Seeing beyond Africa’s problems

By  Sheldon Fernandez, Catholic Register Special
  • August 28, 2008

{mosimage}African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women by Camille Lewis Brown (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 145 pages, softcover, $14.95).

With good reason, the continent of Africa is often at the centre of Catholic debates pertaining to world affairs and global politics. The haunting shadows of the Rwanda genocide and present realities in places like Darfur and Congo are a constant challenge to the Christian conscience and test the boundaries of our own charity.

At the same time, it is a disservice to examine Africa only through the prism of tragedy, or as its inhabitants sometimes say, “to reduce Africa to its problems.” The evils that plague the continent may be many, but so too are its riches, the most praiseworthy of which might be the joyful and optimistic spirituality of its people.

“America tolerates God, Africa celebrates God,” exclaimed a Nigerian pastor. “We’re called ‘the continent of darkness,’ but that’s when you appreciate the light. Jesus is the light.”

African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men and Women by Camille Lewis Brown is a welcome attempt to highlight the positive religious contributions of Africa since the dawn of Christianity. The author examines the lives of 40 outstanding Catholics of African descent — from the towering figure of St. Augustine who fathered much Catholic theology, to the relatively obscure person of Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African-American priest in the United States. The first 30 of these character sketches are reserved for official saints declared by the Catholic Church — such as St. Gelasius, the first pope referred to as the “Vicar of Christ.” The remaining 10 are dedicated to saints-in-waiting — individuals worthy of sainthood in Brown’s estimation who have yet to be recognized by the Vatican.

{amazon id='0867168056' align='right'}Each character sketch occupies two or three pages in the book and includes biographical information, a related Scripture passage, a prayer and some questions for reflection. In this way, the book can be used for morning or nighttime prayer or as a chance to acquaint oneself with an exemplary Catholic before starting or ending the day.

By far the strongest elements in Brown’s book are those occasions where we get an upfront and visceral look at the lives of the saints and become witness to the persecution they faced while living and professing their Christian faith.

There is the case of the Blessed Anuarite, a woman whose struggle to maintain her virginity amidst the chaos of the Congo led to her brutal murder. The final moments of her death — extracted by Brown from her biography — is incredibly moving as both a testament to the raw cruelties humans can inflict, and the simple fact that some individuals bravely resist such evils.

In addition to these stirring narratives, the book is peppered with gems of wisdom by some of Africa’s lesser known saints. St. Poeman, the Monk of Wisdom, in a caution against apathy and laziness, says “they smoke out bees in order to steal their honey. So idleness drives the feats of God from the soul, and steals its good works.” The Blessed Iwene Tansi reminds us to “pray, pray often, pray with all your heart, pray to God, pray to our Blessed Mother. Mass is the most powerful of all prayers.” This facet of the book, in particular, should provide a rich source of spiritual reflection to all readers.

If there is a weakness with Brown’s book, it is that he tries to do too much in too little space. For many blessed individuals –—St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi to use two popular examples — the road to sainthood was a difficult, trying endeavour whereby an unsavoury and immoral life was redeemed only after much struggle, contemplation and contradiction. In relegating each saint to two or three pages of description, however, much of this complexity — and hence many of the moral lessons behind their individuals lives — is lost. As such, there is a tendency for these biographies to become repetitive and formulaic.

In the interest of brevity, Brown is also cavalier in dealing with certain facts. In summarizing the life of St. Benedict the Moor, for instance, the author states that the monk’s elevation to sainthood “was a clear sign that holy mother (church) regarded slavery as an evil against humanity.” It is a succinct and noble sentiment indeed, but one that ignores the Vatican’s own complex history with the issue of slavery, as Jesuit Father John Perry illustrated in his book Catholics and Slavery.

These shortcomings aside, Brown’s book is a timely reminder that, as much as Africa is presently in need of sainthood, it has, since the birth of Christianity, consistently produced true saints and deep spirituality. It is a worthwhile read. You just might find yourself reaching for a more thorough reference afterwards.

(Fernandez has a Masters degree in Theology from the University of Toronto and recently spent time working with the African Jesuits AIDS Network in Kangemi, Kenya.)

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