The majority of Ethiopian Christians are Orthodox, and churches like the Jesus Church in Addis Ababa are never empty. Photo by Michael Swan

Africa takes its place in universal Church

  • September 26, 2015

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - The Catholic Church is more African than most Canadians realize. We pay no attention to the early African popes — Gelasius I (492 to 496), Miltiades (311 to 314) and Victor I (189 to 199). We gloss over the African origins of some of the most significant writers and thinkers of early Christianity, including the evangelist Mark, author of the oldest Gospel in the canon, and theologians Tertullian, Origen and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Our reading of the Old Testament never pauses to note that Sheba was queen of Ethiopia when she met Solomon. Our reading of the New Testament attaches no particular significance to the fact the first recorded gentile converted to Christ was an African — a court official under Candace, queen of Ethiopia, whom Philip the Apostle cured of leprosy.

We all know how the Roman Emperor Constantine decided Christianity should be tolerated by his imperial governors in 313. But how many of us know that by 324 the Ethiopian empire became officially Christian?

The Africanness of our Church isn’t just a collection of trivia from history. The Church today is more African than it has ever been. “Somebody said once, it’s like God is moving to Africa. I don’t think so,” said Fr. Iyogwoya Moses. “I believe God is everywhere.”

Since 1980 Africa’s Catholic population has grown by 238 per cent and now approaches the 200 million mark. By 2040, 24 per cent of Africans will be Catholic — more than 460 million African Catholics before the middle of this century.

In the last century the Catholic population grew from 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000. That’s a growth of 6,708 per cent.

The largest Catholic seminary in the world is Bigard Memorial Seminary in Nigeria, with 1,225 students enrolled. Many North American and European parishes have been blessed with young, enthusiastic, hard-working African priests — which gives the impression of an enormous African bounty of vocations.

Africa now has more than double the number of priests it had in 1980, a 131-percent growth in the priestly population of the continent according to Georgetown University’s Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate. However, the additions to the priestly population are far outstripped by the growth in the Catholic population. Compare the 238-per-cent growth in Catholic population over the past 35 years to a mere 112- per-cent increase in the number of parishes.

Ethiopia has been an officially Christian country since the fourth century and today it is more than 63-percent Christian, although Catholics represent less than one per cent of the population.

The tiny Catholic minority is split almost evenly between Ethiopicand Latin-rite Catholics. The little Catholic Church, however, is the number two provider of education, health care and social services in Ethiopia — right after the government.

“Maybe we are not that much interested in numbers,” Capuchin Franciscan Father Tilaye Alemeshet, rector of Addis Ababa’s Catholic seminary, told me.

“What we are focused on mainly is to help the people, the needy.

“We are not really concerned with how many people are coming to us, how many people we manage to convert. The country is already a Christian nation.”

Tilaye is modest about the numbers attending his seminary. There are around 160 students and each year 15 to 20 of them are ordained for various religious orders and the dozen dioceses around the country.

For the 1.2 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Toronto, 15 to 20 ordinations a year would be cause for celebration, but Tilaye is subdued about the numbers his seminary produces. When he was a student there were 230 enrolled at the seminary and ordination classes of 30 were not unusual.

“It shows how vocations have decreased in the current situation,” he said. African Catholics are not nominal or cultural. Mass attendance generally stands at about 70 per cent for the continent.

Of course it is dangerous to talk about Africa in sweeping generalities. When we talk about Europe we don’t assume Spaniards, Poles and Norwegians are all cut from one cloth. There are 56 countries in Africa. There are 83 languages spoken just within Ethiopia. Each of these languages carries with it a culture, a history, a nation.

Africa is at least as diverse as Europe.

The Africa of booming seminaries sending missionaries to re-evangelize Europe and North America is largely Nigerian. The Missionary Society of St. Paul of Nigeria has six priests serving in Canadian parishes and more than 30 spread across the United States.

But most of these African priestly missionaries are not in the comfortable rectories of the West. The majority of 280 Missionaries of St. Paul are serving in poor, mission parishes in Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Malawi and Gambia.

“There was a time when we had to close a mission because the priest could not get enough food to eat,” Moses, Missionary of St. Paul project development co-ordinator, told The Catholic Register while visiting Toronto.

The growth of Moses’ little missionary congregation is spectacular. The society was formed in 1977 and ordained its first priest in 1985. Today there are 110 seminarians studying for the missionary priesthood with the society. As vocation director until last year, Moses used to see as many as 3,000 applications per year, from which he would select between 20 and 30, mindful of the expense of putting a young man through six years of university studies before ordination.

Moses pooh-poohs the idea that bishops in North America and Europe are exploiting Africa to paper over the rich world’s failure to nurture vocations. In his view African missionaries serving in the West are giving back some of the riches they received from Irish missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The African Church is now a full partner in the universal Church.

“If you have a father and a mother who care for you, and now they are old with struggles and challenges, would you not help them if they need your assistance?” he asks. “An African proverb says, ‘If you want to wash your hands well, you need two of them. One hand cannot wash itself.’

Whispers about Africans signing up for the priesthood to assure themselves a comfortable, middle-class life are hardly worthy of Moses’ contempt. The Nigerian priest has served parishes in the Boko Haram heartland of northern Nigeria and recalls a Sunday morning when the church where he was going to preach was blown up.

“I will tell myself, ‘O God, if I don’t come back today, God rest my soul.’ It can be as bad as that,” he said.

But rather than dwell on the dangers he has faced, Moses is anxious to talk about the struggles of his brothers in the Missionary Society of St. Paul of Nigeria who are serving in Sudan, Chad, Malawi.

“We don’t think it is economic reasons that are driving them.”

Nor does Moses think the vocation story paints the full picture of the Church in Africa. If Africa has vocations, it’s because families are living their faith.

“They are blowing up churches and there are people in them, but people are still going to church,” he said. “It’s not that they want to die, but they want to be in church.”

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