These past weeks leading up to the canonization of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II, have provided a wonderful opportunity to revisit and reflect on their contribution to the Church and the world. This week , at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) organized a two-day event with the theme, “The Church in Africa: From the Second Vatican Council to the Third Millennium”. The conference was a chance to celebrate the contribution of the two Popes to the Church in the continent of Africa.
The two newest Saints have a deep history with Africa. While Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff in history to set foot on the continent when he visited Uganda in 1969, it was Pope John XIII who created the first African Cardinal, Laurean Rugambwa (1912-1997), in 1960. Pope John Paul II made numerous trips to Africa, including three visits to my own country, Kenya, within a span of fifteen years.
However, what has caught my attention, especially in light of recent and ongoing events on the African continent, is what I and my fellow African citizens can learn from these two great Saints as we seek to advance justice and peace.
During the month of April, Africa and the world have been commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The tragic events in Rwanda are still very fresh for many in the Central African country. The words “Never again” have been used repeatedly, in expressing the commitment that humanity will no longer remain as spectators in the face of the evil of war.
Regrettably, violence which has been described by various international agencies as “genocidal”, erupted late last year in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And just this week, the world has witnessed what is being described as the “Massacre of Bentiu”, in which hundreds of civilians were killed in a church, a mosque and a hospital in the South Sudanese town of Bentiu.
The current conflict in South Sudan, pitting rebel forces under the command of former Vice President, Dr. Riek Machar, against government troops and President Salva Kiir, began in mid-December and was precipitated by internal power struggles within the ruling party, the Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM). An agreement on the cessation of hostilities signed by the two parties and brokered by the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) on the January 23rd, failed to hold, even after weeks of mediation talks in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Watching a country—whose birth I was old enough to witness—disintegrate so soon, along with the human suffering, death and destruction being experienced, is a sad experience.
I recently turned to Pacem in Terris, the encyclical of Pope John XXIII on “Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty”, given on April 11, 1963. Now, the 1960s is significant in various ways in the history of the African continent, besides the many events in the life of the Church. More than thirty African countries gained independence during that period (1960-1969). A few weeks after Pacem in Terris was given, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the African Union (AU) was formed, to promote unity and solidarity of African states in order to achieve a better life for its people.
The first thing that stood out for me in Pacem in Terris is that Pope John XXIII laid out the rights but also duties, beginning with the right to life:
Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. (par. 11)
This is an important message to put out to the warring parties in the conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other hot spots across the world. War is a direct threat to innocent life, resulting in bodily harm (with many women suffering sexual violence) and compromising or even ending the provision of necessary social services, while also damaging or destroying existing infrastructure.
As many African countries celebrate fifty years of independence this decade, many young people are disillusioned as a result of high unemployment rates in their countries, with the associated social problems. The few who manage to secure employment often find themselves under-employed and have to endure difficult working conditions. Pope John XXIII still addresses this situation today, as he did more than fifty years ago:
A further consequence of man’s personal dignity is his right to engage in economic activities suited to his degree of responsibility. The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity. (par. 20)
The need to make a living consistent with human dignity, and the scarcity of such work and opportunities on the African continent, has led many young people to make harrowing trips across dangerous deserts and rough seas. These journeys have sometimes ended disastrously in loss of hundreds of lives as witnessed off Lampedusa, Italy, and elsewhere, while the treatment of those detained by immigration authorities has been documented in many cases as inhuman. Speaking on the right to emigrate and immigrate, the “Good Pope” taught:
When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men. (par. 25)
One of the most amazing things about the current political situation in Rwanda, twenty years after the genocide, is that there are many more women in the national parliament than there are men. The head of the African Union Commission is a South African woman, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma. Africa now has three female heads of state—in Liberia, Malawi and the Central African Republic where Mrs. Catherine Samba-Panza was elected as interim president, earlier this year, as part of the ongoing efforts to resolve the crisis there. As foreseen by Pope John XXIII, “women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons” (41).
On his first Apostolic visit to Kenya in May of 1980, Pope John Paul II brought to the fore, in his address to the diplomatic community in Nairobi, what he referred to “the persistent problem of racial discrimination”. Quoting Pope Paul VI, he said, “We deplore the fact that, in certain parts of the world, there persist social situations based upon racial discrimination and often willed and sustained by systems of thought; such situations constitute a manifest and inadmissible affront to the fundamental rights of the human person”. In 1994, the apartheid regime in South Africa was brought to an end with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. The “Rainbow nation” as South Africa is sometimes referred to because of its diverse population, is celebrating twenty years of democratic gains, with competitive presidential elections coming up in May 2014. Of course, there are still many challenges, but what a wonderful sign of hope for the continent!
As the theme of the SECAM Conference in Rome was also about looking towards the “Third Millennium”, I conclude with the words of John Paul II, in his final words to the diplomatic corps in Nairobi. He described the hallmarks of successful development and the strength of the people as they move towards the third millennium in this way:
A growing sense of brotherhood, of social love, of justice, the banishing of every form of discrimination and oppression, the fostering of individual and collective responsibility, respect for the sanctity of human life from its very conception, the preservation of a strong family spirit. (“Address of John Paul II to the Diplomatic Community in Nairobi”, May 6, 1980, par. 12)
He then posed a question, and offered an answer—a prayer—which to my mind will inspire hope and determination for all who work for a better world, here in Africa: “Will the African in his human dignity be the path towards a just and peaceful future of this continent? It is my hope that he will. Long live Africa!”
May St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II intercede for peace in Africa and peace in the world. Amen.