The conversion stories of rulers often mark the beginning of the distinctive identities of "Catholic peoples."
Though the ensuing human history is often a muddle, Jesus works nonetheless and brings forth much fruit from seed that falls on good soil. But the misdeeds of Christians can cause great suffering and social ruptures that hinder the development of peoples. Evangelization and tragedy can occur together, like the wheat and the weeds.
Much of the story of the "Age of Discovery" involves this dual occurrence, and Christians today must dedicate themselves to the work of penitence for the sins of their forebears and the healing of many deep wounds. However, it need not have happened in this way.
When the Portuguese first encountered the Kongo in sub-Saharan Africa in 1483, a vibrant young civilization was emerging there. Kongo religion was a collection of animist spiritual traditions. When the Portuguese proposed their faith in Christ, it resonated with many of the educated ruling class. They asked for missionaries, and in 1491 the ruler Nzinga a Nkuwu was baptized and took the name King João I. His court followed suit, and the Catholic Faith began to spread rapidly in Kongo.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these conversions, but we must recognize that other motives were also at work. An alliance between Portugal and Kongo promised great political and economic advantage to both nations. The future of Kongo lay in how these motives would be prioritized.
For at least one remarkable person, the priority was clear. João's son also converted, and was baptized Afonso. When João died in 1509, Afonso struggled for the succession to the throne. He was victorious in battle, by his own account through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and Saint James, who became Kongo's patron saint.
King Afonso I was singularly dedicated to the welfare and evangelization of his people. The king corresponded extensively with Portugal, and he studied the Catholic tradition and theology deeply, wishing to assist in an authentic Kongo inculturation. The Church continued to grow. It was a remarkable beginning.
But a serpent was lying in wait to cripple and taint all his efforts, the serpent of slavery. King Afonso saw the danger and tried to prevent it, but after his death it exploded beyond the control of his successors. Most premodern societies accepted some form of slavery, and Kongo was no exception. It was common to enslave captured enemies and even to allow slave trade within the nation. The Portuguese, however, colonized Brazil and they now saw Africa primarily as a source for laborers. Unscrupulous African "traders" assisted them in beginning the violent exportation of human beings across the ocean.
Afonso was appalled by the illegal kidnapping of his people and tried to stop it in his lifetime. But the transatlantic slave trade continued to grow after his death in 1543. Over the next 300 years, a third of the people of Kongo would be deported into slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Kongo remained a nominally independent kingdom until 1914, but it was weak and fractured. Afonso I's dream to be the father of a great Catholic people was thwarted. We should honor his integrity and goodness by working to foster the new evangelization that grows daily in Africa today, in freedom.
John Janaro "King Afonso I of Kongo." Magnificat (June, 2016).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
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