By Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG)
According to Vatican figures, there are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. More than 40 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America - but Africa has seen the biggest growth in Catholic congregations in recent years.
At the start of the 20th century, Africa had about 3 million Catholics. Today, a decade and a half into the 21st century, Africa counts 185 million Catholics. By 2025, Africa will account for over 23 percent of the World’s Catholics. If, as the saying goes, numbers are destiny, then it is surely the case that Catholicism is experiencing an “African moment” today.
In a recent interview with ZENIT, Archbishop Charles Palmer Buckle of Accra, Ghana, argued that the proper hermeneutic of approaching Africa’s presence at the 2015 Synod on the Family is to pay attention to the landmark historical developments that have shaped the Church in Africa in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. In this light, Archbishop Buckle highlighted the 1994 Synod for Africa that had as theme, “Church as Family,” and the 2009 Synod for Africa, that focused on Justice, Peace and Reconciliation. Based on these two Synods, the Church in Africa came to the 2015 Synod with a somewhat critical discerning heart and mind.
In the words of the Ghanaian Archbishop: “So for us, coming to participate in the synod for the family, is like bringing coal to new castle. We are here to share. We have been here sharing from our own experience, from our own cultural perspectives, but we are open and here to listen to what the family means to Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, to people from North America. We are listening very attentively because we would like to avoid the pitfalls that families in these so-called advanced countries have fallen into. We would like also to help them look at families from its beautiful, original perspective. So we believe we are being enriched and we are enriching also, all the other participants.”
From these words of Archbishop Buckle, the perspective of the African Church to the 2015 Synod is therefore twofold, to be enriched by the global Church, and likewise to enrich the global Church. The Church in Africa no longer sees herself as an infant, whose only legitimate role is to listen to the local churches of the Western world. The Church in Africa has clearly come of age.
This journey to maturity has had some significant providential moments, in addition to the1994 and 2009 synods, respectively convened by St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. Let us return to the historical hand marks that formed the African Church for the 2015 Synod, hoping to find in them a hermeneutical key to the issues that marked this Synod.
Without any pretense to biblical competence – since my world is restricted to explaining the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one can readily think of the encounter between the Queen from Ethiopia and Solomon (1 Kgs. 10; Mt. 12:42), to constitute a significant moment in the unfolding of salvation history for the Church that is in Africa. This meeting should constitute a part of the African ecclesial experience, granted that the Church’s history did not begin with Jesus Christ. In fact, to the repeated question whether Jesus founded the Church or not, the only legitimate response will be that such a question is false, for Jesus did not need to “found” a Church, since the Church, the called community of YHWH, was already existing, from Abraham’s call. The Fathers would even talk about the Church from Abel the Just! Jesus of Nazareth basically did two things: he universalised and radicalised the community of Israel, by breaking the geographical boundaries around the chosen people to include everyone, and by stretching the prescriptions of the Torah from the letter and spirit to his own person. He became the new Torah, in his own flesh. Without this process of universalisation and radicalisation, the Christian Church is the same as Judaism! This is highly significant, especially when one begins to hear of calls to particularise or regionalise Christian teaching, in the name of pastoral exigencies. A Christian faith that is regionalised strikes at the very root of the coming into being, of the “new Israel,” in that geographic and political definitions become faith determinants. In a few words, that is why the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Ethiopia should have such ecclesial significance.
Briefly, other significant historical moments could be the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt; the presence of Simon of Cyrene at the scene of the Crucifixion and the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8). The outstanding contributions to the universal Church made by Augustine of Hippo, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian, amongst others - the North African Fathers of the Church, cannot be overemphasised. The demise of Catholicism in North Africa remains a pain whose consequences are still with us today. That this collapse of the Christian faith in a once-flourishing part of Africa, owed in large part to a weakened Christianity torn apart by internal controversies over doctrine before the onslaught of Islam, should constitute a warning sign against the repeat of such today. A Christianity that uses up its energies in internal debates is one heading for a weakened position against external threats to the faith. North Africa is a standing example.
The Church in Africa cannot forget the August 1969 historic visit of Blessed Paul VI to Kampala, Uganda, in which the Great Pope of EvangeliiNuntiandi, Popolurum Progresso, and Humanae Vitae, declared Africa as Christ’s new homeland, and called on the African Church to be missionaries to themselves. To show that a Church has taken roots, we can see indigenous vocations to the priesthood, religious life and the sacrament of marriage. To show that a Church has matured, we can see indigenous bishops. Paul VI saw both in Africa when he launched the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). The beatification of the Martyrs of Uganda showed the global Church that Africa was already bearing heroic testimony to the name of Jesus.
To be cont’d