Africa represents 17 per cent of the world’s total Catholic population of 1.272 billion, up from 13.8 per cent in 2005. Between 2005-14, the continent’s Catholic population grew by 41 per cent, compared to a 24-per-cent increase in its overall population. CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters

Africa takes its place in 21st-century Church

  • January 7, 2017

The Church, the world and the future are all more African today than they have ever been.

Africa is no dark continent — some distant impoverished mystery cut off from the enlightenment of Western democracy, technology and prosperity. Africa is becoming an engine of the future, especially the future of the universal Church.

Between 2005 and 2015 Africa’s economy grew by 50 per cent, far outpacing the global average of 23 per cent despite costly, disastrous wars in several countries.

But Africa’s future is about much more than economic developments. These are a mere side effect of the demographic and cultural power of a young continent.

In 2013, there were 200 million Africans between 15 and 24, one-fifth of the continent’s population. By 2045 there will be 400 million young Africans in those critical years of higher education and first steps into the workforce.

Canada’s youth between 15 and 24 are just over 4.5 million, or 12.5 per cent of our population. Nobody is projecting growth in that demographic.

Africa’s youth will not accept lives cut off from the wealth of the 21st century. As the young tend to do — because they will be the workers, innovators and consumers — the coming generation of Africans are expected to become global wealth creators in this century. Africans are 15 per cent of the world’s population today. By 2100 they will be nearly 40 per cent.

The Church is a part of this rising, youthful Africa. One in five Christians in the world today are Africans living south of the Sahara. In the last 100 years this region’s Catholics have grown 70-fold — from seven million to 470 million African Catholics.

Nor are Africa’s Catholics merely cultural.

“This is a very religious continent by any standard,” Jesuit Father Agbonkianmeghe Orobator told The Catholic Register during a recent visit to Toronto. “I mean believing people — people of faith.”

There may, in fact, be a few atheists in foxholes. But anyone who has been to Africa can tell you there are fewer in Africa. Africans speak dozens of languages and live in a great variety of cultures, but they share the bedrock conviction that everything depends on a relationship with God.

It’s not an individual or individualistic relationship with God. African religion springs from African community and finds its home in the community.

“Sumus ergo sum,” Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson said in 2010 — “We are, therefore I am.”

Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny (recently appointed to a key post in refugee policy for the Vatican’s department for Promotion of Integral Human Development) spent a decade in Africa helping to establish the African Jesuit AIDS Network.

He believes Africa is making crucial contributions to how the Church thinks, feels and acts in the world today.

“Years before Pope Francis called on the Church to act as a field hospital, I witnessed it doing precisely that in Africa,” said Czerny in an email to The Catholic Register.

Czerny points out that Turkson, sometimes mentioned as a possible future pope, didn’t come up with the African theological insight about how our identity springs from our community. It was African theologian John Mbiti in 1969 who observed, “I am because we are — and since we are, therefore I am,” said Czerny. The African instinct for connection fits incredibly well with Pope Francis.

“In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis took it further,” said Czerny. “Because we are, because we come from us and are going toward us, there’s our common home to take care of — not optionally, but necessarily.”

Still, the 49-year-old Orobator, who heads up the Jesuit theological college in Nairobi, Kenya, rejects any suggestion that Africa will follow Latin America as the premier staging ground for new thought and action in the Church of this century.

“I don’t think it’s Africa’s turn,” Orobator said. “I don’t think we take turns. I’m a firm believer in what we call the world Church or the global Church.”

Led by prominent prelates such as Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, a vocal proponent of the Church’s traditional teachings and practices, the African Church is often regarded as a conservative voice. To some extent, that may be true, but Western labels are difficult to apply to Africa. In any event, expecting Africa to provide some new formulation — to reconstitute Catholic teaching and practice as liberation theology did in response to crushing poverty and military dictatorships in Latin America through the Cold War years — is unlikely to happen.

“We make contributions (to the Church) not as a concession but rather by the fact of being baptized and full members of this community,” Orobator said. “The Church in Africa, for me, participates in this same mission not by concession, not by turn, but because as a community we come bearing gifts. We come bearing graces and charisms to enrich this global community. So every time is the African Church’s time.”

In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI called Africa “an immense spiritual lung for a humanity which seems to be in crisis of faith and hope.”

Orobator is not shying away from Benedict’s belief in Africa as a force capable of rejuvenating the Church.

“The Church in the global north urgently needs the resuscitating breath of the Church in the South in order to survive,” Orobator told an audience of African immigrants at the Consolata Missionaries church in Toronto Dec. 19. “Europe and North America, especially, now represent a new mission frontier in the world Church.”

But Orobator doesn’t see this is mere redistribution of priestly human resources — transferring abundant African vocations to aging parishes in Canada. In a world where close to 250 million people every year are on the move, Orobator sees mission in terms of the ebbs and flows of humanity. For him, not just priests but entire diaspora populations are missionary.

“When we move, we don’t leave our cultures behind, much less our religion,” Orobator said. “When we move, we move with our outlook on life. We move with our worldview, including our religious beliefs and cultural convictions, for good or ill.”

Rather than a new formulation of Catholic faith, it is the nearly 800,000 African immigrants themselves, many of them Catholic, who are Africa’s gift to the Church in Canada. But in Africa itself, as a new generation of engaged Catholics takes its place, the African Church expresses faith in the context of the continent’s many crises. Not least of these are the millions of African refugees.

“The poorest African countries are the generous hosts of the vast majority of refugees,” points out Czerny. “So well-off societies complaining about being ‘flooded’.... The Church does not approach the HIV/AIDS pandemic, or the so-called migrant-refugee crisis, as a problem to be solved. Rather, she hears the voice of the Lord saying to us, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have life to the full.’”

Life in Africa is created by everything ordinary people do when faced with these impossible situations. The Jesuit AIDS ministry in Africa helps ordinary Africans to care for their HIV-positive neighbours.

As South Sudan falls into another spiral of violence, an association of Catholics called Solidarity with South Sudan, inspired by religious sisters, brothers and priests, are intervening in one of the most dangerous conflicts in the world.

“These are not bishops,” points out Orobator. “These are lay people, religious women and men, who formed a partnership, a solidarity with South Sudan. And not to change governments, not to resist a military dictatorship, but to make sure that people get the kind of support they need out of compassion and mercy.”

Democracy is an important ingredient, but it has to be a democracy ingrained in the culture, history and common life of each African nation.

“I am at a crossroads right now and I’m asking myself what really is democracy? Do we have a model which is equally applicable across the world?” Orobator asks. “What we just witnessed in the U.S. (election) — is that is a model of democracy because that’s supposed to be a beacon? If that’s the model of democracy I have to beg to say, I disagree.”

The Jesuits in Africa believe they have a contribution to make in creating a truly African, indigenous democratic culture.

“A bunch of Jesuit schools is a very good idea and we have taken that as a very important mission for the Jesuits in Africa,” Orobator said. “We believe very strongly that education has a role. And not just any kind of education, but education that actually focuses on the person — on transforming the person and transforming communities, on empowering people to be transformational leaders.”

The Church in Africa may well be the Church of the future.

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