From the Jan-March 2011 edition of Around Africa, by Fr. Rocco Puopolo, Executive Director AFJN

“If you want peace, work for justice.”  This pithy saying can still be found today as a bumper sticker on a number of cars in Church parking lots.  It has been a long serving indicator of our desire to reconcile the brokenness of our world, a theme found in the restoration prayer of the psalmist as imagined in a dream scene of a renewed community in psalm 85, personifying characters of kindness, truth, justice and peace coming together as if long lost friends.  In the words of the preface to the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, we read,  “(T)he joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

This novel intuition of solidarity with the joys and sufferings of humanity was further developed in 1971 as Bishop delegates came back to Rome for the first of many Synod meetings.  At this Synod they looked at practical ways to implement Vatican II and gave particular attention on how to articulate this concern for justice. The documentJustice in the World, released in November of that year, is the product of the bishops’ reflection and has become the reason why our church today has such a variety of justice and peace commissions on all levels, from Roman offices to local parish committees.
Justice in the World brought the Church’s social ministry from the “fringe” (a common thought that it was up to religious communities to do these ministries) to the very center of what it means to be Christian as part of the renewal of Vatican II.  A wide variety of justice and peace reflection centers as well as advocacy offices were formed to attend to the many issues that were raised by the Synod.

Our very own Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) is one of these responses to this intuition by three missionary religious communities in 1983.  Many Catholic high schools established a Service Week that is obligatory for seniors before they graduate.  Parish Youth programs have summer work camps in Appalachia and central cities and beyond. Colleges have alternative spring breaks or practical hands-on courses where the method used is participatory action research.  All of these encourage empowerment, sense of personal and communal rights, relationship building, mutual trust and respect. It was the basis for our own US Bishops’ Social Pastoral Letters reflecting on War and Peace (1983), the Economy (1986) and Mission (1986).  All these can find their roots in this Synod and document.

Furthermore, the 1971 Synod fathers state that  “(A)ction on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation”Justice in the World (no.6).  This phrase alone electrified those who were already engaged in justice work at the time.  Another line from the document continues to ring true today and challenges the current world order as we know it.  “(E)conomic injustice and lack of social participation keep people from attaining their basic human and civil rights.” (9)  A third aspect of the document underlined a more integrated approach to what we understand human development to mean, leading to liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor.

At a recent AFJN staff retreat, we identified several positive developments in the strategic formation of pastoral centers and programming that support the integral human development intuition that Justice in the World speaks about.  For example, the publication of Training for Transformation by Ann Hope and Sally Timmel served as the guide for a vast number of DELTA (Development Education Literacy Training for Adults) training sessions that empowered the people in Africa.  Many dioceses on the continent have Justice and Peace (JP) commissions at the parish level and in small Christian communities in the outstations.  In the diocese I served in Sierra Leone all JP local committees, initiated by the Catholic parish, are open for full participation by Traditional Religion members, other Christian Churches and Muslim communities as they search and work together for justice.
Over the years, especially in the 1990’s, conflict resolution and restoration studies, programs and training were a priority to insure that post conflict reconstruction would lead to sustained peace, justice and progress for the development of African communities.   Also, the Church in many countries contributed to general civic education leading up to elections, HIV/AIDS outreach and the like.  In some countries, the Church is the only reputable agent of civil society.  In 2009 at the Second African Synod, the bishops reviewed the progress as well as the continuing challenges regarding justice and peace in Africa.   A lot of progress has been made, but our US and international press don’t pay much attention or acknowledge these good news stories.

It is a historical fact that since 1971 some of the most devastating wars have been played out on the continent, most as proxy wars between the world’s super powers, US and USSR, over the control of resources.  Not much as changed.  The arms and drug trades flourish. The number of victims of human trafficking and the movement of refugees both internally and externally has never been higher.  Countries such as Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Uganda and Angola have had long protracted wars.  Conflicts in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Mauritania/Western Sahara were shorter but just as brutal.  Now the proxy tensions are between US/Europe and China.  Journalistic freedom, literacy and movements for a more participatory and democratic governance are threatened today in Africa.  Government criticism of Christian Radio for being political is on the rise.

Justice in the World deserves a read once more, not because of this anniversary, but because we need to stir the baptismal flames of grace that move us to act with justice, challenging this generation of Christians to put word into action.  As a way of shedding needed light on the outcomes of this document and the contributions of many Church agents over these 40 years, this year, in our newsletter, AFJN will research, reflect and report on the many initiatives that continue to be sparked by this Synod of 1971.  We may offer a webinar on these findings each year for the next three years, leading up to our 2013 Conference which will celebrate AFJN’s 30th anniversary.  There will also be initiatives encouraging local Africa Summits to happen  in various cities throughout the US bringing these findings closer to your home.
Our corpus of  Catholic social thought is rich, but much of it remains a dead letter.  As many of us know, justice and peace offices are the first to merge with others, be downsized or terminated on congregational, diocesan and parish levels.  I pray that the day may come when we do not need justice and peace committees, reflections centers and advocacy offices, not because of financial restraints due to the present economic crisis but because we have implemented the ways of the Reign of God and renewed relationships one with the other in true and strong solidarity.