and prayed for them. In the morning, All Souls’ Day, they heard Mass.

Even magical charms, physical items into which spiritual forces were compelled or cajoled to enter, were integrated. Such charms were called nkisi in Kikongo, the national language, and religious literature in Kikongo used the term or variants of it to mean “holy” so that the Bible was nkanda wakisi (either holy book or charm in book form, depending on how you choose to translate it), and a church was nzo wakisi (holy house or charm in the form of a house). Christian priests, like their traditional religious counterparts, were called nganga.

Not everyone was happy with this arrangement. When the Portuguese persuaded the Vatican to give them the right to appoint bishops to Kongo’s church, the bishops, always Portuguese, refused to ordain enough Kongolese priests to run the church. The kings of Kongo appealed to Rome and, in a compromise, agreed to allow the functions usually performed by parish priests to be done by Capuchin missionaries, mostly from Italy, a country considered neutral in Europe. These priests were militant followers of the Counter-Reformation, a movement within the Catholic Church dedicated to wiping out, among other things, the folk Christianity that did not fit into their revised vision of the Christian religion.

These Capuchin priests took their campaign with them to Kongo and literally made war on the practices of Kongo associated with the traditional religion. They wrote lurid accounts describing these practices as diabolical and burned all manner of “idols.” But they made little impact on the religion.

When Kongo was deprived of clergy by the Portuguese bishops, they turned to the laity, and noblemen, educated in the country’s schools, served as the prime interpreters and teachers of religion. These mestres de escola, as they were called in the official Portuguese documents of Kongo, continued the tradition, and the Capuchins were relegated to performing the sacraments, since these could be done only by priests. Capuchins wrote in their reports of performing tens of thousands of baptisms and thousands of marriages and confessions during grueling tours of parishes. They taught and they preached, but they could not force the religion to change.