By Rocco Puopolo s.x., Executive Director
The Second Special Assembly of Bishops on Africa ended in Rome on October 25th. But the process continues, and the main agents are those who continue to commit time and talent to this Synod. Bishops from around the world gave more than 3 weeks of their time in Rome, and it was no vacation. They took a serious look at issues ranging from challenges for family, to resource exploitation, trade imbalances, debt, climate change, women in Africa, conflicts, poor governance, migration, corruption, globalization, health challenges, and insufficient media coverage of the real Africa with all its lights and shadows. You have faithfully followed the Synod’s events through this newsletter and the website www.yesafricamatters.org. So, now what?
The stated theme of Synod was justice, peace and reconciliation. This theme had been one of many themes of that first Synod for Africa in 1994. Over the years it became clear that a Synod more focused on peace, justice and reconciliation was needed to look at both the creative initiatives that were followed from this first Synod as well as the many glaring break-downs in the intervening years where lack of justice and good governance caused violent conflicts. Today, in many dioceses each parish has a justice and peace committee, an example of a positive creative development. In Sierra Leone, one diocese mandated that each parish JP commission be inter-religious as well. Also, in 1994 there were only 20 Catholic radio stations in all of Africa. Today there are over 160 Catholic Radio stations on the continent. Yet, examples of the rise in conflict can be found in the 23 countries that are experiencing some kind of social breakdown due to things like poor governance; trafficking of arms, resources or even persons; corruption and land grabbing.
The Synod accomplished more than I expected. I found that the Bishops from Africa had “come of age” and were at ease with the entire exercise, not intimidated by the aura of Rome. There were two written outcomes from the Synod. 1. The public “Message to the People of God” is a generic overview of the issues and thrust of the Synod. 2. The 57 propositions were more specific recommendations offered to Pope Benedict for his consideration as he prepares a post-Synod exhortation. He has made these propositions public and thus, we can each begin to use them in our own work. That said, the propositions and message did not turn out to be the call to action that I had hoped. But, as one prominent bishop said, “we took good notes.” What may have been left on the editing floor in Rome may be recouped on a national or local level by those who carried the notes home. The message and the propositions support our U.S advocacy for a more just, responsible, fair relation on every level with Africa. One speaker in the Synod spoke extensively to the importance of advocacy for Africa, specifically mentioning AFJN DC and AEFJN Brussels. There were strong propositions calling young and old, Bishops and laity and everyone in between to rise to the challenge of being agents of justice, peace and reconciliation.
That said, the real gift for me was found in two realities that I experienced while present in Rome. The first was articulated by Pope Benedict when he spoke of this Synod as a New Pentecost. I saw this gathering as an opportunity to see and witness the power of the Spirit, renewing the African earth and peoples, blowing new life and hope to people who are being held down by poverty, war and manipulation. This power of the Spirit will renew the strength and initiative of the peoples of Africa. It will purify and “convert” civic and development leaders who have greedily allowed many to exploit Africa of her resources and peoples. It was an experience of faith and hope, committing disciples to engage in the work of the Spirit in charity and truth.
The second gift was a palpable feeling of having experienced solidarity at the Synod. The bishops from all around our Catholic world really listened to one another that first week as they each were asked to speak to an issue from the Instrumentum Laboris. Then, there was a buzz during coffee breaks and at the evening socials, a coalescing of themes, an emergence of challenges and needs that created a strong sense of belonging, focus and solidarity. I believe that if it could be articulated and shared by the whole Church as the theology and spirituality the Africans understand it to be, this sense of solidarity could become the needed foundation for talk of justice, peace and reconciliation. We need to articulate our interconnectedness on all levels out of a deep sense of solidarity one with the other, not guilt, shame or obligation.
One issue that challenged us there and continues to challenge us here in USA is the information gathered by the media covering the Synod. The presence of journalists was spotty in the beginning of the Synod, but by the end of the second week, the daily briefings had a consistent representation from the major news outlets. At the last briefing, as we waited for the panel of Bishops to arrive, I asked some of the journalists, especially our Catholic ones, what information they forwarded to their editors in the States. One journalist shared that on average she sent two interviews, one article and video clips daily. Then I asked how much actually got into the local diocesan papers. She proceeded to explain how diocesan papers first put their local news up front and center, then national news of the Church, then the Vatican news clips on a side bar, after which there may be something about South America, Asia and last and least Africa. This is our real challenge. So, if your local papers did not cover this Synod adequately, write to the editor and ask them to feature some information on the follow up to this Synod. But the challenge to take the next step includes all of us:
If you are a high school or college student, contact our AFJN office or check our website to find out how to set up an AFJN College chapter on your campus so that you can gather your research, good will and passion for Africa on any of the issues mentioned at the Synod and morph it into effective advocacy for the better for the African people.
If you are a member of a religious community that has personnel in Africa, take a look at the propositions with others of your community and distill what any of those may mean for you and your ministry. Some propositions may be a confirmation of what you may already be doing, a challenge to do it differently or to do something more. The Catholic Task Force on Africa is preparing a study/action guide that will soon be available that can assist in this reflection.
If you are a college professor of Africa Studies, write op-eds or publish articles on issues you research related to issues coming from the Synod that may have been mentioned in the propositions and message.
If you are a parent, model to your children what solidarity really means. Teach them to look beyond what the media may choose to let us know about Africa (little that it is) and towards a deeper appreciation of the wonders, strengths as well as the pains of our world and peoples.
If you participate in a service outreach to Africa through twinning or tithing, engage in some form of advocacy as well. Become a member of AFJN. You can calculate a percentage of the monies you collect for the service projects you support and offer that tithe as your AFJN contribution to support our work of educating and advocating for Africa. Catholic social thought and practice has two feet: Service and Advocacy. Why do we choose to limp? Let us use the two feet God has given us!
If you are a business person who is looking to Africa, remember “Peace is good for business.” If your business contributes to peace and development in Africa it becomes a sound and practical instrument of peace. All too often the wars continue because under it all, a war economy makes money.
If you are a priest, Bishop or religious community leader, look beyond the issues that surround you, define your priorities on a daily basis, and sometimes stifle you. As important as these are, by discovering the blessings, resilience, faith, and miracle of survival of Africans as found in the documents of this Synod, your issues would be placed in better perspective.
Assessing the Synod’s success reminds me of the story of the village elder that was approached by a group of young people to test his supposed wisdom. They asked him if the bird they had just caught and hidden in the hand of one of them was alive or dead. If he said it was alive, the bird would be crushed and then shown as dead. If he said it was dead, the hand would be opened and the bird would fly away. After some thought the old man said, “Whether the bird is alive or dead I do not know. What I do know is that the fate of the bird is in your hands.” And so this Synod. It is in our hands. I recommend you check out the message and the propositions at www.yesafricamatters.org and let the Spirit lead us to whatever appropriate involvement may be ours.