Comment Comment and Features

What Africa can teach Francis

Nuns holding the Vatican and Benin's national flags kneel as they wait to greet Pope Benedict XVI after his visit at the cathedral of Cotonou in the Africa's western coast country of Benin in 2011 (AP)

Very soon Pope Francis will be in Africa, visiting Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. This will be the first time Pope Francis has ever been to the continent, and it may well be a game-changer – not for Africa, but for him.

Francis has often given the impression that he is something of an evangelical, and he has also written about how the Church needs to be missionary. He is about to fly into a continent full of Catholic evangelicals, where the Church is truly missionary, where each parish, for example, boasts of a truly energised and involved laity. This will be apparent in the papal liturgies, but it would be unwise to interpret the enthusiastic congregations that he will meet as an expression of Pope mania – it will be far more than that. It is hard for the European mind to grasp this, but Africans are largely immune to celebrity mania, reserving their enthusiasm for faith in Christ. The crowds, the singing and the dancing should be read for what they are: the usual liturgical practice, to be found in every church on a Sunday.

The Pope will not be long in Kenya and his itinerary reflects this. He will remain in Nairobi, and will spend a considerable time on official engagements: meeting the president, the top brass of the Kenyan state, the diplomatic corps and an ecumenical delegation, as well as visiting the United Nations. There is a meeting with clergy, religious and seminarians, a gathering at a stadium with young people, and Mass on the campus of the university. The highlight, from a media angle, will probably be his visit, of only about an hour’s duration, to the Kangemi slum. He is in Kenya for less than 48 hours.

His time in Uganda is even briefer, and again only encompasses the capital. He will visit the shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs at Namugongo to celebrate Mass, and meet young people at the Kololo airstrip. The shrine at Namugongo is the focus of huge devotion, and the site of the execution of the saints Charles Lwanga, Kizito and other young martyrs of the late 19th century who preferred to die rather than give in to the depraved advances of the Kabaka of Buganda. Their witness speaks loud and clear to contemporary Africa.

In the Central African Republic, where the Pope will be for little more than a day, much of his time will be spent meeting delegations from other Christian bodies and Muslims, and he will also visit a refugee camp, which is bound to capture a lot of media attention.

It is a shame the visit will be such a brief swing through three countries, for a few days are not enough to get a real impression of all that Africa has to offer.

African Catholics are still a small minority in the Catholic Church. There are twice as many Catholics in Europe as there are in sub-Saharan Africa; but the statistical trajectories all tell the same story. The Church in Europe is shrinking, but growing in Africa; moreover, it is not simply the number of adherents and vocations that is on the rise in Africa: the quality of the Faith is markedly different. Africans, as the Pope discovered at the recent synod, are not shy about proclaiming their faith, and insisting on the proclamation in face of opposition. They see this as an evangelical imperative, a charge received not just from the missionaries of yesteryear, but from Christ himself.

Those who dismiss African Catholics as somehow “conservative”, or yet to catch up with the secularised West, fail to understand African Catholicism. African Catholics have largely never heard of the culture wars which have raged in Britain and America. Where outsiders perceive conservatism, Africans simply see themselves as taking the Gospel seriously.

After the recent synod, there were hints in certain quarters that Africa’s theological steadfastness was the product of cultural conditioning. Again, this would mystify African Catholics. While they would accept that the teaching of their pre-Christian elders about certain bad practices, such as polygamy and female genital mutilation, are deeply held cultural phenomena and hard to eradicate, they would reject any suggestion that Jesus’s words about the indissolubility of marriage fall into the same category.

It is hard to discern, even after two years of his papacy, though it may be becoming clearer, where Pope Francis stands theologically, given the confusing and even contradictory signals sent out by many of his public utterances and his various spin doctors, as well as the way his personal history has been varyingly interpreted. Perhaps he is something of a Latin American liberation theologian, though it has to be said that the heyday of that movement is now behind us.

In Africa, the Pope could discover the strengths of a more developed and authentic theology from the developing world.

African theology presupposes the importance of community life: no man or woman is an island, everyone belongs to a family, a tribe, a language group, a culture, and the ties that bind are of the greatest importance, not just socially, but in our approach to God. Believing in God and moral decision-making are all communitarian activities. This is clearly seen not just in the celebration of Mass, where a community truly comes together, but also particularly in the celebration of weddings.

Every African wedding is a public and shared event to which the whole parish comes without having to be invited. This reflects the strong understanding that Africans have of marriage being a public good: two families coming together, a man and a woman being joined for the good of the community and for the good, in particular, of the next generation. The privatised understanding of marriage that exists in the West, the idea that one marries because this will bring about personal happiness, is not the African approach.

Coupled with this strong appreciation of community life, which signifies a practical and lived approach to the sacraments, is a clear understanding on the part of the African Church of the threats that marriage and the family face. As we noticed at the recent synod, the African bishops were not reticent in speaking about these perceived threats.

You might be forgiven for thinking, thanks to media coverage, that their major concern is what is often termed “gender theory”. It is perfectly true that Africans see the idea that gender roles are the ones we choose for ourselves as incomprehensible, living as they do in a world where people are born into roles or are assigned them by the community, rather than assuming them for themselves. But the real nub here is the concept of choice. The West now sees choice as something intensely personal, something done in isolation, with the individual will counting for everything.

This atomic vision can be contrasted to the more molecular vision of the African theologians, where choice is seen as something that concerns not just oneself but the people around one, where choice is influenced at every level by one’s surroundings, one’s community and one’s personal and inherited history.

This African understanding has a Western parallel in the thoughts of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, both of whom are deeply rooted in Aristotle and Augustine. Oddly, these two major voices, and the theologians who follow their line, received little airtime at the synod; though it has to be said that the testimony given by the Greek Catholic doctor from Romania, Dr Anca-Maria Cernea – which stole the show with its strong rootedness in tradition and personal and inherited history – was truly MacIntyrean in import.

In a world where the individual will has been exalted above all else, and in a Church where, amazingly, the personal seems to trump the communal all too often and where marriage is seen as privatised, we really do need to visit African theology and experience as an important corrective. It’s a pity that the Pope does not seem to be visiting any of the theological schools around Nairobi, such as the one I worked in, Tangaza College, or even the Jesuit Hekima College.

Again, given that this Pope loves to go to the margins, it is a pity that he will have no chance to visit the suffering Catholic communities of the coastal region of Kenya, or its troubled north-west, where thousands have been displaced and hundreds murdered by the Islamist al-Shabaab movement. However, he will be visiting the refugee camp in the Central African Republic and meeting those who have experienced Islamist terror there first hand.

The situation in the Republic is more complex than in Kenya, where innocents have been subjected to brutal aggression by invaders from Somalia, in retaliation for what they see as Kenyan interference in its affairs (in fact peace-keeping initiatives). In the Republic, a civil war is being fought by two sides whose outward allegiances are perhaps coincidentally Muslim and Christian. Given that there is violence emanating from both sides, the Pope is unlikely to make any condemnation of Islamist terrorism per se, but rather a generalised call for peace and dialogue, as he has in the past elsewhere. This may well disappoint some.

The overwhelming evidence from Africa, along the tense and fragile border that divides the predominately Muslim territories to the north from the predominately Christian territories to the south, whether it be in the Central African Republic, Kenya, Nigeria or Sudan, points to the fact that Christianity is not the problem. The 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in April 2014 are a case in point.

The Christian/Muslim conflict in Africa is emphatically not a match of equals. Just a mile or so away from the papal nunciature in Nairobi, where the Pope will stay, is the Westgate Mall, where al-Shabaab murdered 67 exclusively Christian shoppers. People in Kenya and Nigeria and elsewhere will not relish being told that there are fundamentalists on both sides, as the Pope suggested back in December 2014, during a press conference as he was returning from Turkey. Something robust about what Christian communities are to do when under attack from groups like al-Shabaab would be welcome, and not just in Africa, given recent events in Paris. One hopes that the Pope’s speech-writers are up to the job.

We all know that this Pope is a Pope of dialogue, especially interreligious dialogue, but dialogue only makes an impact when it is conducted with due reverence to truth.

There will be much rejoicing when Francis touches down in Nairobi. But this visit also touches on important issues for the Church. The Pope will speak, and be warmly received; let us hope he and his advisers – and there don’t seem to be any from Africa in the close circle he relies on – will also listen and learn from the African experience.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (20/11/15)

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