This article from the Oct-Dec 2011 edition of Around Africa, by Aniedi Okure, AFJN Executive Director

Encouragement for the Church in Africa and a challenge to the Universal Church

On November 19th, 2011, in the Republic of Benin in West Africa, Pope Benedict XVI published the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus which means Africa’s Commitment, marking the climax of the Second Synod of Bishops for Africa (2009). The exhortation builds on the theme of the First Synod of Bishops for Africa, Ecclesia in Africa (1994) which focused on the “Church as Family of God”. It described the family as a place of belonging, dialogue and solidarity, a place where everyone feels welcomed and the uniqueness of each member is respected and nurtured. The Second Synod places special emphasis on the theological themes that are integral to the family of God – personal reconciliation, building a just social order and promoting peace through living the beatitudes. Africae Munus notes that the family is the place that propagates the “culture of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation” (#43).

Africae Munus is presented as a two part address. Part one which includes many elements of Ecclesia in Africa opens with “Behold I make all things new” and highlights what the Pope sees as a new dawn of Christian maturity on the African continent. Part two focuses on the constituent members of the Church – clergy, consecrated persons, men and women missionaries, lay pastoral leaders, the elderly, youth and children – and challenges Church leadership to recognize and embrace their gifts so as to give an appropriate and holistic response to the pastoral needs of the time, and to lead by example rather than just teaching.

The Church’s commitment to service, reconciliation, justice and peace must help societies to put Christ at the center of the world and build a just social order (#163). The burden of creating a just social order falls especially on those persons in the economic and political sphere who are builders of society (#22, 49). The role of the church is to serve as the watchdog in this process and lead all members of God’s family to live in harmony.

The Pope notes that Western societies would benefit from Africa’s vision of life; it is creation-centered and includes ancestors, the living and those yet to be born, thus embracing all of God’s creation (#69). Strikingly, the Pope points out that the defense of life entails the elimination of ignorance through literacy and quality education of the whole person, adding that illiteracy is a principal obstacle to development.

The Pope points to the impressive quality of the speeches at the Second Synod, the growth of the Church on the continent and its missionary endeavors as examples of the Christian maturity of the continent. He noted that a growing number of missionaries now leave Africa to minister in other parts of the world, and calls on the African Bishops to “respond generously to the requests of their confreres in countries lacking vocations and assist the faithful deprived of priests” (#167). The church worldwide and Western societies in particular would benefit by looking to Africa for inspiration especially in its life-centered values, their appreciation of the elderly whose wisdom and experience serve as a bridge between generations and in the process of reconciliation. Such appreciation should inspire “Western societies to treat the elderly with greater dignity” (#47-49).

Africae Munus is a shot in the arm for the Church in Africa and a challenge to Church leadership. An interesting observation is the Pope’s reference to Africa as a “spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope” (#13). Africans remain resilient despite the collective trauma they have been subjected to in the past two centuries due to their deep spiritual roots, a deep sense of hope and connectedness to nature. Over the past two decades, Africa remains the region with the fastest growth of Christianity and Catholicism.

The challenge for African bishops and pastoral leaders is how to “dialogue with the various constituencies within the church and society” (#11), to embrace the contributions of all members of the family in justice and peace so that the Church can transform theology into pastoral care (#10). Within this context, Africae Munus calls on the universal church to recognize and celebrate Africa’s rightful place within the Church and the world (## 4-5).

The pope acknowledged the social, economic and political challenges that beset the African continent but did not dwell on them. Those who are used to seeing Africa as the poster child for disasters might find this a grave omission. Rather, he points to the growth and accomplishments of the Church in Africa, its maturity, the reserves of life and vitality it holds for the future and how, as a spiritual lung, it can inspire the rest of the word (#113). He emphasizes that the synod’s deliberations demonstrated a Christian maturity that is unafraid to face the truth that beset Africa and address possible solutions. He sees the Church as a blessing for the continent and for the entire world.

In addressing the social and economic challenges that beset Africa, the Pope criticizes the exploitation of Africa’s resources by external interests– often cooperating with African political and economic elites – that “ensure their own prosperity at the expense of the well-being of the local population” (#24). He calls on the Church to be the sentinel that speaks out fearlessly about these economic injustices.

Time and time again, the Pope emphasized the need for justice as a means for true and lasting peace. Observing that even charity must be done in justice, he describes as false “a charity which fails to respect justice and the rights of all” (#18). Education too is a matter of justice. The Church is obliged to educate all her members, including the Social Teachings of the Church, so they can truly be informed apostles for justice and ensure that the principle of subsidiarity where “neither the state nor any larger society substitutes itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies” is upheld in African societies (#24).

In addressing the role of women in society, the Pope notes the violence that is often perpetuated against women, points to the “much too slow” understanding and “evolution of thinking” in regards to the rights and dignity of women (#56), and urges the Church to embrace their voices and talents. In doing so, the Church contributes to the “recognition and liberation of women, following the example of Christ’s own esteem for them” so that in turn women can continue to contribute to “the humanization of society” (#57). The question is how to attend to internal structures and attitudes that preclude participation of women in the apostolates.

Africae Munus is a strong encouragement to the Church in Africa and a challenge to her leadership. As did his predecessors, especially Paul VI, the Pope challenges the Church in Africa to embrace elements within its culture that serve as the cornerstone for the Gospel. Doing so will advance its maturity and enrich the universal church. The question one might ask is: To what extent can the Church in Africa embrace elements within its cultures and the voices and talents of its constituencies? Efforts are already underway by SECAM, (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) and African scholars to plan its implementation.

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