Ecclesia in Africa at 25: What the Church of Africa must now become

By Precious Nihorowa* CSSp

When Pope John Paul II announced in 1991 that there would be a special assembly for the African synod for the first time, there was an atmosphere of jubilation in Africa. Scholars, especially theologians, and the lay faithful alike felt that Africans were at last given an opportunity to express to the universal Church their experiences of Christian faith.

Indeed, such was a rare opportunity of being heard out. As is normally the case with all synods of the Catholic Church, especially those pertaining to particular regions and continents, the synod participants were supposed to table issues that specifically affect and pertain to the African Church. Such would then be recommended to the Pope for possible consideration. The synod was convoked at a time when Africa as a continent was experiencing different socio-political phenomena. And so, the preparations involved a selection of topics that pictured such phenomena.

For starters, in 1994, the year that the synod was held, South Africa got independence after years of apartheid rule and got the first black president in the name of Nelson Mandela. There was a sense of relief and hope especially among black South Africans who had suffered oppression and injustice for so long. In the same year, Malawi elected the first president under the democratic era, Dr Bakili Muluzi.

Again, hope and expectations were all over. In SADC alone, Malawi had just joined other countries such as Zambia and later Tanzania which had embraced democracy within the same timeframe. The hope was that such a system of government would bring the dignified life that was denied by the autocratic system during the Kamuzu Banda era. With all these seemingly positive developments, Africa was almost getting rid of her identity as a dark continent.

However, Rwanda demonstrated what could be termed as a step backward in this effort. Thus, it was also in the same 1994 that there was genocide during which many people lost their lives. In the midst of all these scenarios, during the opening of the synod deliberations, the late Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum of Dakar (Senegal) asked the delegates a question which has become paradigmatic in African ecclesiology. Thiandoum asked, “Church of Africa, what must you now become so that your message may be relevant and credible?”

In September 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a document, Ecclesia in Africa, to sum up the deliberations of the synod. Twenty five years down the line after the publication of Ecclesia in Africa, the question that Cardinal Thiandoum posed still sounds relevant. The Church needs a constant self-evaluation to make sure that she is still able to fulfil her essential task and role among the people.

While Africa may not be facing exactly the same problems as during the time of the synod, there are more challenges that need to be addressed. Statistics indicate that corruption is on the rise in Africa, the gap between the rich and the poor is still widening and poverty levels are still increasing. Moreover, tribalism, nepotism and leadership crisis are still the order of the day, lack of justice in distribution of natural resources, high unemployment rate among the youth remain at the top of unresolved issues.

The Pope meets with African Bishops

All this is happening when most African countries have attained over fifty years after independence. Perhaps more than ever before, there is a need for the church in Africa to ask herself what she must become in order to be relevant in the face of these new challenges. Moreover, in the face of the pangs of the coronavirus pandemic that has seen most African economies heading for a nosedive, a lot of lost opportunities among many people due to the sudden change in lifestyle, loss of loved ones through death, looming hunger due to lack of sources of income for many people, the church ought to be the fountain of consolation and hope for the people.

But what must the church now become? Firstly, as Pope Paul VI would often say, the Church exists to evangelize since she is born of the evangelizing activity of Jesus Christ. While Ecclesia in Africa noted that there was an urgent need for inculturation and evangelization, there has been an increase in the number of Christians signifying that many have responded to the initiatives of evangelization. There has also been an increase in structures and agents of evangelization, the clergy and the laity alike.

However, the quality of the faith of many African Christians is still an issue as many still face challenges that lead them to live a double standard life of mixing cultural traditions and their Christian faith, a phenomenon popularly known as syncretism. This reveals a huge gap that still exists between evangelization and inculturation. And so, more needs to be done on the same. In this case, John Paul II’s constant call for new evangelization is very valid for the African situation.

In the exhortation, John Paul II expressed worry over problems such as the scourge of AIDS, dignity of the African woman, wars and the burden of international debt among many other problems. While there have been commendable efforts done to deal with the first two problems, the last two still need more initiatives and political will. Up to this 21st century, there are still wars that are fought over differences in political, tribal as well as national affiliations as was the case in the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa as well political tensions in many African countries.

The synod fathers also made an appeal that all who embezzle public funds should be bound in justice and face the law. In the case of Malawi, the recent revelations and claims that during the previous government regimes about K3 trillion got embezzled are very heartbreaking especially for the already-sick Malawi economy. We hope that the process of clearing the rubble which has already begun will be fruitful. The synod fathers also called for financial self-reliance which would ensure the restoration of the dignity of the African people. This call is still far from being realized, both within the church and the wider society.

The church in Malawi has been well-known for her prophetic role starting from as far back as the 1960s. The climax was in 1992 when she issued the pastoral letter Living Our Faith and later in 2011 when she issued Reading the Signs of the Time. The aftermath of issuing these was however not favorable as the Church was attacked and accused of meddling in political affairs.

Nevertheless, the Church ought to continue her prophetic role despite the persecution. Jesus himself does not promise an all-rosy life for his disciples but one that involves carrying the cross (Mt. 16:24). In the spirit of Ecclesia in Africa, the Church of Africa ought to rejuvenate her evangelizing duty and her prophetic role in order to be relevant to the African situation. In so doing, she will be the voice of the voiceless that she is meant to be.

*The author belongs to the Congregation of the Spiritans and is studying theology at Tangaza College in Kenya.