The Church in Africa in 2014: A Year in Review

Ebola outbreaks and violent conflicts have affected millions and dominated headlines, but there have also been many moments of consolation

The year 2014 has been a challenging one for the Church in Africa, as it journeyed through a numerous highs and lows. Conflicts in different parts of the continent and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have dominated news headlines all year long. However, there have also been many moments of consolation.

Conflict and peace

In February, I had the opportunity to interview Fr. Paterne Mombe, SJ, the Director of the Africa Jesuit AIDS Network based in Nairobi and a native of the Central Africa Republic (CAR), about the conflict in his home country. He narrated his personal experience of the violence in the capital city, Bangui, and reconciliation efforts of both Christians and Muslims. Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapailanga of Bangui, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama and Rev.Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou have been prominent in leading interfaith efforts at stemming the violence. In their Advent pastoral statement, the Bishops of the CAR expressed worry about the increase of criminality and banditry orchestrated by former rebels and urged dialogue and constructive confrontation as the ideal tools to obtain lasting peace. Elections are scheduled later in 2015 and hopefully will help open the way for peace building.

South Sudan has also been engulfed in civil war since mid-December 2013. Peace talks between government and rebel leaders have been held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba, but both sides have accused the other of breaking the accords signed for the cessation of violence. The Archbishop of Juba, Most Reverend Paolino Lukudu Loro, in a statement on the occasion of the National Memorial Prayer for those who have died and suffered since December 15, 2013, titled “A Prayer for Reconciliation, Healing and Peace in South Sudan” described the situation in his country and praised the efforts of the Church in South Sudan: “Since the beginning of the conflict, there has been so much unnecessary death and displacement of individuals and communities with many fleeing the country as refugees to the neighboring countries. The Church in South Sudan – Bishops – Clergy – Faithful and all friends must be praised and encouraged for their deep prayers – tears – peace gatherings to obtain God’s blessings for peace in our nation.”

sister ranjitha maria soosai, a member of the daughters of mary immaculate, leads a group of children in singing inside a camp for internally displaced families at a u.n. base in juba, south sudan. (cns photo/paul jeffrey)

Earlier in September, the Bishops issued a message of hope to the country at the end of a three day meeting during which they discussed the status of the Church in the country. They emphasized their prophetic role as Bishops and strongly condemned the conflict.

In our prophetic role as bishops, we state without hesitation or fear that the current conflict is evil and must be stopped immediately and unconditionally, regardless of any other considerations. We call on every political leader, every military officer, every individual soldier, every armed civilian, whether government or opposition, to avoid any further killing. It is immoral and evil. The question to ask ourselves is: do I have the sincere will to renounce violence, to compromise and to bring peace?

The Ebola crisis

Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are three West African countries that have been hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak. Over 4500 deaths and more than 18,000 infections have been reported in the West African region. Nigeria and Senegal were able to contain the few cases of Ebola detected and were eventually declared Ebola-free.

The Church, through agencies such as Caritas, has been on the frontline in responding to the situation in all three countries. Hygiene gear such as gloves, buckets, soap, and bleach have been distributed to many communities, and training conducted with health care personnel, religious leaders, and parish communities to slow and stop the spread of the virus.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Liberian Bishop Anthony Fallah Borwah of Gbarnga, who was unable to attend the extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October as a result of travel bans on Ebola-affected countries, noted that “our humanity is being lost in the face of Ebola. This disease makes impossible ordinary human kindnesses, such as putting your arm around someone who is crying. The influence of the Church can cause a lot to be done for the sick, who are poor. Material help is needed as well as prayers for those who are dying of disease and hunger.” Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone all have a history of civil war and the Church has been working to heal the wounds caused by these conflicts. The Ebola outbreak has now made this task even more difficult and challenging as Bishop Borwah explained in the interview: “People are still recovering from many years of war and are very poor. And now, in our new tragic situation, these wounds that were healing have been opened and made more painful”.

pope francis shakes hands with ghanaian cardinal peter turkson, president of the pontifical council for justice and peace, during a meeting with council members at the vatican june 16. (cns photo/l'osservatore romano via reuters)

Ten days before Christmas, Monsignor Robert Vitillo, special advisor for health and HIV for Caritas Internationalis, accompanied Peter Cardinal Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on a visit to Sierra Leone and Liberia, to bring a message of hope from Pope Francis to the Church, health workers and the citizens of the two nations.

During his General Audience on October 29th, Pope Francis said, “In the face of the worsening Ebola epidemic, I would like to express my deep concern about this relentless disease that is spreading on the African continent, especially among the more disadvantaged groups. I am close with love and prayer to those stricken, as well as to the doctors, nurses, volunteers, religious institutes and associations, who are working heroically to help our sick brothers and sisters. I renew my appeal that the International Community exert all necessary effort to weaken this virus, effectively alleviating the hardship and suffering of all those so sorely tried. I invite you to pray for them and for those who have lost their lives.”

It is a message that will be very important for everyone affected in these countries moving into 2015.

Several African countries held general elections during the year 2014. Most notable was the South African elections on May 7th, which also marked 20 years since the end of apartheid. More than 25 million South Africans had been registered to vote. The South African Bishops launched a guide for voters, in which they issued a call to family, commitment, and participation. “We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society,” they noted, “seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.”

Ahead of the elections, the Archbishop of Durban, Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, told Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni that the Church had set aside Freedom Day, the day that celebrates the first democratic elections in South Africa as a Day of Prayer across the country, in order to “re-energize” what was there 20 years ago “when we were in crisis and we felt that the only way to find a way out of this crisis was for us to have recourse to God, and to have Him on our side, to have Him present among us”.

In Eritrea, the Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the 23rd anniversary of the country’s independence, celebrated on May 23rd. The Bishops addressed the crisis of emigration and the effects on the family unit: “The family unit is fragmented because members are scattered in national service, army, rehabilitation centers, prisons, whereas the aged parents are left with no one to care for them and have been spiritually damaged. And all that combined is making the country desolate.” Many young Eritreans have fled to Europe, making a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, sometimes resulting in deaths as happened off the Italian island of Lampedusa in late 2013.

a woman and a nun pray during an early morning mass at regina mundi church in soweto, south africa, june 30. (cns photo/kevin coombs, reuters)

The Bishops of Burkina Faso held a two day extraordinary meeting, November 3rd and 4th,, at the end of which they issued a pastoral statement on the state of the nation. The meeting came against the background of a popular uprising which led to the ouster of President Blaise Compaore in October 2014, who had ruled the landlocked West African country since 1987. A year earlier, in July 2013, the Bishops, in another pastoral statement, had warned of pent-up frustration and anger among the young people in Burkina Faso. In their latest statement, the Bishops started by quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s address to government and civic leaders as well as members of the diplomatic corps in Cotonou, Benin on his Apostolic visit. Pope Benedict XVI had told his audience (Cotonou, 19 November 2011):

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. It is not easy to live the life of a servant, to remain consistent amid the currents of opinion and powerful interests. Power, such as it is, easily blinds, above all when private, family, ethnic or religious interests are at stake. God alone purifies hearts and intentions.

They concluded by appealing for healing and reconciliation: “While welcoming the initiative of citizens (popular uprising), we need above all to find legitimate national pride, work to eradicate evil and sin from our hearts and our structures. Human lives and property were broken, destroyed or looted. So we have to work towards healing hearts, showing compassion and bringing all the necessary care to those injured in their flesh and in their soul and also ensure the safety of persons and property. We call for real change, that is to say, the conversion of hearts.”

In Zambia, the Archbishop of Lusaka, Most Reverend Telesphore Mpundu, who is also the President of the Zambia Episcopal Conference, led the country in mourning late President Michael Sata, who died on October 28th. In his homily at the funeral Mass, Archbishop Mpundu called for unity and peaceful campaigns ahead of the Presidential by-elections, urging politicians to seek votes on the basis of ideas and to shun violence.

Saints and celebrations

2014 was not all about gloom and misery for the Church in Africa. The Church celebrated the canonization of Pope Paul VI and John XXIII. 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 moment to celebrate the contribution of the two Popes to the Church in Africa and the continent as a whole.
Left: The Basilica of the Uganda Martyrs; right: Icon of Saint Charles Lwanga and his 21 followers (Wikipedia photos) In Uganda, the Archdiocese of Kampala celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Canonization of the Uganda Martyrs on Saturday, October 18, 2014. On Mission Sunday, October 18, 1964, the 22 Catholic martyrs of Uganda were solemnly proclaimed Saints by Pope Paul VI in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. He was the first Pope to make a pilgrimage to the shrine at Namugongo, where he laid a foundation stone for the present Minor Basilica at the spot where St. Charles Lwanga was killed, and upon his return to Rome he decreed that a parish be established in honor of the Holy Martyrs of Uganda.

In December, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo, presided over a special Mass attended by thousands of pilgrims from different regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to close the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Blessed Marie-Clémentine Anuarite. Blessed Anuarite was a religious sister of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Kisangani. She was murdered by Simba rebels in Isiro on December 1, 1964 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Kinshasa on August 15, 1985.

On All Saints Day, Bishop Joao Rodrigues and priests of the Diocese of Tzaneen, South Africa, solemnly blessed a ten hectare plot of land which the Diocese has acquired for the building of the future Shrine and Pilgrimage Centre in honour of the Servant of God, Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa. Servant of God Daswa was a primary school headmaster and devout Catholic who shed his blood at the hands of a mob justice that chased him into a pub and beat him to death, after he objected to some traditional practices, including witchcraft, contrary to the Gospel. The Congregation of the Causes of Saints is now set to discuss, on January 13, 2015, the beatification of Benedict Daswa, following a unanimous vote by a group of theologians tasked to review his life.

What does 2015 hold?

The Church in Africa will continue to address the ongoing challenges as well as emerging ones in the year 2015. However, to get a more solid outline of how the Church will continue its pilgrimage in the New Year, I took a quick glance at the encounters of several Episcopal Conferences from more than a dozen African countries, with Pope Francis on their Ad limina visits. The common themes of the Pope’s address to the Bishops were; recognition of the work of the Church in education, healthcare, and charity; ecumenical and interreligious cooperation; deep formation of clergy and the laity; and formation of strong Christian families, helping them to nurture the life of virtue in the family.

May St. John Paul II and Mary, Queen of Africa and Mother of the Church, intercede for Africa in 2015! 

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About Allen Ottaro 32 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.