Addressing a group of African bishops less than a year before his death, Pope John Paul II rejoiced in the vitality of the Church on that continent—a vitality that continues to this day. In 1978, there were 55 million Catholics in Africa; by 2007, that number had grown to 165 million. Between 1998 and 2007, the number of priests increased from 26,026 to 34,658, while the number of sisters grew by more than 10,000, from 51,304 to 61,886. More than 14 million African children attend Catholic elementary schools, while another 3.7 million attend Catholic high schools.
At the same time, Pope John Paul lamented the “scourges” that afflict Africa, including wars and other conflicts, poverty, AIDS, weak education and health care systems, and corruption. “All of this makes up the vicious circle that causes gangrene in this young and vigorous body.”
During that 2004 meeting with bishops, the Pontiff expressed a desire to hold a Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops; the first African synod in 1994 had focused on evangelization. Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, desired to devote the second synod to the ways in which the Church can better serve as salt and light amid the continent’s “scourges” and “gangrene.” The Pontiff determined that the second synod’s theme would be “The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace: ‘You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.’”
Day 1: A “spiritual lung” under attack from the West
The African synod opened on Sunday, October 4, as Pope Benedict XVI concelebrated Mass with the synod fathers. The Asperges and Gospel were chanted in Latin, while hymns were sung in Ingala and Kikongo, both languages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In his homily, the Holy Father praised Africa’s religious sense as “an enormous spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.” It is a lung, nonetheless, under attack by two diseases. Africa suffers first from “an illness that is already widespread in the West, that is, practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilist thinking…there is absolutely no doubt that the so-called ‘First’ World has exported up to now and continues to export its spiritual toxic waste that contaminates the peoples of other continents, in particular those of Africa. In this sense, colonialism, which is over at a political level, has never really entirely come to an end.” The second disease is “religious fundamentalism, mixed together with political and economicinterests…teaching and practicing not love and respect for freedom, but intolerance and violence.”
During the nine days that followed, the 244 synod fathers, 29 experts, 49 observers, and six Orthodox and Protestant fraternal delegates all had the opportunity to make their contributions to the synod’s deliberations. Although the number of Catholics in Africa has tripled since 1978, the bishops’ speeches were devoid of self-congratulatory rhetoric. Nor did they call for changes in the Church’s doctrine and discipline; indeed, they repeatedly defended the discipline of clerical celibacy. Instead, they homed in on the continent’s problems, much as Pope John Paul did in his 2004 address. And like Pope Benedict, they repeatedly denounced the neocolonialism that is bringing “spiritual toxic waste” to their continent.
Day 2: A star is born
The two highest-ranking officials of the Synod of Bishops are the Holy Father (who serves as the synod’s president) and its secretary general, since 2004 the Croatian Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. Pope Benedict appointed three “presidents delegate” to run the synod on a day-to-day basis: Cardinal Francis Arinze (the retired prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments), Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Sarr of Senegal, and Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa.
The synod’s first general congregation, or official group meeting, began— as it would each morning—with the praying of Terce from the Liturgy of the Hours. Pope Benedict then offered a profound meditation on Nunc, Sancte, Nobis Spiritus, the hymn of Terce. The Church, Pope Benedict observed, was not organized by the apostles, but was born of the initiative of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Similarly, at the synod the initiative of the Holy Spirit precedes the action of the Church. “All our analyses of the world are insufficient,” he said, “if we do not discover that at the root of injustice, of corruption, there is an unrighteous heart, there is closure towards God and, therefore, a falsification of the essential relationship which is the foundation of all others.”
Following the Holy Father’s meditation came the much-anticipated relatio ante disceptationem (report before the discussion), a lengthy talk that inevitably draws worldwide attention to the relator general appointed by the pontiff. The prelate whose ecclesial star was born at this synod was Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who offered a thoughtful analysis of the strengths and challenges facing the Church in Africa.
“Marriage and the family have come under strange and terrible pressures to redefine their nature and functions in modern society,” the 61-year-old cardinal observed. “Traditional marriages, which founded families, are threatened by an increasing proposal of alternative unions and relationships, devoid of the concept of lasting commitments, nonheterosexual in character, and without the aim of procreation…. The aim is to establish a new global ethic about marriage, family, human sexuality, and the related issues of abortion, contraception, aspects of genetic engineering, etc.” The morning session concluded, as it would each day, with the praying of the noontime Angelus.
In the afternoon, bishops from around the world spoke about their continents’ relationship with the Church in Africa, with Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta representing North America. Congolese Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya offered a detailed report on the growth of the Church in Africa since 1994. The afternoon session began, as it would each day, with the official synod prayer and concluded with the evening Angelus.
Day 3: Africa’s weaknesses
On Tuesday morning, Patriarch Abuna Paulos of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, which ceased to be in communion with the Holy See following the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, offered warm greetings to the synod fathers, recalled Ethiopia’s ancient Christian heritage, and assessed the continent’s problems.
Sixteen synod fathers then spoke— first among them Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the college of cardinals, who compared the Rwandan genocide that claimed 800,000 lives in 1994 to the slaughter of World War II. Bishop Maroun Lahham of Tunisia assessed the state of the Church in the Muslim nations of North Africa—“even if she does not have the freedom she would hope for, she is not persecuted”—while Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti called upon the Church to “cooperate with Muslims of good will to isolate and neutralize the evil work of radical Islamic groups.”
Several prelates criticized aspects of African culture and society. Tanzanian Cardinal Polycarp Pengo called upon Africans to denounce “the misuse of the role and practice of authority, tribalism, and ethnocentrism, [and] political partisan[ship] of the religious leaders.” “Africa is afraid and lives in fear,” said Archbishop Fidèle Agbatchi of Benin. “Jealously keeping her discoveries about the world and nature, she naturally falls into mistrust, suspicion, a self defensive attitude, aggressiveness, charlatanism, divination, occultism, and syncretism, so many facets that contribute to obstructing the search for the true God.”
Archbishop Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot of Cameroon lamented that the lure of clan traditions of reconciliation—in which offenders publicly confess their sins and are cut as punishment—is often stronger than the lure of the Eucharist, in which Christ’s Blood “purifies us of all our filth” and makes us “blood brothers and sisters, since the same Blood of Christ taken during Communion flows through our veins.”
Ugandan Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala blasted Africa’s civil leaders:
[A] new breed of dictators is replacing the former ones…. They believe in one principle, and that principle is political engineering. In most countries of Africa, the politics we are experiencing is godless politics…. We should influence family and formal education to include basic democratic principles which we find in the social doctrine of the Church.
In the afternoon, 17 more synod fathers spoke. Archbishop François Xavier Maroy Rusengo of Bukavu painted a vivid picture of recent violence against the Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like other prelates over the course of the synod, Nigerian Bishop Lucius Ugorji strongly criticized multinational corporations:
Multinational corporations exploit natural resources in Africa in a measure unprecedented in history. They use up resources that accumulated over a long period, mindless of whether future generations will be left with any means of sustenance.… Lands are destroyed through deforestation, oil spillage, as well as the dumping of toxic wastes, plastic containers, and cellophane materials. Also man-made erosion sweeps away farmlands, devastates roads, and silts up sources of water supply. These factors further impoverish African communities, heightening tensions and conflicts.
Day 4: A blast against Western gender ideology
Pope Benedict entrusted the synod to Our Lady of the Rosary on her feast day of October 7. Bishop Tarcisius Ziyaye of Malawi, like many bishops over the course of the synod, called for a deeper catechesis so that Catholic laity, and especially politicians, would live in accord with their faith. “It is disheartening that, in Africa today, Catholics could participate in political and ethnic clashes, that Catholic politicians could be involved in serious corruption of public resources, and that some of our Catholics revert to occult practices in times of difficulties,” he said. “All this tells us that we still have a long way to go to promote a faith that transforms the heart and a faith that does justice.”
Several prelates pleaded for greater reconciliation within the Church so that the Church can be a leaven of reconciliation in society. Cardinal Arinze urged the bishops of each nation to speak as one voice, “without being influenced by tribal considerations…. The success of the Church in appointing bishops outside their language area is a powerful message to some African communities wounded by the politico-social virus of extreme ethnicism.”
The strongest words of the day were uttered by Archbishop Robert Sarah, the Guinea-born secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Taking aim at the effects of Western gender ideology, which he described as “contrary to African culture and to the human truths illuminated by the divine Revelation in Jesus Christ,” he said:
The right to choose being the supreme value of this new ethic, homosexuality becomes a culturally acceptable choice, and access to this choice must be promoted. The new ideology is dynamic and imposes itself at the same time on cultures and politics. It puts pressure on the legislator to write laws favorable to universal access to information and contraceptive and abortion services (the concept of “reproductive health”) as well as homosexuality…. In African culture, man is nothing without woman and woman is nothing without man. Both are nothing if the child isn’t the center of the family created by a man and a woman and the base of society. [The] ideology of gender unbalances the meaning of marital and family life that Africa has maintained until now…. Africa must protect itself from the contamination of intellectual cynicism in the West.
Day 5: “Lobbyists who squat at the United Nations”
The following day, Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, revisited Archbishop Sarah’s theme. Among the “poisons” affecting Africa, he said, “is the so-called ‘gender theory,’ which, heavily disguised, is starting to infiltrate associations, governments, and even some ecclesial environments in the African continent.” This theory promotes the “irrelevance of the natural differences between men and women, the uniformity of all individuals, as though they were sexually undifferentiated, and therefore the equality of all sexual orientations and behavior: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, polymorphous.”
Several African prelates concurred. Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg was blunt: “Moral values embedded in the diverse African cultures, alongside the Gospel values, are threatened by the new global ethic which aggressively seeks to persuade African governments and communities to accept new and different meanings of concepts of family, marriage and human sexuality…. The cultures of Africa are under heavy strain from liberalism [and] secularism, and from lobbyists who squat at the United Nations. Africa faces a second wave of colonization both subtle and ruthless at the same time.”
Archbishop Philippe Ouédraogo of Burkina Faso viewed such influences as potentially totalitarian. “Our African human and religious communities, on the whole, reject the legal practices of many otherwise Christian Western countries, such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriages, euthanasia,” he said. “More and more, certain [radio] and television [stations], Internet sites—all of them held by economic power and interests—deliberately broadcast programs that try to impose Western society’s one thought.”
Other themes emerged on the fifth day. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris, for example, observed that while there are “no more than 70” French diocesan missionary priests in Africa, there are more than 600 African diocesan missionary priests ministering in France, in addition to the 250 African priests who are pursuing studies in France.
Day 6: Reconciliation
On the synod’s sixth day, the synod fathers and other participants referred to reconciliation more than 75 times. Bishop Albert Vanbuel of the Central African Republic deplored “divisive acts between priests, between priests and bishops, between priests and the laity,” while Bishop Jean-Claude Bouchard of Chad called for a less perfunctory and more earnest celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation so that penitents can become reconcilers in their daily lives.
Zimbabwe’s leading prelate—Archbishop Robert Ndlovu of Harare—lamented the divisive effects of clerical entanglement in politics. “The open support by some priests and religious for political parties,” he said, “has the consequence of dividing the Christian communities they serve.” On the other hand, the laity “generally have a weakness of not engaging actively and positively in politics. Sometimes when they engage themselves actively in politics they become agents of destruction.”
Discussing the need for reconciliation in parts of Africa, Sister Geneviève Uwamariya, a Rwandan nun whose family was slaughtered in the 1994 genocide, recounted what happened when she visited a prison in 2000.
One of the prisoners rose in tears, fell to his knees before me, loudly begging, “Mercy.” I was petrified [by] recognizing a family friend who had grown and shared everything with us. He admitted having killed my father and told me the details of the death of my family. A feeling of pity and compassion invaded me: I picked him up, embraced him, and told him in a tearful voice, “You are and always will be my brother”…. From that moment on, my mission was to travel kilometers to bring mail to the prisoners asking for forgiveness from the survivors. Thus 500 letters were distributed; and I brought back mail with the answers of the survivors to the prisoners who had become my friends and my brothers…. This allowed for meetings between the executioners and the victims. There have been many concrete gestures to mark this reconciliation. A village for widows and orphans of genocide was built by the prisoners.
Some synod participants highlighted the plight of African women, while others spoke about economic conditions in their nations. A Zambian bishop lamented that local farmers are suffering because their crops cannot compete with imported, European-subsidized food, while a Côte d’Ivoire archbishop blasted “inept” international bankers who enriched themselves while leaving the nation’s citizens suffering under the weight of a debt that accounts for nearly half of the gross national product.
Days 7-8: The Rosary
Among the themes discussed as the synod’s first week drew to a close, Bishop Almachius Rweyongeza of Tanzania discussed the divisive, baneful effects of mixed marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics. Like other prelates throughout the course of the synod, Archbishop Denis Kiwanuka Lote of Uganda lamented the effects of climate change, particularly droughts. Bishop Joseph Ekuwem of Nigeria called for renewed catechesis on the reality of demons and the appointment of an exorcist in every diocese to save Catholics “from the claws of false belief and terrible occult practices like witchcraft.” Referring to the discontinuity between the 1614 and 1999 rites of exorcism, Bishop Ekuwem pleaded for “a new rite based on the old rite of exorcism.”
On Saturday evening, students from nine African universities, connected by satellite with the synod fathers and African students in Rome, prayed the Rosary together with the Holy Father. The next day, the synod fathers took part in the canonization of fi ve saints in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Day 9: The Islamic Threat
The following day, some of the continent’s most prominent prelates rose to denounce government corruption. Cardinal Napier observed that the phenomenon of individual dictators proclaiming themselves president-forlife has given way to widespread and corrupt one-party rule. “Africa continues to thirst for good governance,” added Cardinal John Njue of Kenya. “Many countries in Africa continue to struggle under bad governance where unchecked hunger for power has led to impunity, corruption, manipulation of people, and other similar social political evils bled from human hearts in need of conversion.”
Apparently responding to Bishop Ekuwem’s earlier discussion of witchcraft, another Nigerian prelate—Bishop Augustine Akubeze—said that “Africans are made to believe that witches are real and that witchcraft is effective. Yet belief in witchcraft lacks any justifi – cation in reason, science, and common sense.” He rued the murder of suspected witches, as well as their torture by Pentecostals and others. Archbishop Norbert Mtega of Tanzania, on the other hand, said that many Catholics “are tortured, harassed, and assassinated simply due to unfounded malicious suspicions fomented by sorcery and witchdoctors.”
In contrast to the relatively benign view of Islam put forth by North African prelates throughout the synod, Archbishop Mtega added:
We love Muslims. It is our history and culture to live with them. But the danger which threatens Africa’s freedom, sovereignty, democracy, and human rights is first the Islamic political factor, i.e., the intended plan and the clear process of “identifying Islam with politics and vice versa” in each of our African countries. Secondly it is the Islamic monetary factor whereby huge sums of money from outside countries are being poured into our countries to destabilize peace in our countries and to eradicate Christianity.
Day 10: African Conflicts
On October 13—as on other days of the synod—some synod fathers reported on the conflicts, past and present, in their nations. Bishop Servilien Nzakamwita of Rwanda recalled that in 1994, “in front of the cameras of the international community,” UN peacekeepers “received the order to retreat, abandoning the population to the mercy of the killers armed with machetes, grenades, rifles, and other weapons.” Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Uganda spoke of the atrocities committed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, whose “forces have taken young boys and girls to force them to become child soldiers, damaging their minds and spirits in terrible ways. And the LRA forces have abducted young girls as sex slaves, ruining their hopes and futures.” He continued:
[T]here is another more widespread violence that goes on every day throughout the continent. This is the violence of hunger, lack of educational opportunities, shortage of adequate health care, and unfit living conditions in urban slums and refugee camps…. But let me add yet another way in which violence is done to children, and this is the shocking rates of abortion that take away the lives of innocents even before birth. A culture of abortion, a dynamic of lack of respect for the unborn, a promotion of “rights” that even allows for this denial of the right to life, is but another sign of violence against life.
Late in the afternoon, Cardinal Turkson delivered the lengthy relatio post disceptationem (report after the discussion), in which he summarized in workmanlike fashion the themes of the preceding days. Reconciliation in the Church as the Family of God, he emphasized, “requires a spirituality, and not a strategy.”
During the days that followed, the synod fathers met to draft the propositions that the synod would present to the Holy Father. On October 20, the synod leaders made an urgent appeal for peace in Sudan, Uganda, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic.
On October 23, the synod fathers released their final message. Pulling no punches, they criticized the “tragic complicity and criminal conspiracy of local leaders and foreign interests” that has mired the continent in poverty and conflict. The synod fathers urged all to be reconciled by God in the sacrament of reconciliation and then in turn forgive others. “Those who say that pardon does not work,” they said, “should try revenge and see.”
The synod fathers also exhorted the faithful to read the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Blasting the “peddlers of foreign and morally poisonous ideologies about gender and human sexuality,” they urged Africans to welcome children and to combat AIDS, not through condoms but through abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within it.
“The synod received good news of Islamic communities which allow the Church freedom of worship,” the message concluded. “While we commend this, we insist that this is not enough. 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.”
On October 24, the synod fathers approved 57 propositions that the Holy Father may use in drafting a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The propositions summarized the deliberations of the preceding weeks, emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation, and sounded themes not mentioned frequently in earlier discussions. One proposition, for example, called for Eucharistic adoration in every parish.
Pope Benedict praised the synod fathers for avoiding two extremes. On the one hand, they avoided “politicizing the theme, to talk less about pastors and more about politicians, thus with a competence that is not ours.” On the other hand, the synod did not retreat into “an abstract and beautiful world, but not a realistic one. A pastor’s language, instead, must be realistic, it must touch upon reality, but within the perspective of God and his Word…. This was the main problem for this synod and it seems to me that, thanks to God, we managed to resolve it, and for me this is also a reason for thanks because it makes the post-synodal document easier to draft.”
Pope Benedict then announced that he had appointed Cardinal Turkson to succeed Cardinal Renato Martino as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The African synod concluded on Sunday, October 25, as Pope Benedict XVI concelebrated Mass with the synod fathers. Parts of the liturgy were chanted in Latin and Ge’ez (the language of the Ethiopian Catholic Church), while hymns were sung in Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, and Hausa—all languages of Nigeria. The “message of salvation,” the Holy Father preached, “is always transmitted by the Church by joining evangelization and the promotion of humanity…. Get up, Church in Africa, Family of God, because you are being called by the Heavenly Father whom your ancestors invoked as Creator, before knowing his merciful closeness, revealed in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Set out on the path of a new evangelization with the courage that comes from the Holy Spirit…. May the Virgin Mary… allow the Church in Africa to grow in every part of that great continent, spreading the ‘salt’ and ‘light’ of the Gospel everywhere.”
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