The Changing Face of Mission in Africa

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By Rocco Puopolo, S.X., Executive Director

As you read this very newsletter, a number of Bishops from Africa and around the world are meeting in Rome for the Second Special Assembly for Africa, commonly called the African Synod. The theme for this synod is The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world”. How true. Look how far we have all come. This synod gives us pause to take a look back to see the progress, development, growth and mission of the Church in Africa as we join those on the continent, in Rome and beyond in celebration of this ecclesial event. There are both blessings and challenges that mark this growth. I hope in this sharing to surface those that come to my mind and tease your reflections that may lead to further sharing.

I asked a colleague of mine who is born of the Democratic Republic of Congo to share her thoughts as well for this article. Ms. Nita Evele, of the Congo Global Action Coalition recently returned to the USA from a visit both to her home near Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, and to the wartorn eastern region of the country as well. What strikes us both as real and promising is the growth and maturity of many aspects of church. These past forty years have seen a marked change in the increased number of local clergy, local religious communities, qualified lay leaders and the beginnings of justice and peace work by many dioceses and regions. A growing number of links are being made with parishes and dioceses on both continents, North America and Africa, which is creating a very personal and real sense of solidarity one with the other.

Even the presence of missionaries has changed. Most missionaries to Africa came from Europe, but the U.S. did have its share. USCMA began monitoring the number of U.S. missionaries in Africa in 1960. That year there were 781. By 1973 we reached the height of US personnel in Africa: 1229 (and I was one of them) but even then we could see change. Earlier the personnel came from missionary communities of men and women, but by 1973 lay missioners were beginning to join our teams. In 2003, USCMA reported that there were 693 missioners in Africa, and my guess is that over half of these were lay missioners. And upon their return to the USA they brought a changed sense of mission to their “home” parishes and Dioceses. This number did not include the many Bishops, priests and religious, sons and daughters of the soil, who ministered together with us. What of the 900 African priests and 1600 African sisters who are ministering here in the USA? And the many from Africa who are now in our religious communities serving with us wherever our religious community is missioned? What a change!

Much change was also confirmed by the work of the First Special Assembly for Africa in 1994, whose theme pointed to Church as Family of God with the underlying theme of inculturation. Although some question the impact of and follow-up to that first African synod, much of what has been done since 1994 is an outcome of that synod by Church personnel on all levels in Africa and beyond (meanwhile, the synods for the Americas and Europe are not considered notable in their impact apart from some concerned academics).

The African Synod confirmed and set a trend that was picked up on the grassroots. Of course, it could always have been better, but the synod framed the challenges. Nita remembers as a young child how being a Catholic meant having found a way to save one’s soul. Today she witnesses a church with an evolving identity that resembles more the people who make up Church. The Mass is no longer in Latin, but in local languages, song and dance, often led now by local Church leaders filling the assembly with joy. She sees the church saving people’s lives through attending to rural farming concerns, development and health issues, and migration of peoples due to conflict or simple urbanization challenges as well as attention to women and youth at risk. This is a big change. The Church does not shy from involvement in the politics of her people. In Congo the Church was involved in preparing for the recent elections, offering Churches and schools as venues for the elections, Church personnel themselves as observers.

This has taken place in many African countries. There is a trust and moral authority that the Church enjoys in Africa. The Church in various parts of Africa has taken on a leading role in
peace-making, especially in conflict zones where other agencies withdrawn for safety sake. Local Bishops are seen as the father figure not only for Catholics, but for all. I met with the Liberian Interfaith Religious Leaders Council in Monrovia last November, and the vice chair, a prominent Imam in Monrovia, made me quite aware that we Catholics were not the only ones to claim Archbishop Michael Francis as leader. He proudly insisted that Francis was their archbishop too!

There are new roles for religious communities. Today in Congo, the Jesuits, there, are part of civil society. A young Jesuit is the actual representative of civil society before the government. In places where once local traditional society would care for the elderly, the young and the homeless, today due to urbanization and migration this has broken down those safety nets, and the Church has made room for the poor through shelters and other creative outreaches for those left without in today’s economy. I saw in Sierra Leone, where I was missioned for a dozen years, local religious teaching brothers responding to former child soldiers and other children on the street with creative nonformal education outreaches that were not part of our past methodology. There is a new collaborative effort in Southern Sudan, Solidarity with Southern Sudan, by a large number of religious communities working together to respond to the appeal of the Bishops there to provide training centers that will better equip teachers for their schools and health workers for care of the sick. The growing number of African Theologians, men and women, articulating their faith through African eyes, hearts and service, is becoming a true gift to the whole Church. Lastly there are a number of Justice and Peace centers being formed throughout the continent through collaborative efforts of religious communities that are not only speaking truth to power, but speaking truth to the powerless in order to empower them.

These are but a few of the new ways in which the Church in Africa is responding creatively to the mission of Jesus today. Related to this last change is the effort of many African Bishops’ Conferences to establish “parliamentary liaisons” as we have here in the USCCB or Africa Faith and Justice Network, church offices that have direct links with national governments, serving as education and advocacy mechanisms that propose government policy seen through the lens of Catholic Social Thought.But this change is not only within our Catholic Church. Nita recalled that she saw a number of our sister Christian communities serving Africa differently, concerned not only with preaching, but engaging in development and education outreaches. Even the Mormons in Congo are making a greater effort to offer humanitarian aid, addressing the people’s poverty as a starting point for their witness.

So this change now brings the bishops together once more to take on a very challenging but needed theme. How is the Church to witness and engage in the lives of the peoples of Africa in terms of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation? With the rising number of local personnel serving this Church, how can it be sustained? What missing pieces have yet to be addressed that may not have found place in the preparatory documents for the synod?

Fr. Pius Rutechura, the secretary general of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, was recently asked his hopes and expectations of this Second Assembly for Africa while he visited with us in D.C. He responded, “What I hope for is that we are able to become a church that is credible, more visible, and proactive when addressing issues of justice, reconciliation and peace as integral parts of the mission of the Church. We hope for a church that steps up and makes efforts in reconciling African Societies. We want a church that would have perimeters of justice within itself as well as among all peoples and work towards peace.” The Catholic Task Force on Africa, of which USCMA is a member, has prepared the website www.yesafricamatters.org as a way to better inform our US Church about the Church in Africa as it gathers in Synod, our links to this Church, and the many ways that we can be in solidarity with the peoples of Africa. Check it out today! And pray for the success of this Synod.

This article was originally published in USCMA’s Fall Newsletter. For a PDF version,click here

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