As Pope Francis began his first official visit to Africa this week, the 86-year-old head of the Catholic Church found himself in a country where a vast Catholic following plays a substantial role in public services, including health and education.
According to Vatican statistics, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has more than 52 million Catholic believers out of a total population of 90 million.
It is a flock that plays a significant role in Congolese society, not only spiritually but also in the provision of critical services in a country that sprawls over 2 million square kilometres and spans some 2,200 km from east to west.
The church supports more than 13,100 elementary schools in the country and almost 50% of its healthcare facilities. The DRC has the highest number of Catholic health facilities in Africa - 2,185 - followed by Kenya with 1,092 and Nigeria with 524 facilities.
While some of the health facilities were initially funded by the Vatican and Western countries, due to the chronic shortage of human, medical, material and financial resources in government health facilities, the local church has stepped up and developed health facilities and allocated medical workers in every diocese across the country.
"In the beginning, there were subsidies from the west. They would support us in buying medical equipment, and it could make care cost a little less," said Romian Kasongo, a doctor at the Saint Paul Hospital in Lukasi and Lubumbashi.
"We don't receive much assistance now, but the local church contributions support the work."
In the Greater Katanga province in the southeastern DRC, the church has 236 health facilities, including 65 health facilities belonging to the Archdiocese of Lubumbashi.
"The church can't preach to a starving or sick man; the starving stomach has no ears," Kasongo said. "We have therefore put in place these agricultural, health and education programs to improve the social life of our people, in addition to their spiritual growth. Our mission is to evangelise a healthy man."
The Congolese people have known wars for over three decades, especially in the eastern part of the country. This has led to the underdevelopment and destruction of existing infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.
With the coordination of the bureau diocesan des oeuvres medicals, the local Catholic Church has built new health facilities accessible to all people, regardless of political or religious affiliations.
"The church does not limit access to our health facilities," said Bernard Nzemba, coordinator of the Commission of Justice and Peace in DRC. "We do not have a political or religious character; we believe in ecumenism without discrimination."
Nzemba believes that the Pope's visits to the country will positively impact health services.
"In our country, if there is no war, it will contribute to having fewer patients injured from wars. When there is peace, people live in harmony with each other so that we will see fewer patients with diseases or lesions on their bodies," said Nzemba.
"Pope Francis...brings the message of peace to this country. Peace for everyone, not just Catholics, because he does not look at politics, colours, or religions."
The President of Conférence Nationale Épiscopale du Congo and Archbishop of Kisangani, Marcel Utembi Tapa, agreed with Nzemba.
"The Sovereign Pontiff (Pope)...does not come only to console, comfort, encourage and bring hope. By treading and kissing the Congolese soil, he comes to pour out divine blessings," Tapa said.
"He also comes to understand the problems of the DRC, from the DRC, to see how to provide lasting solutions. It thus brings new life by supporting the efforts of the Congolese government for reconciliation, peace and development."
Pope Francis will be in DR Congo from January 31 to February 3, 2023, and spend two days in South Sudan before returning to Vatican City.
bird story agency