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A new year of challenges for the Church in Africa

2018 was a difficult year for the Church in Africa, and 2019—the 50th anniversary of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar—will almost certainly be another.

Kana Achot fills bowls with food in an emergency feeding program for malnourished children at the Loreto Girls School in Rumbek, South Sudan, April 18, 2018. The school, run by the Loretto Sisters of Ireland, has opened its compound to hundreds of nearby villagers facing hunger because of ongoing conflict. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

“The African Church is confronted with an immense and original undertaking; like a ‘mother and teacher’ she must approach all the sons of this land of the sun; she must offer them a traditional and modern interpretation of life; she must educate the people in the new forms of civil organization; while purifying and preserving the forms of family and community; she must give an educative impulse to your individual and social virtues: those of honesty, of sobriety, of loyalty; she must help develop every activity that promotes the public good, especially the schools and the assistance of the poor and sick; she must help Africa towards development, towards concord, towards peace.” – Pope Paul VI, Uganda, 1969

2019 will be an important year for the Church in Africa. It will mark the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). The group was established in 1969, stemming from the desire of African bishops at the Second Vatican Council to speak in one voice on matters relating to the Church on the African continent. The bishops then chose the visit of Pope Paul VI to Uganda in July 1969–the first visit of a pope to Africa in modern times–as the occasion to launch the forum.

In his homily at the conclusion of the Symposium, Pope Paul VI highlighted two main themes that, 50 years later, still seem relevant, even in the political and socio-economic situation that the African continent finds itself in today.

“By now, you Africans are missionaries to yourselves.”

Paul VI’s first theme was to recognize that after many years of missionary endeavors and labors, predominantly by European missionaries, the African Church had come of age, and was now “assuming its direction,” adding that “Africans must now continue, upon this continent, the building up of the Church.” He advised that for the Church to continue to flourish, two great but different and unequal forces must work together with great intensity.

They are: The hierarchy (by which name We mean the entire social, canonical, responsible, human, and visible structure of the Church, with the bishops in the front line); and then the Holy Spirit (that is, grace with all its charisms). Both must be at work in the dynamic form which is precisely that suitable to a young Church, called upon to offer itself to a culture responsive to the Gospel, such as is your African Church.

The second theme that Pope Paul VI explored, which is worth revisiting in the context of the Golden Jubilee, is what he referred to at the time as “a burning and much discussed question…that of the adaptation of the Gospel and of the Church to African culture.” He posed the question, “Must the Church be European, Latin, Oriental…or must she be African?” Fifty years on, the world seems a much smaller place, a phenomenon scholars describe as “globalization.” It seems to me that in the context of a globalized world, the question of inculturation has become less significant today than it was decades ago. Still, we continue to see differences on certain issues as expressed by the hierarchy of the Church in Africa. A recent example that comes to mind are the remarks by the archbishop of Dar es Salaam, Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, urging the Tanzanian government not to accept aid from western countries that comes attached with conditions on homosexuality. “If we are starving because we have refused to engage in such acts, then we would rather die with our God,” he is reported to have said during Mass at the Msimbazi Centre in the Tanzanian capital. Such differences of opinion stemming from cultural identity, pitting African prelates against some of their peers from Europe and North America, were also reported during the last two Synod of Bishops on the family and on youth, with Cardinal Napier of Durban describing the working document for the Youth Synod in October 2018 as being “too Eurocentric.”

Pope Paul VI in answering the question of what the Church in Africa must be, said “your Church must be first of all Catholic. That is, it must be entirely founded upon the identical, essential, constitutional patrimony of the self-same teaching of Christ, as professed by the authentic and authoritative tradition of the one true Church,” adding that this condition is “fundamental and indisputable.” However, Paul VI also pointed out that “the language and mode of manifesting this one faith may be manifold,” but that this would “require that your African soul become imbued to its depths with the secret charisms of Christianity, so that these charisms may then overflow freely, in beauty and wisdom, in the true African manner.” Paul VI concluded his homily by inviting the African Church to help the continent “towards development, towards concord, towards peace.”

Development, concord, and peace

A quick look back at 2018 reveals that the year was a tough one for the Church in Africa. The cost of conflicts in places like the Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, was felt deeply, with members of the clergy, in some instances, paying with the their lives. In November, two priests of the Diocese of Alindao—the vicar general, Msgr. Blaise Mada, and Father Celestine Ngoumbango—were among the 60 people massacred when Ex Seleka rebels brutally attacked a camp housing internally displaced people, adjacent to the cathedral. On the same day, a Kenyan Jesuit, Father Victor Odhiambo, was shot dead by assailants as he watched TV at his Jesuit community in South Sudan, where he served as an educator for many years.

A few days later, the Mill Hill Missionaries in Cameroon were mourning the death of a member of their congregation, Father Cosmas Ondari, who was reportedly shot twice by the military as he stood in front of the church where he was pastor. Archbishop Emeritus of Douala, Cardinal Christian Tumi, is leading an inter-religious effort in Cameroon, to resolve a conflict between the French-speaking and English-speaking parts of the country. It is in the context of this conflict that Father Ondari was killed. 2019 is bound to see increased momentum in the mediation efforts led by the Cameroonian faith community, as in other parts of the continent; in the CAR, for example, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the archbishop of Bangui, is already calling for an international inquiry into the Alindao massacre.

“In this year of the Jubilee, we are invited to all bring forward our five barley loaves and allow the Lord, together with our cooperation as African bishops, to do the programs that we think will take the Church of the African continent forward.” These were the words of Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, second vice president of SECAM, during his homily at the launch of the Symposium’s Golden Jubilee. Development needs of the Church in Africa continue to grow, even though much has been accomplished in the last 50 years. However, the theme of self-reliance has been emerging strongly in recent decades, as support from the global north continues to diminish. Bishop Siphuka added that “when we bring our five barley loaves, the word partner will begin to have its true meaning—because now it is said out of courtesy to avoid offence, but in truth we are not partners, we are beggars because we do not all bring our barley loaves to the party. Let us bring our few barley loves and gain our dignity.”

“As you know, each time we are to hold an event, we must go begging, because we do not all contribute our five barley loaves,” lamented Bishop Sipuka, who is head of the Diocese of Mthatha, South Africa. “We tend, for the most, to run programs that donors want, and not those that we want to run because we do not have our own funds.”

Despite the challenges on the continent, the agenda of African Church leaders in 2019 is celebrating in thanksgiving God’s wondrous deeds, His gift of baptism and of the Church; to reflect on the progress made so far, with the aim of deepening the faith, rooted in Christ, and to resolutely engage in the mission of proclaiming the gospel in words and actions.


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About Allen Ottaro 28 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.

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