The Catholic Church in Africa: Vibrant, Young, and Resilient

An interview with Allen Ottaro, national coordinator for MAGiS Kenya

Allen Ottaro, 28, lives in Nairobi, Kenya. A parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi, he studied Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University. Mr. Ottaro is the national coordinator of MAGiS Kenya, an Ignatian young adult ministry, and has worked with the African Jesuit AIDS Network. He is also a cofounder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. Mr. Ottaro has attended the past three World Youth Days and looks forward to July’s event in Brazil. He recently spoke with William L. Patenaude for CWR about the Catholic Church in Africa, especially the role of faith in the lives of the continent’s young people.

CWR: After Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and during the conclave, many in the mainstream media and within the Church hoped for an African pope. How did the election of Pope Francis of Argentina speak to the Church in Africa?

Ottaro: Many people in Africa share similar realities as those in Argentina. The Church in Africa was praying together with the Universal Church for the cardinals as they listened to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And together with the Universal Church, Africans are rejoicing and giving thanks to the Lord for Pope Francis. The images of (then) Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio washing and kissing the feet of those living with HIV and AIDS in his Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and his commitment to the poor, to peace, and to the protection of creation is already making a very strong impression about our own responsibilities as people of faith.

CWR: In general, tell us about the Church in Africa—its strengths and challenges—including how its role varies throughout the continent.

Ottaro: Africa is such a huge and diverse continent with an equally complex and colorful history—all of which shapes the strengths, challenges, and role of the Church. One key strength is that the Church is young and vibrant. A visit to a typical parish in Kenya will reveal an average of three or four Sunday Masses—all full, mainly with young people. There is also a strong sense of community. Many parishes have “Small Christian Communities” where parishioners who live in close proximity [to] each other meet during the week to share the faith and grow together. Vocations are plenty. Many young men and women are attracted to the priesthood and religious life.

On the flipside, the Church finds itself in the midst of many socio-economic and political challenges that face many countries in Africa. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening on the continent. There are still many regions that are recovering from conflict, such as South Sudan and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Church is involved in providing education and other essential services.

What is interesting for me is the collaboration and solidarity that is going on, which Pope Benedict XVI noted after his visit to Cameroon and Angola in 2009. It is helpful to hear Pope Benedict’s words on his return flight: “I had a meeting with all the members of the Council for the Synod—12 bishops—and each one spoke of the situation of his local Church. They spoke to me of their proposals and expectations, and from this a very rich picture emerged of the real situation of the Church in Africa: how the Church operates, how she suffers, what she does, what she hopes, what the problems are. I could say a great deal, for example about the Church in South Africa, which has had the experience of a difficult reconciliation, but has been substantially successful: the Church in South Africa is now assisting the efforts towards reconciliation in Burundi with her own experience, and she is seeking to do something similar, albeit amid very great difficulties, in Zimbabwe.”

These words from the pontiff were and are an incredible sign of hope! In speaking of the cooperation and solidarity shown by the South African Church in supporting reconciliation, the Holy Father made known that despite difficult experiences—such as the history of apartheid in South Africa—they can be turned into strengths that others might learn and draw inspiration from for the future.

CWR: In his second trip to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Benin in 2011 for the issuance of the apostolic exhortation on the Church in Africa Africae Munus. How did these visits resonate with local Churches in Africa and with the average churchgoer?

Ottaro: It seems to me that his words, actions, and teachings were directly addressed to the local Churches and churchgoer. In both his visits, he spoke of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Many local Churches have to deal on a daily basis with situations of conflict resolution in their communities—whether it is a parish in the urban slums of Nairobi or one in the remote and arid northern regions of Kenya. While the last decade has witnessed a dramatic reduction in the number and scale of conflicts on the African continent, places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic are still plagued by wars that wreak untold havoc on communities, especially children and women. The Church has been and continues to be close to the people in those conflict-ridden zones. Many priests, religious, and lay people have paid with their very lives as they accompany the people while providing essential services to refugees. The Church in Africa is also quite instrumental in the promotion of peace and justice. Mediation between warring parties has in many instances been facilitated by the Church as a midwife. By speaking about peace, justice, and reconciliation, Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated the solidarity and appreciation of the Universal Church for Africa.

Something else that impressed me was the fact that he spoke directly to the political and economic leaders, inviting them to “servant leadership.” Speaking in Benin, he said that “[m]an demands that his humanity be respected and promoted. Political and economic leaders of countries find themselves placed before important decisions and choices which they can no longer avoid. From this place, I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries and the rest of the world. Do not deprive your peoples of hope! Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present! Adopt a courageous ethical approach to your responsibilities and, if you are believers, ask God to grant you wisdom! This wisdom will help you to understand that, as promoters of your peoples’ future, you must become true servants of hope.”

Now, in many African countries it is an arduous task for ordinary citizens to make their voices heard or get access to their leaders, especially the head of state. Benedict XVI was able to bring the voice and desires of not just Catholics, but most Africans, on the question of servant leadership. He tossed the gauntlet directly at the feet of the top leadership—in a humble yet effective way. To make such strong statements at the presidential palace of an African head of state was extremely significant!

CWR: In Africae Munus, the Holy Father noted that “[l]ike the rest of the world, Africa is experiencing a culture shock which strikes at the age-old foundations of social life, and sometimes makes it hard to come to terms with modernity. In this anthropological crisis which the African continent is facing, paths of hope will be discovered by fostering dialogue among the members of its constituent religious, social, political, economic, cultural and scientific communities. Africa will have to rediscover and promote a concept of the person and his or her relationship with reality that is the fruit of a profound spiritual renewal.” How does the Church in Africa promote a concept of the person that guides African civil and cultural organizations along these paths of hope?

Ottaro: Here the mission of the Church in Africa in education is very important. I attended a Catholic-sponsored boys’ high school, administered by the De La Salle Christian brothers. Many former high school mates still speak fondly of those days, appreciating that what we received from the brothers was not simply “education” but “formation.” This shaped us in such a way that we are able to see and interact with society through different lenses, which move us not only to be human beings, but to recognize that we are also human “becomings” who are continually being molded. This outlook to life is shared by the many graduates of Catholic-sponsored institutions in Africa who go on to positively impact their communities. I can think of one: the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work, Prof. Wangari Maathai, was educated at African Catholic schools in her formative years.

CWR: In your travels outside of Africa, what stereotypes or misinformation have you found that obstruct a full appreciation of Africa and the Church in Africa?

Ottaro: I’ve had the opportunity to visit Europe and Australia and I lived in Poland for seven months. I noticed that the only time Africa is featured in the news was during the drought in the Horn of Africa or the political crisis in Ivory Coast that followed soon after the presidential elections in 2010. In contrast, the independence of South Sudan received very little coverage. I realized that the media hardly tells positive stories from Africa. This results in many people thinking of Africa as a continent of hunger, war, and despair—or what you might call an “Afro-pessimism.” However, I discovered that there is a yearning among young people [outside of Africa] to discover the real Africa. For instance, during the World Youth Days in Germany (2005), Australia (2008), and Spain (2011), my friends and I had the opportunity to share with young people from other parts of the world African songs and dance that we use in our liturgies. They always remarked at how “full of life” the Church in Africa is. It seems to me that the possibility to find alternative information aside from the mainstream media is helping to bridge the (mis)information gap.

CWR: How are Catholics in Africa (especially youth) embracing the Church’s call for New Evangelization?

Ottaro: The Year of Faith has provided a wonderful opportunity for this. Parishes and ecclesial movements are fully involved in a deeper experience of their faith in response to the invitation for a New Evangelization. The faith in Africa has sometimes been described as “a mile wide but only skin-deep.” As someone who is involved in young adult ministry, however, I sense a strong desire among African youth to live their faith in a more profound manner and to let it affect their daily life choices. Young people are discerning that they can live their faith in a holistic way—a faith that does justice. I see this as a welcome response to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI invitation for a New Evangelization.

CWR: Many people in Europe and North America denounce Catholic moral teachings on issues like abortion, artificial contraception, and marriage. Do such Western views impact African cultures—and what can Western Catholics who struggle with Catholic moral teachings learn from their brothers and sisters in Africa?

Ottaro: The global village that the world has now become—thanks to superior means of communication and travel—means that Western views on Catholic moral teaching are impacting African cultures. This is especially true in urban areas where there is a sense of “anonymity,” as opposed to the communal aspect of living that is more prominent in the rural settings.

However, as pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI, “Western societies can learn from Africa’s vision of life; it is creation-centered, and includes ancestors, the living and those yet to be born, thus embracing all of God’s creation” (Africae Munus #69). This “vision of life” has in my view immensely contributed to the resilience of Catholics in Africa. This vision resists the onslaught of Western influences on the African outlook to life—one that encompasses the deep sense of the sacredness of life, of good human relations, and of community life.

A popular African proverb that aptly captures the African sense of community says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others.” I’d say that the importance of community is just one of the treasures that the Church in Africa can offer to her brothers and sisters in the Western world.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."