Talk from Fr. John Kirwan, missionary in Democratic Republic of Congo

On 22 November 2016 Fr. John Kirwan, Mill Hill Missionary, gave a talk to the community about his life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Fr. John Kirwan

Fr. John Kirwan

Fr. John, born on the Wirral of a Liverpool family, has been visiting Pluscarden regularly since 1958. He has been a Pluscarden oblate since 1962. He went to the Mill Hill Junior seminary at the age of 13, and from there went on to be ordained as a Missionary Priest. After pastoral work in Uganda and  theological studies in Paris, he taught theology, firstly in Nairobi, Kenya, and then to young Mill Hill students in Europe preparing to become missionaries; but since 1980 he has been stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fr. John likes visiting the monastery, whenever he is home on leave, and the brethren like to see him, and to listen to him speaking, because he helps us keep our vision broad, and not to forget in our prayer the work of missionaries, and the many poor people in our world whom the media easily forget.

A digest of Fr. John's talk is given below:


The “Democratic Republic of Congo” is a far cry from Scotland’s Morayshire Vale of St Andrew – especially when the DRC’s hot and humid rain forest is remembered in a freezing winter at Pluscarden Abbey. But more striking than that is the contrast of atmosphere. Pluscarden is renowned deservedly for its Peace; the DRC, deservedly, is not! I am anxious to get back to my beloved troubled Congo. But I am revelling in the Benedictine Pax here; “In loco isto dabo pacem (In this place I will give Peace)” …. and I will get the monks’ powerful prayers for the DRC into the bargain too. In this Peace I am still grateful for the Mission I have been privileged to be sent on. I was encouraged here in Pluscarden many years ago to respond to that “foreign missionary” call, and have been supported ever since. What we have in common, in a contemplative life in northern Scotland or in an active ministry in ‘the Heart of Darkest Africa’, is that basic truth: ‘Nil carius Christo’ - Christ and His Love is more important than anything else.

This Congo, the old Belgian Congo, is 80 times the size of Belgium; our diocese of Basankusu just over twice the size of Belgium. I have been active as a Mill Hill Missionary there since 1980, but he MHMs have been in this area since 1905. A lot was accomplished with up to 60 feet-on-the-ground missionaries there at the same time. When I arrived there were nearly 40. But at present only 3!! However, our general council are planning to send more …. from our new, growing body of African and Asian members.

We may move our training of local missionary candidates down to Kinshasa. But back up in Basabkusu we will need to discern what aspects of Mission to take on, alongside the local Church personnel who are covering much of the pastoral work – a good number of Congolese priests and sisters, and some brothers, along with dedicated lay men and women. Our diocese now has its second Congolese bishop; the first one was appointed back in 1975, when he was already much involved in inculturated liturgy and youth work. Both bishops have stressed a ‘pastorale d’ensemble (combined pastoral approach)’- Firstly, combining Evangelisation; as Message (catechetics, liturgy, movements); as diaconia/service (development, health and ’Caritas’ work, education, and justice and peace and natural resources); as ‘communion’ and spiritual accompaniment (working together as fellowship or family); as managing the material and financial side of things; - then having priests, consecrated people and laity working together in teams, councils, commissions etc. The vision is clear and ambitious; and of course has varying degrees of implementation.

This dynamic pastoral approach has been hampered by years of war and political tension, and the consequent deterioration of the socio-economic life and the degradation of the infrastructure. Our dirt roads which were bad keep getting worse – in many places impassable. For instance we can get to Waka parish, 50 miles to the East of us, in four and a half hours by Land cruiser; a bit further you need a strong motor-bike …. and the diocese goes on for another 300 miles. That also means that people can’t get their cash crops to port. Then, if they do get some through, there are much fewer boats than there used to be. So there is little cash-flow and people are becoming more and more disheartened. On top of that, there is no regular plane anymore, for the better off trader (or the ‘poor’ missionary!).

As if all that was not enough, there is a major political crisis on-going. I am writing this in November 2016 and do not know what December will bring. The President’s second and final mandate comes to an end on 19 December; but the elections have not yet been held. Some claim he should carry on till a new president is elected (in 2018??). Others say he will no longer be a legitimate president as from 20 December. Observers say there is a serious danger of violence. Our bishops have issued a press statement (20 October) on national dialogue and the security situation, which they see as very serious. They call yet again for a non-violent, peaceful solution and a consensus built on a much more inclusive dialogue, for the superior interests of the Nation - with agreement on the length of the transitional period, on the authority during the transition which was not foreseen by the Constitution, and on linking presidential, legislative and provincial elections. They are very concerned about reports of insecurity in various parts of the country.

This political tragedy in such a vast country dwarfs other more personal dramas like the Mill Hill house-fire in Basankusu, where the main house went up in flames after the paraffin-fired fridge blew up. Benedictine ‘detachment’ and Ignatian ‘indifference’ are great in theory ….. but losing everything is not easy to take!

I hope the country avoids serious violence, and that I can get back to my people soon. The ‘ordinary’ people are lovely, and deserve a better life. Resilient and faith-full as they are, things are getting very hard.                                              
So, don’t just leave the praying to the monks. Oblates and other friends of Pluscarden please join in!! Thank you.

John D Kirwan MHM

(PS. I too hope that the A96 dualling project does not come to disrupt the centuries-old peace of Pluscarden and its valley.)