, 06 December, 2019 / 3:26 AM
On Sunday, December 1, at the three-in-one event marking 25 years since the inauguration of the Congolese Catholic Chaplaincy in Rome, 25th anniversary of the beatification of Catechist and martyr Isidore Bakanja, and the feast of Blessed Marie-Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta, citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) residing in the Italian capital pleaded with Pope Francis, who had joined them for a special Mass, to have Blessed Anuarite and Blessed Bakanja canonized.
“Holy Father, like a father in a family, we ask you not to tire of us. We are your children. Our dream is to see these two Blesseds, Anuarite and Bakanja, both martyred for their faith and fidelity to the Church; our hope is to see them enrolled in the canon of other Catholic martyrs. We wish to see them held up as models of faith for the universal Church,” Sr. Rita Mboshu Kongo, a Theologian and University Professor told the Pope. Who is Blessed Bakanja and who is Blessed Anuarite?
Blessed Isidore Bakanja
Born in 1887 in the then Belgian Congo, Isidore Bakanja converted to Christianity at the age of 19 and was baptized by the Trappist Missionaries. A committed Catholic, Bakanja had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a love he expressed through reciting the Holy Rosary and wearing of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Though untrained, he often taught people about the Catholic faith, earning himself the title “Catechist.”
Bakanja worked at a rubber plantation where his Belgian supervisor, an atheist, ordered him to stop wearing the scapula, Bakanja’s most visible sacramental. He was also instructed not to teach his colleagues how to pray. “You'll have the whole village praying and no one will work," Bakanja had been warned, but decided to defy the caution much to the chagrin of his supervisor who beat him severely.
An account of Bakanja’s life indicates that his adamance to remove the sacramental despite the beating led the supervisor to tear off the scapula from his neck, before beating him up and chaining him with no medical attention, something that made his wounds infected. “He did not want me to pray to God … He killed me because I said my prayers … I stole nothing from him … It’s because I was praying to God.” Bakanja cried out, lying in a pool of his own blood.
The supervisor sent him away to another village when the plantation’s inspector was visiting, but Bakanja hid in a nearby bush with a motive of presenting his grievances to the inspector. The horrified inspector wrote of his encounter with severely wounded and sick Bakanja, “I saw a man come from the forest with his back torn apart by deep, festering, malodorous wounds, covered with filth, assaulted by flies. He leaned on two sticks in order to get near me - he wasn't walking; he was dragging himself."
The inspector prevented the supervisor and his team from killing Bakanja, whom he took to his house for treatment. Sensing that his death was imminent, Bakanja told a friend, “God alone knows whether I will die of these wounds, or if I will live. If you see my mother, or if you go to the judge, or if you meet a priest, tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian.”
Trappist Missionaries who visited him in his last moments to offer the final sacraments urged him to forgive the supervisor. “When I am in heaven, I shall pray for him very much," Bakanja assured the Missionaries.
He lived on for six months and on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1909, Christians gathered around Bakanja’s house to pray for him. Though weak, an excited Bakanja walked outside in silence to meet the ecstatic crowd, rosary in his hand and the scapula round his neck, before walking back to the house and passing on soon after at the age of 22.
On June 7, 1917, the remains of Bakanja were transferred to the Immaculate Conception Church in Bokote in DRC. In 1999, Bakanja was proclaimed Patron of the Laity of the Republic of the Congo.
During his 1980 visit to DRC, Pope St. John Paul II said of Bakanja, “After having given all his free time to the evangelization of his brothers as a catechist, he did not hesitate to offer his life to God, strong in the courage he found in his faith and in the faithful recitation of the Rosary.”
Bakanja was beatified on April 24, 1994 during the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa.
Pope St. John Paul II was quoted as saying during the beatification, “In an Africa that is sorely tried by ethnic strife, your shining example is an encouragement to harmony and reconciliation among the children of the same heavenly Father. You showed brotherly love to all, without distinction of race or social class; you earned the esteem and respect of your companions, many of whom were not Christians. Thus, you show us the necessary way of dialogue among men.”
Among the institutes named in honor of Blessed Bakanja in Africa include Blessed Bakanja AMECEA College (BBAC) in Nairobi, Kenya - a regional theology seminary for the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) and Salesian Bakanja Center in DRC, a venue for homeless children.
Blessed Marie-Clémentine Anuarite Nengapeta
Born on December 29, 1939 as the fourth child among six sisters, Anuarite Nengapeta ran away from home, against her mother’s approval, to join the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Kisiangani at the age of 20. Upon her profession, she assumed the name Marie-Clementine.
Anuarite became a victim of the 1964 Mulele rebellion across DRC, when Simba rebels, opposed to the westerners in the country and suspicious of the local religious men and women for cooperating with foreigners, kidnapped her alongside 45 other nuns and led them to a rebel camp. The attempts by the rebels’ leader, Colonel Pierre Olombe, to rape Anuarite were resisted with success.
Determined to have her by any means, Colonel Olombe forced Anuarite and her colleague, Sr. Bokuma Jean-Baptiste into a car, before going back to the house for the keys. The two tried to escape but were intercepted and beaten up. Sr. Bokuma who had suffered multiple fractures and fainted. The rebel leader ordered fellow rebels to stab Anuarite, before he (leader) shot her in the chest. “I forgive you, for you know not what you are doing," Anuarite told her attackers and died on December 1, 1964.
Anuarite’s attackers buried her in a common grave. Eight months later, her remains were exhumed and reburied. Her remains were exhumed again in December 1978 and moved to Isiro Cathedral in northeastern DRC.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Anuarite on August 15, 1985 during his visit to the country, an event that was attended by an estimated 60,000 people among them, Anuarite’s parents, Colonel Pierre Olombe who had become a devout Catholic and sought audience with the Pope to express his remorse, among other significant personalities including the then country’s President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Blessed Anuarite was the first Bantu woman to receive such a rank in the Catholic Church. She is the patron of the African Jesuit AIDS Network.
The diocese of Isiro-Niangara in DRC just celebrated the 55th anniversary of Anuarite under the theme, “Blessed Marie-Clémentine Anuarite, a model for young people” on the grounds where the construction of a shrine in her honor is underway.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa