Laurent Monsengwo, archbishop of Kinshasa and a vocal government critic, has stepped down, the church said Thursday, just weeks before key elections to replace President Joseph Kabila.
The 79-year-old Monsengwo passed the baton to Fridolin Ambongo as de facto leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo's powerful Catholic Church, which has been at loggerheads with long-ruling Kabila.
"Pope Francis today accepted the resignation of cardinal Laurent Monsengwo," Kinshasa archdiocese spokesman Bruno Lusongakio told AFP, adding that "Fridolin Ambongo has taken over the reins" at a ceremony in Kinshasa.
Catholic bishops normally retire at 75.
Monsengwo has been a harsh critic of the violence that has plagued the sprawling Central African country under the successive governments of strongmen Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent Kabila, and son Joseph.
In 2011, he described flawed elections which returned Kabila to power as complying with "neither truth nor justice".
Monsengwo's outspokenness has turned him into a rallying figure for protest against the president, whose regime is associated with corruption, repression, and incompetence.
In January, the archbishop placed himself on a potential collision course with Kinshasa over a crackdown on Catholic demonstrators demanding an end to Kabila's presidency.
Protests on New Year's Eve and January 21 saw a total of 15 people killed by security forces, according to organisers and the United Nations. The government put the toll at two.
"We can only denounce, condemn and stigmatise the behaviour of our supposedly courageous men in uniform, who, sadly... are channelling barbarism," the archbishop said at the time.
Kabila warned off the Church, saying: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. When you try to mix the two it is dangerous. The result is always negative."
Born into a royal family in the Sakata tribe in 1939, Monsengwo first became known for playing a major role in compelling dictator Mobutu into moving the country -- then known as Zaire -- towards a multi-party democracy.
He was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and later named one of nine cardinals chosen by Pope Francis to play a part in Vatican reform.
The Catholic Church plays a prominent role in the DR Congo due to its educational and social care work.
In power since 2001, Kabila's constitutional term in office expired in December 2016, but a church-brokered a deal seeking to avert a bloodbath allowed him to stay in office provided elections for a new president were held in 2017.
The authorities subsequently postponed the poll until December 23 this year, citing logistical problems.
Kabila has bowed to international pressure to step aside, backing a loyalist, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, for the December 23 race.
Ambongo, chosen by the pope to replace Monsengwo, will be officially inaugurated on November 25 at the Our Lady of the Congo cathedral, said Lusongakio.
Monsengwo will now hold the title of Archbishop Emeritus of Kinshasa.