Pope Francis is visiting Africa at a defining moment in his pontificate. Francis has convoked a worldwide consultation on the future of the Catholic church. This consultation called a synodal process, which began in 2021 and will conclude in 2024, is exciting for reform-minded Catholics, but distressing for conservative Catholics.
This process is the most ambitious dialogue ever undertaken on bringing some changes in Catholic beliefs and practices since the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in 1965. Observers of this synodal process note that the consultations have exposed all the fault lines in modern Catholicism on issues of women, celibacy, sexuality, marriage, clericalism, hierarchism, and authority. Whatever be the case, how Pope Francis manages these increasingly divisive issues in the church through this synodal process, in my judgement, will largely define his legacy.
Interestingly, it was at one of such virtual synodal consultations—building bridges initiatives—that I helped organize between Pope Francis and over 3000 African young university students on African Youth Day (November 1) that Pope Francis announced to the world that he was going to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in early 2023. Whereas many Catholic scholars focus on some of the issues that are creating fissures in World Catholicism, my research has focused more on how African Catholics can help bring about a consensus approach through the African palaver in managing these contested issues.
As one of the coordinators of the regional conversations for the Holy See that focused on doing theology and pastoral accompaniment from the existential peripheries, the question for me is how will another papal visit to Africa at this point address some of the challenges and opportunities that Africans are identifying through this synodal process.
Why Africa Matters to the Catholic Church
One of the most extraordinary signs of the influence of African Catholicism today is the exponential growth of the Catholic population. The Vatican’s statistics for 2020 released in February 2022 shows that in 2020 the number of Catholics in the world increased by 16 million to 1.36 billion. That means that 17.7% of the world’s population is Catholic. Of this total, 48% are in the Americas, with 28% living in South America. The statistics show that the Catholic Church is witnessing the fastest growth in Africa (+2.1%) followed by Asia (+1.8%) and Europe (0.3%).
But African Christians are not simply growing in number, they are also reinventing and reinterpreting Christianity infusing it with new language, spiritual vibrancy, and liturgies. The introduction of African style to the life of the Catholic Church in Africa has not been without tension and ambiguity. However, there is no ambiguity in the impact of African Catholic churches and agencies in the social transformation of Africa. Given its expansion in Africa to all parts of this vast continent, the Catholic Church in Africa is well placed to be a central driver of social, political, spiritual and cultural life in Africa. In many settings in Africa, the churches provide an alternate community of hope, where the fabric of society is weak, unworkable and frayed because war, civil unrest, humanitarian disasters, and outbreak of infectious diseases.
Pope Francis’s Advocacy for Africa: Building Bridges
African Catholicism is also witnessing a ‘youth bulge.’ Whereas there is a noticeable greying of the churches in the West, African Christianity in general is a church of the youth. Central to Pope Francis’s advocacy for Africa is his insistent appeal that churches, religious groups and governments in Africa and globally must show solidarity with African young people who he calls ‘the church of now.” This concern was expressed so eloquently by Pope Francis during his synodal consultation with African young people.
During our encounter with Pope Francis in November, Pope Francis denounced the exploitation of Africa by external forces, and the destruction of Africa by wars and ideologies of violence and economies of scale that rob the young people of their future. He encouraged young people to return to their African roots and uphold the Ubuntu spirit of Africa in these words, “Don’t stop dreaming because whenever young people stop dreaming, that’s when the world stops.”
Pope Francis comes to Africa as part of this synodal consultation. He wishes to take the message of a humble, poor, and merciful church to some of the most challenging parts of Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. In these two countries, one see how the convergence of the forces of neo-liberal capitalism, and the continuing ravages of the effects of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism have unleashed the most destructive economic, social and political upheaval in modern African history. In his programmatic agenda at the beginning of his pontificate in 2013, Evangelii Gaudium (no.187), Pope Francis advocated that every community must become “an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor” by listening to “the cry of the poor and come to their aid.”
Pope Francis is coming to Africa to listen to the cries of women who have been violated in the long unending wars in the Congo and the brutal war in South Sudan. He also hopes to address head-on the hidden wounds of clerical sexual abuse in the church which the Congolese bishops conference, CENCO, identified as a major challenge when last year they called on priests with children to leave the priesthood in order to take care of their children and ‘wives.’
Pope Francis will also see firsthand in these countries how the savagery of war, dictatorship, and ecological disasters have denied ordinary Congolese and South Sudanese access to land, labor and lodging—the three L’s that Pope Francis proposes are vital in giving agency to the poor through solidarity and accompaniment.
Majority of Africans, in the thinking of Pope Francis, like in many parts of the Global South and in the big slums and ghettoes of big cities are condemned to intergenerational poverty, abandoned in the lower rungs of economic and social progress, and walking in the valley of tears. Pope Francis calls the unjust situation in the world today “self-centered paganism” that is drowning the cries of the poor, who are discarded because of “an economy that kills” through exclusion, injustice, greed, colonialism, and inequality (EG 53). For Pope Francis, African young people can only become protagonist of history if the idols of money and self-serving dictatorship are removed in African nations.
Amplifying the Voices of Africa in the Papacy of Francis
Pope Francis will receive a warm welcome from Africans during this visit. Most African Catholics embrace his message of a poor and merciful church because it speaks to their challenging social context. However, there are many African Catholics, particularly high-ranking church leaders who are not yet convinced about the doctrinal clarity and social Gospel of Pope Francis nor have they embraced the reform agenda of Pope Francis or the so-called ‘Francis’ effect. Modern Catholicism in Africa has been shaped by the centralization thrust of the last two predecessors of Pope Francis; the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI and St. Pope John Paul II.
These two popes promoted to the episcopacy African clerics who as local church leaders in Africa who had an unquestioning loyalty to Rome. These African bishops reject contextual and liberation theologies, and a theology of the church of the people, and any change to the status quo. Africanization of the Catholic Church or contextual approaches to pastoral issues are often rejected by some of these African bishops as a distraction or ecclesiastical aberration. This is why despite the burgeoning number of Catholics in Africa and the explosion in the number of African bishops, priests and nuns, some of whom have become missionaries in Europe, North America and Australia, African Catholicism is a dependent church that is often beholden to financial life-support from the Church of Rome and depends on doctrinal guidance from the Roman curia.
In many instances, rather than being a strong Church that looks more like Africa, some of the Catholic dioceses in Africa have embraced a restorationist agenda. What people often see in these churches are baroque theology and medieval traditions, that alienate the church from ordinary African Catholics. This enslavement to Roman rituals, traditions, Latin language, and norms and discipline for religious and clerical life in the Catholic Church in Africa is sometimes at odds with African cultures and religious traditions.
Pope Francis has often spoken of giving Africa a voice in the church and in the world. However, many African Catholics wonder how Africa could be given a voice in the papacy of Francis when for the first time in more than 30 years, there is no single African cleric, religious or lay person serving as the head of any of the Vatican Dicasteries. Many African Catholics hope that Pope Francis will announce the appointment of some African clerics, religious or laity to head some of the vacant ministerial positions at the Vatican during his visit. African Catholics also are praying that Pope Francis will be the first Pope to create a Pontifical commission for Africa similar to the Pontifical Latin American Commission created in 1958. This will be a significant way of recognizing that the Catholic Church in Africa has come of age thereby giving African Catholics a voice in the Church of Rome.