Home > Archives > 06/07 - 2004 > Simplicity and fidelity
from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

BISHOPS. Look at the Church in Africa today

Simplicity and fidelity

These are the two qualities suggested by the president of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and of Madagascar for the life of the Church on the continent

by John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan

A moment of prayer during a session of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, (SECAM), held in Dakar in October 2003

A moment of prayer during a session of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, (SECAM), held in Dakar in October 2003

ow to look at the church in Africa today? At the last assembly of SECAM (Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and of Madagascar) in Dakar it was established that the “restructuring” we had begun to talk about at the gathering in Rocca di Papa in Italy four years ago should be initiated.

We are responding to two fundamental reasons for change. The first is that SECAM was founded in 1969, by a small group of bishops, half of whom were foreign missionaries, in a world completely different from today, not only in the African context, but in the world. Today the episcopate is four times larger than in 1969 and the great majority are Africans. 1969 was the period of euphoria at independence from colonialism: forty years after independence Africa has remained where it was. If in order to respond to current needs the Church in Africa means to find a way to have influence at continental level, it must act at continental level.

The second reason is more straightforwardly ecclesial: ten years ago we celebrated the Synod of Africa. Only now do we begin properly to understand the discourse made then, the illuminating ideas of the Ecclesia in Africa. We believe therefore that the “adjustment” in religious practice, in the pastoral of the Church – necessary at the local level of parishes, dioceses and national episcopal conferences – must also have its influence on the way SECAM is organized, in order to respond better to the expectations of the African Synod. To describe what precisely restructuring consists of is a tricky business, and when we tried to give each other indications about how to engage in renewal, we practically returned to that which we now have: which means that the obstacle is perhaps not in the institution as much as in the spirit, in the understanding of the mission of the Church in Africa, in seeking today an adequate manner of relating to others.
For example, we decided in Dakar to go ahead with the process of collaboration with Protestants and African Muslims. There is an attempt to establish a Council of religious leaders of Africa, at the leadership level, and SECAM is completely part of that, (I was present as SECAM’s representative at the inter-religious meeting in Abuja, where they elected me co-president along with a Ugandan Muslim).
Then there are relations with the civil authority. Every national episcopal conference seeks a way of dealing with its own government, with results, in truth, that vary greatly. We bishops however have begun to ask ourselves where the voice of the Church is in the meetings of our heads of State, and whether there is a way of making ourselves heard by them. The SECAM assembly has given me a mandate to open talks with the African Union in Addis Ababa. And the archbishop of Addis Ababa has checked for us that the response of the African Union will be positive, and that once the statute of the Union is drawn up, there will be an opening for religious groups, moving on from relations with the Organization for African Unity.
Meanwhile the Council of religious leaders of Africa has attempted to establish analogous contact, and one attempt does not cancel the other. The African Union has let us know that the idea of setting up this inter-religious Council is a winner.
The Libyan leader Muhammad Ghadaffi, the President of Mozambique  Joaquim Chissano, Oumar Konare President of the African Union

The Libyan leader Muhammad Ghadaffi, the President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, Oumar Konare President of the African Union

We further ask ourselves if we should set up some new commissions to implement all the activities we’ve talked about. Over the last forty years we have felt the need to set one up every now and again: for the Bible, for theology, the social one, we also have Caritas Africa, and everything has always been in response to precise aims. If in the coming years we must try to reorganize ourselves, we’d like to cut down internal bureaucracy; we don’t want to sink under activities that SECAM cannot and should not undertake. Because the life of the Church is immense, but the great work to be done is at local level: it’s the parishes and the dioceses that do everything. The national conference does not substitute for the local bishops: if it can, it coordinates the work and facilitates responsibility. Things being so at a national level, we must not try to repeat at a continental level what is better done at a local level. And it must not be forgotten that we already have the intermediate level of regional episcopal conferences also.
As one can see, the African Church has taken a path on which it wants to identify precisely what it can do, so as to construct an essential structure around this nucleus. First of all, I think it would be better to join our forces in handling international relations: we can be more effective as a pan-African body than if the Church in every single country tries to act on its own account, and naturally always in collaboration with the Holy See, which already has great experience in these things. But we believe that at times we can also speak on our own behalf because of our connection with the African Union.

Reconstruction, simplicity, fidelity
One can rightly claim that the image of the Church at the basis of this “reconstruction” of ours relates to Paul VI and his «Africa for the Africans». We look at our whole commitment with a criterion of great simplicity, not comparing ourselves a priori to the Western European or American Churches … Are we following an idea of “reform” of the Church? The response is, that to the “simplicity” already mentioned I would add “fidelity”. One does not start with a predefined program of reform. Rather, the African Synod gave us the occasion to reflect on what the Church is. And we went ahead with that consideration not in contrast to any idea or reality of the Church, but simply listening to the Word of God and what we sincerely believe Jesus Christ would wish today in Africa. Starting from there we arrived at certain notions of what our Church could be. We looked around us, trying to see what tools we have to work with not only as an institution in itself, but as a Church that, according to the African Synod, has in Africa today a mission in five great areas: proclaiming the Gospel, inculturation, justice and peace, dialogue and the means of social communication. The idea is simple; but to put it into practice it is necessary to know “who does what”. We must also acknowledge openly that there are things beyond our control, such as the management of the economic-politico affairs of Africa, which not only affects but afflicts us. And which we cannot confront by saying: «The politicians have betrayed us and we must organize Catholic governments!» No. That is not the Church’s task. We well know that what the Church can do depends on the political, economic and social context, but I also believe that in every context the Church can fulfill with faith its own vocation of witness. Certainly then the Church must look around and read the signs of the times, and know how to adapt, always in fidelity to its mission.
A graffito against Aids on the streets of Johannesburg

A graffito against Aids on the streets of Johannesburg

This it seems to me is the sense of what Paul VI said prophetically: «By now you Africans are missionaries for yourselves, you can and must have an African Church». Splendid prophetic words, we know it’s not easy to get everybody to accept them, but that doesn’t matter …

No “sectarian” interest
We are aware in Africa also that in the Catholic world there are those who ideologically support the clash between Islam and the Catholics, as in Sudan, in Nigeria or in many other countries. In Africa the Church often pays the price of missionaries and local priests killed.
But the more I read the documents of the African Synod the more I appreciate its providential value for what is happening now in Africa, not least because it provided our Church with a better understanding of the context of the world situation in tumult. Things have changed very much from 1994: look at the latest follies of the American government, that claims to have become the only superpower that can allow itself everything, even trampling human rights. A new world order is being created in which it would be convenient if Africa no longer counted. That was been already said at the African Synod, and it helps us. The whole synodal chapter on justice and peace affects the role of the Church, not as hierarchy that takes a stance, but rather as a family. Then, we in Africa say that when an answer is needed to the political and social challenges of a country one mustn’t simply look at the declarations of the bishops but at what Christians, Catholic politicians, associations of faithful are doing. Because, even without forming a Catholic political party, the faithful can set up discussion groups or initiatives to contribute to improving the situation in individual countries: when there is the war, there always has to be people working for peace; when there is corruption, people who encourage the clean-up of the public life. The more we Christians act in that way the more we find that other people think as we do. Then one sees how valuable dialogue is, the importance of collaborating with others. In the African Church the dialogue is not only with the religions, but covers political and social issues: the Church must always keep up dialogue. This teaching of the Synod has helped us greatly. If we can speak with the Moslems, with whom we have strong differences, all the more we must be able to speak with a government that has stupid ideas. The “prophetic” attitude of speaking always and in any case against governments doesn’t help us, because they defend themselves... If one has a genuine idea of dialogue, our interlocutor can clearly see we have no “sectarian” political interest but that our concern is only that there should be peace for everyone, including those in government. And everything becomes easier.

The sons of the Church are on both sides
In Africa the governments and the Church both live under the same clouds of poverty, insecurity, politico-military weakness. If we begin speaking one to another, one can help Africa that at the end of the day is the one that suffers. Not to mention the fact that the sons of the Church are on both sides, that is, in government also. In some countries the head of State is a Catholic. Let’s begin by asking ourselves what it means to have a Catholic head of State. The questions we are asking today are not new, but we know that it’s up to us to find answers to our needs. One can also help oneself by looking at what others have achieved. For example, by studying the origin and history of the Catholic parties in Europe I have reached the conclusion that the Catholic single party was the right solution at that moment and in that context, but does not fit our situation. We must find some other solutions. The aim is to make available to society the Christian values of good government, which is a legitimate principle for all, but how it is then achieved is another thing.

African bishops in procession  in Saint Peter’s basilica at the 1994  Synod of Africa

African bishops in procession in Saint Peter’s basilica at the 1994 Synod of Africa

We manage to agree
The social doctrine of the Church covers the principles for the just organization of society, but we must find the way, for example in Nigeria, of making them accessible to our people who are not Catholic but recognize the truth when they see it. I hope and believe that we are gradually succeeding, because I notice that when the Nigerian Episcopal Conference issues declarations on domestic politics, everybody reads them with attention, not as a religious text but rather as a document from a social group that probably has clear ideas on certain things. We must say things in such a way that one doesn’t need to be Catholic to understand them, as in Nigeria so in Africa.
When the analysis of a situation is fairly clear, everybody accepts it as true. Then the responses that we bishops propose are understandable, and according to us reasonable also. Sometimes there are options and we must as bishops make choices that, thanks be to God, are not difficult for us, that is we manage to agree. It’s easier if we focus our attention on the essential things of our beloved Church.

No quarrels about condoms
Finally a thought about Aids in Africa. The role of the Church consists in trying to bring together all the available resources, get those concerned in dealing with this plague to collaborate, to avoid sterile quarrels, especially in terms of ways to stem the epidemic. We know by heart the refrain on the use of condoms, always in the forefront when Aids is mentioned, as if it were the only solution. But we came out the Dakar meeting encouraged and with more hope in the fact that one can collaborate also with those groups that up to recent times stood against the Church. Those who came from Geneva to speak on behalf of Unaids (Joint United Nations Program on Hiv/ Aids) and from New York on behalf of Unicef (United Nations Children’s fund) fully acknowledge the work the Church is doing. When looked at concretely the Catholic Church with its missionaries has worked more than anybody. Hence, those who really want to help people against Aids, and are asking for an effective program of education, training and information – especially to combat discrimination against those who have the virus – cannot do without the Church. It’s said in Africa that there are three ways in the fight against Aids: continence, fidelity, contraception. They are three ways set in order of effectiveness, because the best is continence, then fidelity to one’s legitimate partner, and finally contraception. But the truth should be told about condoms, without distributing them with the idea that they resolve everything. Clear scientific proofs exist, on the base of research done by the Church with countries that have judged that our reasoning was worth taking seriously, that the way of continence and that of a change from disordered sexual behavior actually function. There is the example of Uganda, where the government, at least in this, joined with the Church in telling young people that it is better to postpone sexual activity. We are not saying by this that they funds should not be given to those who dispense condoms, but that our projects must also certainly be financed. Because a program of education and presence can’t be implemented gratis: staff is required, structures and money are required. One of the things we have begun to study is how to gain access to the funds available. Already organizations like Unicef are ready to discuss with us. When one talks about Aids, one has to recognize that the problems of poor countries are completely different from those of developed countries. It’s already a tragedy to have Aids, but to have it without the possibility of finding treatment is worse still. Now, I imagine that if a westerner contracts the virus, he knows where to go and what drugs are available, but in Nigeria? And, worse still, in the arrears of Africa where there is war? Only a few rich can go abroad to get treatment. In recent years the Nigerian government has set up a pilot project for two thousand people. But what are two thousand people out of a population of 130 million? Thus in the fight against Aids in Africa the more important thing is prevention. And even before that there is another problem: the socio-economic context that makes it possible for Aids to run rife in Africa while it is against it in the West, the problem of poverty, of government corruption, of wars. For is not that the Africans are more inclined to sexual activity than others, but in a context where not even the control of malaria is conceivable, how can Aids be combated? We must fight it along with the whole politico-socio-economic situation of our countries.

(text put together by Giovanni Cubeddu)

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português