What Pope Francis Saw in Africa

Flying back to Rome after his six days 'pilgrimage of peace' as an 'apostle of hope' to Africa, Pope Francis said this in answer to a question on the most memorable part of his trip:

For me, Africa was a surprise. God always surprises us, but Africa surprises us too. I remember many moments, but above all, I remember the crowds...They felt visited, they are incredibly welcoming and I saw this in all three nations.

Pope Francis spoke of Africa as a continent of hope and described Bangui the capital of the war-ravaged Central African Republic as the 'spiritual capital of the world.' The words of Pope Francis evoke happy memories of similar sentiments of hope and joy expressed by previous popes before Francis about the beauty of Africa and the depth of African spirituality. Pope Paul VI in his first visit to Africa in 1969 extolled the spirituality and closeness of Africans to God and to a sense of community calling on Africans that time has come for Africa to have 'an African Christianity:" Writing in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae Munus (n.13) Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed: "A precious treasure is to be found in the soul of Africa, where I perceive a 'spiritual lung' for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope." In a similar vein, Pope John Paul II in his 1994 post-synodal exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa (n.6), extolled African Christianity in these words: "Indeed, this continent is today experiencing what we call a sign of the times, an acceptable time, a day of salvation. It seems that the 'hour of Africa' has come, a favorable time." These expressions -- "Spiritual lungs", "new center of gravity of World Christianity", "historical moment of grace," "a sign of the times," "an acceptable time," "creative Africa", "rich Africa", and "hour of Africa", "new homeland of Christ" -- indicate the conviction that the Church in Africa has not only come of age but is becoming a strong spiritual force in the search in World Christianity for answers to the challenges of secularism, family life, and the directions of history.

Everyone who visits Africa is usually touched like Pope Francis by the exponential growth in the number of African Christians and the large crowd of people who fill stadia, churches and public spaces to worship God. The Centre for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA) using data from the official statistical document of the Catholic Church, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae from 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2012 concluded in a report released on June 1, 2015 that "Overall, the global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980. However, this growth differs by region, with Europe's Catholic population growing by just 6 percent while the number of Catholics in Africa grew by 238 percent." If current trends continue by 2040 there will be about 460.4 million Catholics in Africa and Africa Catholicism will have more than 20% of global Catholic population.

What these statistics point to is that there is a shift in the center of gravity in world Christianity from the West to the Global South. Pope Francis saw that African Catholicism is rising; that Africans take the Christian faith seriously, and hold on to traditional values on family, community, and hospitality. He saw as he admitted in his flight back to Rome that the questions troubling many Africans today are not about condoms or reproductive health. Africans do not need any pontification from the West on how to fight her battles with HIV/AIDS for example and other social problems. What Africans want are good partners from outside Africa who can support Africa to promote a massive campaign to give everyone especially the young access to quality education, and strong civic culture to promote good governance and cultural renewal. Africa needs partners from Western religious organizations to support local-driven initiatives for wealth creation and social entrepreneurship. Indeed, African Christianity should be driven by a faith that does justice which could bring about social transformation and the gradual emergence in Africa of the seeds and fruits of God's kingdom. Most importantly, as Pope Francis said, there is need to pull down the present destructive and exploitative global economic and political system which damages the environment, while making it impossible for Africa to flourish at her own pace, using her own cultural and religious resources and responding adequately to her social context.

Some might argue that the explosion in number of Catholics in Africa is consistent with the rise in African population and the anti-population control policy of the Catholic Church in Africa; some may argue that in an environment of severe social strain in the socio-economic and political networks, religious faith in Africa becomes a very attractive and enchanting reality and hope for the oppressed and marginalized. This argument minimizes the force and verve of the religio-cultural world of Africans which forms the bedrock of their lives and the lenses through which they see reality. Africans did not become deeply religious because of Christianity. Christianity and Catholicism offered Africans a new narrative and a new language for expressing their deep religiosity. This religiosity has an intrinsic logic in the firm belief among Africans that the whole of life is a network of connections and vital force which work together in a spiritual chain to bring about human and cosmic flourishing.

Pope Francis also saw the suffering of many Africans in the slums; in war torn countries, and the challenging social conditions of so many Africans. He spoke truth to power about the immorality of running governments which do not promote the good of the most vulnerable members of society. He had some strong words against governments in Africa and religious leaders who do not serve the interest of their citizens. The message of the church of the poor was central to Pope Francis's visit and it reflects the priorities of the Catholic Church in Africa and her social mission in the continent within the last few decades since the end of Vatican II 50 years ago. The Catholic Church is very visible in healthcare services in Africa. She, of all religious groups and private agencies working in the healthcare industry in Africa, has the largest number of private hospitals and clinics providing Medicare and, in some cases, free medical treatment for HIV/AIDS, pregnant women, and people suffering from malaria. This happens even in those African countries where the Catholic Church is not a majority. In Ghana for instance, Catholics make up about 30 percent of the population but control more hospitals than any other private agency in the country. In Africa, the Church works in 16,178 health centers, including 1,074 hospitals, 5,373 out-patient clinics, 186 leper colonies, 753 homes for the elderly and physically and mentally less able brothers and sisters, 979 orphanages, 1,997 kindergartens, 1,590 marriage counseling centers, 2,947 social re-education centers and 1,279 other various centers. There are 12,496 nursery schools with 1,266,444 registered children; 33,263 primary schools with 14,061,000 pupils, and 9,838 high schools with 3,738,238 students. Some 54,362 students are enrolled in higher institutes, of which 11,011 are pursuing ecclesiastical studies. There are in Africa, fifty-three national chapters of Caritas, thirty-four national commissions of justice and peace and twelve institutes and centers promoting the Social Doctrine of the Church.

In his press conference in his flight back to Rome, Pope Francis called on the world not to forget Africa and on Africans to work hard for the betterment of Africa and to enrich the church with the gift of Africa's faith. It is a call which places the dignity of Africans at the center of continental, global and ecclesial action. Africans must take up anew with courage the task of realizing God's dream for this beautiful land. We see these signs of hope in political transformation in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tanzania etc. We see that in the heroic actions of Bishop Taban of South Sudan or Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe of Uganda to mention just a few giant witnesses of faith in action in many hidden parts of Africa out from the limelight. The Church in Africa must become the church of witnesses. Africa needs to see concrete signs in daily actions of the transformative power of the Gospel. This is because it really comes to nothing if you tell a hungry child that God loves them without giving them food; or if you preach the mercy of God to a sick woman without offering her an affordable and reliable healthcare system or to assure people of a better future without showing them how a praxis of social transformation can turn hope into reality. The kingdom of God does not simply begin and end with proclamation and claims; if it were so the Lord Jesus would not have died on the Cross. Faith must be put into action in the challenging and changing context of a rising Catholicism in Africa!