By Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG)
The Synod an intra
The Church in Africa emerged from the Synod with a spirit of hope and a realistic optimism about its future. The growth of the Catholic Church in Africa has been astronomical over the last century. Sceptics often wonder about the depth of such a growth, but the obvious Christian truth is that all are daily called to ongoing conversion.
The fitting response is not one of despair, but of more committed and concerted action for justice and freedom by all and for all. Herein lay the elemental challenge and invitation of the Church ad intra of this Second Synod.
The Church in Africa emerged from the Synod with an awareness and call to a greater spirit of unity and solidarity, ad intra. It was noticeable that a divided African Church will only make a minimal impact in its desire to transform Africa. The African Church can facilitate the process of transforming Africa into a place of justice and peace if all its members collaborate in a creative, active and engaging manner, for “an army of well-organised ants can bring down an elephant” (Message, no. 15).
Another outcome of the Synod was the public acknowledgement of the contributions of women, with a clarion call for women empowerment. The Synod was very clear in its acknowledgement of the important role of women in both church and society, and called on the Church to give women a greater say in Church governance. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted this Africae Munus: “Bishops should encourage and promote the formation of women so that they may assume their proper share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and of the Church. Women will thus contribute to the harmonisation of society” (AM no. 57). A number of Religious sisters were invited to address the Synod. Sr. Felicia Harry stressed to the synodal assembly that collaboration in the Church does not mean men making decisions and women doing the work. It means that women are also involved in the decision-making process. Other women speakers also stressed the fact that in Africa, women bear an unbalanced share of the burden arising from the many conflicts, from poverty, disease, and social degeneration in many instances.
Consequently, even though it is still too soon to tell, many African dioceses are setting up Justice and Peace Commissions, following the teaching of the Synod. Also, many women are increasingly getting teaching positions in Catholic seminaries and faculties in Africa.
The Synod ad extra
The Synod reserved its strongest language in its challenge and wake-up call to African political leaders. With some very few noticeable exceptions, the Synod generally considered as “woeful” the performance of most African politicians and heads of government (Message, no. 34). They Synod identified greed and unbridled pursuit of power as the root causes of the sorry state of political leadership in Africa. The Synod likewise condemned the tragic cooperation between many African leaders and multinationals dealing with arms and other disadvantageous economic agreement. On her part, the Church resolved “to offer present and future leaders a fitting doctrinal, pastoral, practical formation as well as spiritual support (by setting up chaplaincies), (Proposition 25). The Synod also drew attention to the value of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching as a tool for this purpose, facilitated by Catholic universities. This formation of political leaders was also taken up in the post-synodal exhortation, as a necessary condition for transformation (AM, no. 103).
Another consequence of the Synod was the awareness it raised about some of the excesses of globalisation. The Synod was cautious not to condemn the process of globalisation, which is not evil in and by itself (Proposition 31). However, it did warn against the “new global ethic” of the U.N., the World Bank and the IMF, which was undermining African traditional values. Thus, Catholic families were warned “to be on their guard against virulent ideological poisons from abroad, claiming to be modern culture” (Message, no. 24). Consequently, many Episcopal conferences across Africa have written pastoral letters to this effect, to Catholics and African governments, defending the African traditional values of family life against the “global ethic” seen as being pushed by the Western world. Groups such as the Catholic Women Association have taken to the streets in many parts of Africa, defending African womanhood and motherhood, following this Synodal caution.
In addition, the Synod also raised the awareness in Africa about environmental protection and reconciliation with creation. The Synod condemned the “exploitation of natural resources beyond what is sustainable and useful by governments and multinational and transnational companies engaged in businesses that pollute the environment, destroy flora and fauna, thus causing unprecedented erosion and desertification of large areas of arable land” (Proposition 22). The Synod called on the African Churches to promote environmental education and awareness, and persuade their local and national governments to adopt policies and binding legal regulations for the protection of the environment and the promotion of alternative and renewable sources of energy; and to encourage all to plant trees and treat nature with respect (Proposition 22). In many parts of Africa, this synodal call has found a favourable hearing, especially the planting of trees and the responsible disposal of waste.
The Synod’s Success
Ecclesiological arena: The Church in Africa emerged with a renewed spirit, fourteen years after the First Synod. The Synod’s call for the promotion of an in-depth study of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching in formation programmes for priests, religious and laity (Proposition 8), has generated new interest in this body of Church teaching. This is evident from the publication of the Compendium by the Daughters of St. Paul, a religious missionary group with a media apostolate in Africa. In addition, the setting up of Justice, Development and Peace Commissions in many dioceses across Africa is a sign of success of the Synod. Perhaps the most significant contribution envisaged lies in the awareness that reconciliation, justice and peace are not understood exclusively as concerns for the secular world; they impinge primarily and significantly on the Church’s nature and mission.
Spiritual/Religion arena: The Church in Africa further emerged from the Synod with a spiritual vision that was much more socially oriented towards the pursuit of reconciliation in a bid to bring about a continent of justice and peace for all peoples. A landmark success in this arena is in the rediscovery of a spirituality of reconciliation that is open both to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and to other forms of traditional African rites of reconciliation. In addition, solidarity between local Churches has been given a sharper focus, lived out through a spiritual of communion that involves sharing of human and financial resources. In furtherance, many Africans now offer prayers for justice and reconciliation in Africa during liturgical moments, flowing from the prayer for a successful synod that was recited in many parts of Africa before the actual commencement of the Synod.
Theological arena: The greatest theological achievement of the Synod was its success in laying a theological foundation for the work of justice and peace, by situating peace as a primarily a gift from God - a gift which is at the same time a task and an invitation to become peace makers with God. This has created an imagination of the pursuit for peace as a religious duty in the minds of many Africans. And this is also the case with justice. Hence, through the Second Synod, a narrow political understanding of justice and peace has been overcome in Africa. In addition, by placing forgiveness before justice, it made the conditions for the pursuit of justice to be freed from too narrow a revengeful spirit that was common place in Africa. Through the Second Synod, Africans now understand that justice is a fruit of forgiveness, and not vice versa. This is an insight in need of further theological reflection.
Political-Economic arena: The impact of the Synod in this area was that it succeeded in placing on a global stage three basic points: firstly, that Africa’s political conflicts have been motivated by greed and the lust for power. Secondly, that these bloody wars have been exacerbated and sustained with the collaboration of unscrupulous neo-colonial interests in Africa. If the Synod is to record any success in this area, nothing short of a revolution overthrowing neo-colonialism in Africa would be necessary. Finally, and to liberate African leaders from the blindness of greed and power, the Church has undertaken the duty of creating spaces for the formation of African political and economic leaders in the Social Teachings of the Church. In some countries such as in Burundi and Nigeria, structures have already gone operational in which elected representatives have opportunities to study the Social Teachings of the Church. One also notices some hopeful signs of a growing civic consciousness in the struggle for human rights, with many politicians keenly aware of their responsibility to educate their people politically through electoral campaigns, and to guide their nations towards peace and prosperity.
The Synod’s Success
Socio-Cultural arena: Africans generally have a deep love for their cultural values. Even those who have lived long in the Western world and have undergone Western education still cling to their cultural values, because of the formative influence of African culture. The Synod gave a new impetus in the regard for culture by pushing Africans to go beyond the comfort zones of respect for elders; respect for women as mothers; a culture of solidarity, mutual aid, hospitality and unity; a respect for life, et cetera, to new awareness, such as the acknowledgement and respect for the equal dignity between man and woman; a more public place for the woman in society and Church and to resist the culture of violence and division from armed conflicts. The education of the youth was also given prominence, since they are often the category of people most exploited for violent ends. The Church in Africa also undertook to deepen catechesis on spirituality, the Eucharist, and the communion of saints to counteract the prevailing influence of witchcraft in many African communities.
Pastoral dimension: The Synod sought to place its message in a pastoral context, with tasks for catechists, priests, religious men and women and bishops. Evidently, the Second Synod is building on the achievements of the first, which saw the creation of Small Christian Communities, Family Apostolates, Youth Groups and Movements, Theological Congresses and Seminars, Justice, Peace and Development Commissions, Social Media and other pastoral outlets, to bring across its message. Recent elections in Africa have seen an increasing active participation of Justice and Peace Commissions of various Christian communities. The political class, who see in these observers a neutral presence to authenticate election results, has generally appreciated this development.
Reconciliation through Justice and Peace was a major undertaking of the Second Synodal Assembly for Africa, whose relevance was underscored by the continent’s sorry state. Africa continues to be plagued by violence and wars across different countries. Countries like Chad, Central African Republic, Niger, Mali; and violence in Libya, Egypt and Nigeria are wrestling with armed uprisings and low intensity conflicts, while some
like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia have apparently become failed states with no strong central government to guarantee peace and the protection of lives and property.
These violent destructive forces have impeded the academic, infrastructural, political and social development of Africa. Human rights abuses go unchecked; women are victims of sexual violence; youth and children deployed as child soldiers by unscrupulous militia; with mass illiteracy and ignorance exploited as tools in the hands of these destructive ideologies. Even with a hopeful spirit which the Synod encourages, many are disillusioned about the present state of Africa.
Even the Church, which is supposed to maintain high standard of morality, is not free from falling standards, as was noticeable during one of the most grotesque campaigns of human savagery and barbarism in the Rwandan genocide, and various forms of injustices perpetrated in many ecclesial environments in Africa. It is tempting to conclude that on many counts, God’s judgement is already on the Church! And yet, as the Second Synod itself pointed out, despair is not an option, for the opposite of hope is not despair but presumption, an option that is not noble and civil.
The Synod itself appeared as a beacon of light on the horizon, a light of hope that invites all of Africa towards concrete action in bringing about change and a new day for Africa, when from the heights of the gospel of reconciliation, galaxies of justice and peace will break forth into the whole of Africa, wherein “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them... They shall not hurt or destroy in my entire holy mountain, for (Africa) shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
This hope and optimism from the Second Synod is a call to all Africans to rally behind and ensure that these expectations and high ideals are translated into concrete results for the continent; failure which the vision from the Second Synod will remain pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. The end