African bishops don’t share their Western counterparts’ doom and gloom
Some general assemblies of the synod of bishops have been more closely supervised, and some better, than others. But the truth is that they’ve always been managed, so the focus on political machinations, the talk of “rigging” and “manipulation”, is only to be expected. But amid the controversy – and amid, to be honest, a fairly lacklustre event – there was one bright spot: we were reminded of the burgeoning growth of the Church in Africa.
The numbers alone show that the Church is flourishing across the continent. A nearly 20 per cent jump in Catholic population is registered in the 2017 statistical report released by the Vatican, which also shows a significant absolute increase – of 1,000 – in the number of priests from 2014 to 2015.
Bishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Mamfe, Cameroon, told reporters at a press briefing in the final week of the assembly: “My churches are all bursting, and I don’t have space to keep the young people.” That is something other African bishops report as well.
“I notice from my own experience, that, each time I call for a meeting or an encounter with young people, I have to put a cap on the number of representatives that will come from [any given] parish,” Bishop Godfrey Onah of Nsukka, Nigeria, told journalists gathered for an event sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture on October 4 at Rome’s LUMSA university.
“We have problems,” he said, “because public institutions have failed, and the Church seems to be about the only institution to which our anguished young people can look with hope.” There was one thing in particular which Bishop Onah said was evident in the young people of his diocese: “They still see, in bishops and priests, the father.” And that fatherhood brings them into “the larger family that is the Church”.
“In spite of all the pain we feel about the stories that are not so encouraging,” said Bishop Onah, “all the negative stories we hear – in spite of all that pain – there is still reason for hope.” He continued: “There is so much reason for hope, that we think there is [in it] an antidote to the negative stories.”
“The story in Nigeria is not a unique story,” Bishop Onah said. “I believe it is the experience in many other parts of the world – even in those parts of the world where the stories of failure are so loudly told, I believe there are also many positive stories coming from those parts of the world.”
That may be, but the challenges are different, as well. Much of the discussion during the course of the synod on young people concerned how to present certain of the Church’s teachings which have become largely unintelligible in the postmodern Western cultural milieu. Bishops like Onah and Fuanya told a different story.
With specific regard to Church teaching on sexual morality, Bishop Fuanya told reporters it is hardly on their radar. If he were to bring his youth a document with “LGBT” in it, “99.9 per cent will raise their hands and ask, ‘What’s that?’” Fuanya said. “I [would] have to take my time to start explaining something I’m not conversant with.”
The Church sometimes seems to reflect the tired and decadent condition of the Western world. Here, too, Africa may have an answer. Cardinal Robert Sarah (pictured), a native of Guinea, suggested it in his own remarks to the synod fathers, when he spoke of the “demanding ideals” which fire the hearts of young people. He said: “An unmistakable trait of the condition of young people is the desire to continually seek high and demanding ideals in all areas, not only in the personal realm of the area of feelings and emotions or the professional sphere, but also in justice, in transparency, in the fight against corruption, in respect for human dignity.” As a man who came of age under Guinea’s Marxist dictator Ahmed Sékou Touré (and later earned a spot on one of Touré’s “people to kill” lists), Cardinal Sarah knows what he is talking about.
The cardinal recommended “proposing with courage and honesty the Christian ideal in keeping with Catholic moral doctrine, and not of watering it down by hiding the truth in order to attract young people into the bosom of the Church”.
In any case, “LGBT” didn’t make it into the final document. Whether that was a result of African fathers’ lobbying, or an omission based on other calculations, is anyone’s guess for now. The synod fathers did vote to elect three African representatives to the permanent council of the synod of bishops. On its own, that tells us little. Pope Francis ordered the membership of the ordinary council expanded from 15 to 21, with elected members distributed by geography, and Africa getting three. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga from the Central African Republic was one. Archbishop Gabriel Mblingi of Lubango, Angola, was another. The third was the aforementioned Bishop Fuanya.
The message from the African fathers appears to have been that confidence, steadfast clarity in teaching, and genuine pastoral sensitivity are not mutually exclusive, but of a piece when it comes to effective work in favour of the Gospel. Whether the other participants heard and received the message remains to be seen.