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African Catholicism comes of age: the Synod message

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 26, 2009

That Africa is a deeply troubled continent, few would deny; the evidence of poverty, disease, bloodshed, and repression is all too evident in all too many places. Rather than simply lamenting the suffering of Africa’s peoples, the Synod of Bishops for Africa-- which concluded its discussions this past weekend in Rome-- challenged the people of the dark continent to acknowledge their own responsibility for their plight, and act now to apply remedies.

Those remedies, the Synod fathers agreed, lie not in casting aside native traditions, but in developing a society that is informed by both the Good News of the Gospel and the rich heritage of African culture. And insofar as they can answer the challenge, and furnish leadership such a society, the Catholics of Africa will provide much-needed direction for the universal Church.

The African Synod, which began its discussions on October 4 and concluded them on Saturday, October 25, was dedicated to the theme of how the Church in Africa can serve the cause of reconciliation, justice, and peace. With that theme pointing directly to the political situation in Africa, it seemed inevitable that the discussion would focus on the poverty, injustice, and degradation that afflict the continent. Indeed, in their talks to the Synod assembly, many African prelates did detail the woes of their people. But a note of hope-- and more important, a note of challenge to the Catholics of Africa-- kept breaking through.

Those notes ring out clearly in the message that was approved by the Synod fathers just before the conclusion of the meeting. “Rich in human and natural resources, many of [Africa's] people are still left to wallow in poverty and misery, wars and conflicts, crisis and chaos,” the Synod message said. However, whereas many analysts of Africa’s misery point the finger of blame toward others, the Synod fathers insisted that African leaders must share the responsibility. Africa’s woes, they wrote, are “largely due to human decisions and activities by people who have no regard for the common good and this often through a tragic complicity and criminal conspiracy of local leaders and foreign interests.”

Moreover, the Synod participants frequently expressed their exasperation with the world’s media coverage of Africa, which never fails to accentuate the negative. “There is much good news in many parts of Africa,” the Synod fathers told the world. “But the modern media often tend to emphasize bad news and thus seem to focus more on our woes and defects than on the positive efforts that we are making.”

For the Church especially, the “good news” from Africa in the early years of the 21st century is a story of remarkable growth. Congregations are growing; the faith is spreading. While a sort of spiritual exhaustion seems to infect Christianity in Europe and America, in Africa-- particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Christian communities are still young-- the faith shows the vigor of a youth coming of age. “Africa in recent years has also become very fertile ground for religious vocations: priests, brothers and sisters,” the Synod message noted. “We thank God for this great blessing.”

A Synod meeting follows a set pattern. In the first and longest phase, each of the bishops has an opportunity to address the assembly, making whatever point(s) he considers most important to the discussions. Observers, experts, and invited guests speak as well. This part of discussion is unwieldy, and since the topic can change from one speech to another, it defies easy summarization. But as the days pass, some common themes emerge. These themes then provide the topics for discussion in the second phase of the Synod, when the bishops meet in smaller groups, organized by language, for more detailed discussions. Finally these groups report back to the general assembly, which approves a series of propositions. The propositions in turn provide the basis for an apostolic exhortation in which the Roman Pontiff concludes the business of the Synod.

One of the most important themes of the African Synod emerged on the first day, when Pope Benedict addressed the participants. Speaking about the problem of corruption, which is unfortunately endemic in Africa, the Pope argued that political corruption is a symptom of deeper spiritual malaise:

Hence our analyses are deficient if we do not realize that behind the injustice of corruption, and all such things, is an unjust heart, a closure towards God and thus a falsification of the fundamental relationship upon which all other relationships are founded.

Corruption-- and in particular the corruption of political leaders-- was to be a major focus of the Synod’s message to the world. The message demanded accountability from Africa’s political leaders, and said that Christians should take the lead in providing honest leadership. “Many Catholics in high office have fallen woefully short in their performance in office,” the Synod message noted. The antidote for corruption was clearly described:

Africa needs saints in high political office: saintly politicians who will clean the continent of corruption, work for the good of the people, and know how to galvanize other men and women of good will from outside the Church to join hands against the common evils that beset our nations….

In their denunciation of official corruption, the Synod fathers appealed to the best of Africa’s cultural heritage. “What has happened to our traditional African sense of shame?" The prelates returned frequently to that question in the course of their message, arguing that the richest of Africa’s cultural traditions could-- especially when inspired with Christian faith-- provide a beacon to guide Africa today.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana, made that point on the opening day of the Synod assembly. African problems call for African solutions, he argued, and the suffering of the African people will be eased when the continent’s own political leaders organize an “African renaissance.” In his talk Cardinal Turkson suggested that this renaissance can and will take place when Africa’s leaders fuse their ancestral traditions with the principles of modern governance and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Fidele Agbatchi of Parakou, Benin, was only one of many bishops who offered a complementary message in the coming days. The challenge facing Africa today, Archbishop Agbatchi, is to case off a fearful attitude toward the modern world. “In fact,” he said, “Africa is afraid and lives in fear. Jealously protecting her discoveries about the world and nature, she naturally falls into mistrust, suspicion, a defensive attitude, aggressiveness, charlatanism ... and syncretism, facets that contribute to obstructing the search for the true God.”

Sometimes, however, fear of the outside world is justified, the Synod fathers observed. They made that observation repeatedly in references to UN officials and development experts who come to Africa with their own agenda, urging impoverished peoples to jettison the “baggage” of their own traditional culture and embrace the values of Western secularism. Archbishop Buti Joseph Tlhagale of Johannesburg, South Africa, was particularly pointing in his condemnation of these cultural revolutionaries. “The cultures of Africa are under heavy strain from liberalism, secularism and from lobbyists who squat at the United Nations,” he said. “Africa faces a second wave of colonization both subtle and ruthless at the same time.” In their closing message to the world, the Synod “denounces all surreptitious attempts to destroy and undermine the precious African values of family and human life.”

Any discussion of “outside influences” on Africa is complicated by the presence of one influence that comes from Africa-- at least a major geographical portion of Africa-- and complicates the life of Christians there. On the opening day of the Synod, Cardinal Turkson made this point, too: “The talk about a thriving Church in Africa conceals the fact that the Church hardly exists in large parts north of the equator. The exceptionally growing Church in Africa is to be found generally south of the Sahara.”

The power of Islam in northern Africa is a dominant consideration for the Church in that region. “We know that fear is a bad counselor,” remarked Bishop Maroun Elias Lahham of Tunis. But fear is a reality in countries where Christians are members of an endangered minority. Bishop Lahham recommended that when the next Synod of Bishops meets in 2010, to discuss the Middle East, the Islamic societies of northern Africa should be included in the conversation.

The African Synod addressed the question of Islam by emphasizing the need for universal respect of religious freedom. The Synod message made the argument clear:

Freedom of religion includes also freedom to share one's faith, to propose, not impose it, to accept and welcome converts. Those nations which by law forbid their citizens from embracing the Christian faith are depriving their own citizens of their fundamental human right to freely decide on the creed to embrace. Since Christians who decide to change their religion are welcomed into the Muslim fold, there ought to be reciprocity in this matter. Mutual respect is the way forward.

Another noteworthy result of this year’s Synod meeting was the emergence of Cardinal Turkson as one of the world’s most prominent Church leaders. Pope Benedict showed his confidence in the prelate from Ghana by appointing him “relator general” of the Synod-- giving him the difficult task of summarizing and synthesizing the conversation after the free-flowing general discussion had run its course. Cardinal Turkson handled that task with aplomb, and showed both wisdom and wit in his frequent conversations with reporters during the meeting.

By the final day of the Synod, it was the worst-kept secret in Rome that Pope Benedict planned to give Cardinal Turkson a new assignment at the Vatican, as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. (The official announcement came just as the Synod finished its work.) It is just as widely known that the cardinal would have preferred to stay in Ghana, as shepherd of his flock. His reluctance to take a desk job at the Vatican only whetted the interest of those many Catholics-- including more than a few of his colleagues in the episcopate-- who always admire a bishop who is more pastor than bureaucrat. From this day forward, any list of papabile will have Turkson’s name on it.

An African Pontiff? Why not? That would be the ultimate sign that in the early years of the 21st century, African Catholicism is ready to take the lead.

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