Current Affairs

Defining moment for church in Africa

Defining moment for church in Africa
  • PublishedApril 12, 2023

The Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was elected as head of the Roman Catholic Church and became Pope Francis in 2013, seems to have established a very special relationship with Africa. His visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan in January and February is his fourth since his anointment.

He undertook his first visit to Africa two years after he had settled into the rigours of the Papacy at the Vatican when he went to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic (under tight security given the civil war raging there). His message was one of peace and kindness as he visited slum areas and refugee camps and in Bangui, the CAR capital, he visited the Grand Mosque in a gesture of tolerance and unity.

He followed up this trip with a visit to Cairo, the intellectual capital of Sunni Islam in 2017 and two years after that, travelled to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.

He was greeted by ecstatic crowds wherever he went as he symbolised peace, humility, tolerance, unity and eternal salvation – but his latest trip appears to have an extra factor attached to it.

His speeches were blunter, perhaps more radical than usual. He asked the Church leaders in Africa not to remain passive but to speak out against injustice and he warned various but unnamed exploiters to take their “hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa, it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered!”

He castigated the greed that had generated “blood-soaked diamonds”, for which tens of thousands had been killed.

Clearly, his broadside was aimed at both the foreign powers and companies that continue to fight their proxy wars on African soil or to plunder its wealth and stash it in their own countries, as well as the local politicians and businesspeople who act as their agents.

But his greatest concern and one that he perhaps feels is at the root of all the deadly conflicts that are ravaging the continent is the pursuit of power at any cost, the human hubris that continues to devastate whole swathes of Africa.

Those close to him say that he believes that his mission as Pope is to end bitterness and hatred and bring peace and healing. He wants to use the enormous clout that his position holds – both in the earthly and spiritual realms – to bear down on those who hold power to temper their ambitions and seek compromise and accommodation.

The tremendous reception he received when he landed in Kinshasa, DRC attests to the enormous popularity of the Pontiff. An estimated one million people, some of whom had walked days to get there, lined the route of his motorcade and attended his mass in Kinshasa. A 700-strong choir belted out hymns and groups held impromptu prayer meetings while volunteers distributed food and drink.

He met with the country’s President Félix Tshisekedi and in an impassioned speech condemned what he called ‘economic colonialism’ that was stripping the country of its natural resources and creating conflict, the better to be able to do so.

With reference to the ongoing low-level but destructive conflict in the east of the country against rebel armies, he pleaded with all sides to show “a great amnesty of the heart” to purge themselves of “anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility”.

United Christian front

His message was along the same lines when he travelled to South Sudan, another country locked into a murderous and destructive civil war fought along ethnic lines between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President, Riek Machar.

Another very notable first on this trip was that the Pope was joined on this leg of the tour by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland Moderator, Iain Greenshields, forming a powerful cross-denominational Christian front.

Once again the Church leaders were welcomed by thousands of singing and ululating crowds. South Sudan is 60% Christian. “I have come with two brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,” the Pope said. “Together, stretching out our hands, we present ourselves to you and to this people in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.”

Archbishop Welby reminded the audience about a gesture from the Pope that had re-enacted a Biblical scene when he said: “Pope Francis knelt to kiss the feet of each politician. Almost five years later, we come to you in this way again: on our knees to wash feet, to listen, serve and pray with you.” He was referring to a 2019 retreat at the Vatican when South Sudan’s leaders had been invited for talks in an effort to save the peace accords.

The ordinary people, long exhausted by the endless conflict in South Sudan – a conflict that has seen the income from the country’s oil reserves disappearing into the ether instead of going towards improving their lives – could only hope and pray that the plea from the likes of the Pope and his counterparts would be heeded by the leaders and that peace would finally dawn.

The increasing influence of Africa

What the effect of the Pope’s visit, bolstered by the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, will be on the peace prospects in both countries, only time can tell but what is clear is that both the Catholic and Protestant Churches view Africa as an increasingly important buttress to their global standing and are keen to make the faith more relevant to Africans.

Interestingly, the Church of England recently admitted that it had benefitted historically from the slave trade and would make reparations worth around £100m.

Some observers have even gone so far as to say that over the next 50 years or so, the survival of the Church itself will depend on Africa.

In the Western world, once the bastion of Christianity, faith in the religion has been dropping steadily over the past two decades. The Pew Research Center projects that Christians will make up less than half of the American population by 2070, with estimated ranges for that year falling between 35% and 46% of the American population (down from 64% in 2022 and from 91% in 1976).

The number of people describing themselves as Christian in most of Europe has also been declining. England and Wales are no longer majority Christian, with only 46% in 2021 claiming a commitment to Christianity. France has similar figures.

However, Christianity and Islam are growing rapidly in Africa. The rise has been particularly steep for Catholicism. John L. Allen Jr, an American author and editor of the Catholic news website Crux, says: “During the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa went from 1.9m to more than 130m – a staggering growth rate of 6,708%. Africans started the century as less than 1% of the global Catholic population, and finished it at around 16%.” 

More recently, updates give even higher figures: Out of a global population of 1.36bn Catholics, 236m are African, accounting for 20% of the total.

These are serious figures and with Africa’s overall population and therefore the numbers of its religious adherents set to outpace the rest of the world, it makes sense to treat the continent as a special case. The preponderance of youth in Africa’s population is also another factor that the Church has to consider as it seems to be losing its grip on the youth of the world, especially in the West.

Can Africa shape global Catholicism?

In terms of Africa’s significance to the Catholic Church overall at a time of great global upheaval (and fissures and scandals in the Church itself), the recent trip to Africa comes at a “defining moment for what is regarded as a fairly progressive papacy”, according to Stan Chu Ilo. Ilo is Research Professor of World Christianity and African Studies, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

Writing in The Conversation, he says that Pope Francis has convened a worldwide consultation on the future of the Catholic Church. This consultation, called a synodal process, began in 2021 and will conclude in 2024. “It is the most ambitious dialogue ever undertaken on bringing changes in Catholic beliefs and practices since the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in 1965. It is exciting for reform-minded Catholics, but distressing for conservative Catholics,” he writes.

The ongoing synodal process, he continues, “has exposed the fault lines in modern Catholicism on the issues of women, celibacy, sexuality, marriage, clericalism and hierarchism. How Pope Francis – who marks a decade of his papacy this year – manages these increasingly divisive issues will, in my judgement, largely define his legacy.”

African Catholics, Ilo says, are not simply growing in number. They are reinventing and reinterpreting Christianity. “They are infusing it with new language and spiritual vibrancy through unique ways of worshipping God.”

He argues that the Catholic Church in Africa can be a central driver of social, political and spiritual life. “In many settings, the church provides a community of hope where the fabric of society is weak because of war, humanitarian disasters and disease.”

The DRC, for instance, he says, has the highest number of Catholic health facilities in Africa at 2,185. It is followed by Kenya with 1,092 and Nigeria with 524 facilities. Additionally, bishops have mobilised peaceful protests against violence in the DRC and Nigeria.

However, Ilo takes issue with the Pope’s often declared wish to give Africa a voice in the global Church. “Many African Catholics wonder how this will happen when, for the first time in over 30 years, there is just one African holding an important executive function at the Vatican. This is Tanzania’s Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, the secretary of the Dicastery for the Evangelisation of Peoples, a department at the Vatican’s central offices.”

The creation of a Pontifical Commission for Africa, similar to the Latin American Commission created in 1958, “will be a significant way of giving African Catholics a voice in the Church of Rome”.

But Ilo also points out that the Church’s reforms, especially its focus on modernisation, have not gone down well universally in Africa. “There are many African Catholics, particularly high-ranking church leaders, who are yet to embrace this reform agenda. The previous two Popes encouraged a centralising tendency, which promoted unquestioning loyalty to Rome by African bishops. As a result, these bishops resisted attempts by African theologians to modernise and Africanise Catholic beliefs and practices to meet local needs and circumstances.

“This has led to some African bishops being uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ progressive agenda on liberation theology, openness to gay Catholics, condemnation of clerical privilege and power, and inclusion of women in mainstream leadership.”

There is no doubt that wide- ranging discussions and debates following the Pope’s visit will continue to be aired and the role of the Church – and the Mosque – in standing up for justice and against oppression will be examined and put to the test.

In a world that is increasingly losing its moral compass under autocratic, unaccountable political leaders, where many religious leaders and organisations have turned to the darker path and actively encourage disharmony, intolerance, ignorance and violence, the Pope’s unambiguous peace-building visit to Africa is a ray of light in the darkness.

He has demonstrated the power of humility, of stooping to serve and of reaching out to other faiths to work for peace, mercy, forgiveness and charity. This message, amplified by the vast network of churches in Africa and adopted by leaders of the other great faith in Africa, Islam (a UNDP report shows that proper religious scholarship reduces extremist violence rather than being a cause of it – see p. 26) suggests the vicious cycle of conflict in Africa may be finally entering its end phase.

On this visit, the Pope has also clearly drawn the line and asked his followers and Church leaders to speak out against tyranny and injustice. How much will the considerable influence, power and wealth of the Catholic Church come to the rescue of those who act on his suggestion and take on the powers that be?

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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