Pope Francis begins his first visit to Africa this week. This visit is significant in many ways. First, it shows that Africa matters and is considered by Pope Francis as an important player in the shaping of a new Catholic imagination in the world church. Second, Pope Francis' message of a poor church and a merciful church that is open to all especially those who suffer and those on the margins resonates with many Africans in their struggles in a challenging and changing social context. African Christians living in a complex and exciting social condition with all its joys and sorrows, pains and hopes are searching for a faith and a Christianity which promotes social transformation, healing, and reconciliation. African Christians in the diverse experiences and manifestations of the Catholic faith desire a Christian religion which is truly good news to the poor in Africa. This is because the Christian faith is very powerful in the continent as Africans hold on strongly to this faith sometimes as the only reality which will never fail them when some of the social, political, economic and cultural bonds and structures in the continent display signs of instability.
Indeed, the church in Africa is proving in many instances to be an alternate community of hope and a counter narrative of being and inclusion in many circumstances and instances where the fabric of society is weak, unworkable and frayed.
Third, Pope Francis' message of a new leadership style of humility and simplicity after the example of Jesus Christ is also a paradigm shift which invites the African church leaders to a new way of service and pastoral ministry. In a continent where the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church are sometimes reinforced by African traditional patriarchal norms of power and privilege, Pope Francis' style of leadership offers a new model of service. This challenges African church leaders to exercise their pastoral leadership in a more participatory, transparent, and inclusive ministry where the laity and especially women participate in the decision making process in the church. Also to be abandoned is a cult of personality and undue attachment to hierarchical power which parallel the failed political leadership in some African countries.
Pope Francis will visit three African countries--Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. These countries were specifically chosen among other reasons because they present in varying degrees the many faces of African Christianity--strong faith traditions, exponential growth in membership and in vocations to the priestly and religious life, a strong affinity to the traditional teaching on marriage, sexuality, authority, and sacramental life. Some other features of African Christianity which are all too evident in these countries are a dynamic translation of biblical and traditional teaching into African cultural grammar and maps of the universe and a rise in African Charismatic and Pentecostal healing ministries and popular religious movements with new Christian communities emerging every day in great numbers.
African Christianity is also flourishing as a strong social capital with a vibrant social mission aimed at meeting the challenging social conditions of many in Africa
Pope Francis will notice in this visit that beyond the growth in the number of Catholics in Africa and the new parishes and dioceses and new vocations to the priestly and religious life, African Catholicism struggles with the problems of ethnocentrism, conversion and the retention of forms of African Traditional Religions in African Christian faith, beliefs and practices.
We Africans want to worship God as Africans not as Westerners; to think and talk about God as Africans, and to live and celebrate the Christian faith as Africans, in our own words, in our voices, and in our own style. These are the only way through which the Gospel come alive for us. They also are manifestations of the family traits of our Catholic faith and reveal the face of the God of Jesus Christ and our ancestors while pointing to the eschatological fruits of God's kingdom. The fifth Gospel which reflects African types and models of faith and life may be strange to many outside Africa, but in the stories of the daily struggles and joyful faith and strong hope of Africans in the trials and troubles of today one can see the revelation of God's presence and the surprises of the Holy Spirit.
There is in addition the challenge of religious intolerance and tension between Christian and Muslims in some African countries and the semi-permanence of the refugee crisis in Africa as a result of wars and terrorism and the social and economic carcasses left by political violence, failing states in some parts of Africa and radical Islamic fundamentalism.
African Catholics expect Pope Francis, faithful to his commitment to the poor to challenge African church leaders and faithful to raise the bar of ethical, prophetic, sacrificial, and servant leadership in African Catholicism. He must preach truth to power in Africa. He needs to remind some African leaders in places like Burundi, Rwanda, the two Congos, Zimbabwe, Gabon, and Cameroun that the kingdom of God cannot be realized in Africa if African political leaders are simply gate keepers or sit-tight leaders who watch as their countries burn fueled by their unconscionable desire to perpetuate themselves in power.
We hope that the Pope will challenge African religious and political leaders and captains of industries to hoist the banner of righteousness and moral rectitude in order to stamp out corruption in the conduct of state, church and private businesses in the continent. Indeed, the Pope will call forth the African spirit of Ubuntu and Sankofa in challenging Africa to find from the heart of Africa new pathways to solidarity, reconciliation, consensus building, wealth creation strategies and the promotion and protection of the common good.
These will help create new social safety nets in order to lift millions of Africans from the pit of poverty. This way, a greater percentage of Africans, building on their assets and God-given talents and resources can have access to the ladder of social progress so that they will have a voice and contribute in building a better society in Africa.
The African church should be a church of the poor, a church with the poor, a church for the poor and a church that is on the side of the poor so as to give them a voice.
African Catholic faithful should be given the freedom and equipped to search for paths to inter-cultural, inter-faith, inter-ethnic, and inter-denominational dialogue, to weave a workable web of understanding and partnership for poverty eradication, promotion of human rights especially for minorities, good governance and the common good. A renewed and transformed Catholicism could become a strong cultural and spiritual influence in Africa's continuing search for answers to the challenges of poverty, diseases, ethnic and religious conflicts, wars, political and economic problems, radical Islamic fundamentalism, and how to mitigate the effects of climate change, and natural disasters. This means that churches in Africa can become strong social capitals whose values lie not simply in providing spiritual support, but also in strengthening the civil society, creating healthy networks among people and valorizing the agency of Africans to safe guard basic human security and cosmic flourishing. But above all, Africa's emerging voice in World Catholicism will act as a counter weight to the secularizing and dechristianizing currents from the West, while proving to be once again the new homeland for Christ, where the fullness of the Gospel message in all its complexities and beauty can continue to resound as a force for good.