May we hear the voices of our African brethren

By  Fr. Michael Czerny SJ, Catholic Register Special
  • November 19, 2009
{mosimage}They say we are running out of water, but I wonder if we should also be worried about running out of listening. Who these days would ever take several weeks out to listen to anyone about anything? But that’s exactly what several hundred of us did last month in Rome at the second Synod for Africa.

The theme was The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace: “You are the salt of the earth ... you are the light of the world.” Pope Benedict attended 13 of the 20 General Congregations (plenary sessions) and, except for prayer and a greeting, he just listened attentively.

After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI instituted the Synod of Bishops as a way of continuing the experience and work of the Council. Since 1967 there have been 22 such assemblies. The first Synod for Africa was in April 1994, just when Rwanda was imploding and Nelson Mandela was being elected in South Africa. In September 1995 John Paul II published his exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, the most important church teaching on Africa.

“Synod” means “to make one’s way together” and such a concourse is an apt image for more than 200 church leaders who gathered around the Supreme Pontiff to help him and one another in their ministry. The general congregations took place in the steep, well-equipped auditorium of the Paul VI audience hall inside the Vatican. Twelve circuli minores (working groups) met six times to boil everything down to the final 57 propositions which, in about a year’s time, will be incorporated into Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation.

The first fruit of the Synod is a message addressed to the whole church, family of God, especially in Africa, and “to all those whose hearts God may open to listen to our words.” Three points stand out for me:

1) “Multinationals have to stop their criminal devastation of the environment in their greedy exploitation of natural resources. It is short-sighted policy to foment wars in order to make fast gains from chaos, at the cost of human lives and blood.” This come-and-take and go-away-and-leave-a-mess-behind happens over and over. The bishops strongly condemned the economic and political elite for their “tragic complicity and criminal conspiracy” with outside forces colluding to exploit the continent and its people.

2) The bishops welcomed the opportunity “to assess our stewardship as pastors of God’s flock” and expressed regret for not giving their own continental organization SECAM “the support that it should have.” At the same time they called African leaders to their responsibility. “Many Catholics in high office have fallen woefully short in their performance in office. The Synod calls on such people to repent, or quit the public arena and stop causing havoc to the people and giving the Catholic Church a bad name.”

3) The bishops recognized women as, paradoxically, both “the backbone of the local church” and “deprived of their rights.” The bishops “vigourously condemn all inhumane, unjust and violent acts against women” and regret that “the development of girls and women is often disproportionate to that of boys and men.” Women’s contribution “not only in the home as wife and mother but also in the social sphere should be more generally acknowledged and promoted. We charge you, our Catholic women, to be fully involved in the women’s programs of your nations, with your eyes of faith wide open.”

At the same time, the Synod called on Catholic men “to play your important roles as responsible fathers and good and faithful husbands” as well as in society. And everyone, youth and adults alike, should enjoy integral human (intellectual, professional, moral, spiritual, theological) formation and, once exercising leadership in economic or political or social spheres, have qualified Catholic chaplains to accompany them.

Unafraid, much less discouraged “by the enormity of the problems of our continent,” the bishops felt “challenged and encouraged by the African proverb which says that an army of well organized ants can bring down an elephant.”

Do we want to help? An Africa that is not listened to is an Africa that cannot be helped.

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