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Karl H. Neufeld SJ

Second Synod for Africa


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 7/2007, P. 495-498
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The situation on the Black Continent is depressing. Reports on civil wars, famine, epidemics, violence and disasters don't come to an end. There is not even special attention needed to become aware of it. At the same time the Catholic Church is growing on this continent where in some countries she is the only functioning public institution in the service of people. After a first synod in 1994 Pope John Paul II later solemnly signed his post-synodal letter "Ecclesia in Africa" in Cameroon {1}, where a decade later a meeting took place for the reflection on and a preview to a further synod.

The book "D´un synode africain à l´autre, Réception synodale et perspectives d´avenir: Église et société en Afrique" (Paris 2007) {2} takes up the by Pope Benedict XVI confirmed announcement of his predecessor and publishes the reports on the former events as well as the preparatory paper together with a questionnaire, on which until October 2008 can be taken a stand. This is of course a process in which above all the Africans should be interested. But the preparatory process of the synod is also of interest and importance for other Christians. On that occasion it is noticeable that one seeks to arrange and to accomplish the event in the sense of an old church tradition as faith event; but there will be no getting away from social and political questions like that of justice, distribution of goods and safeguarding the fundamental conditions of life.

The attempt to meet this only by referring to the Catholic social doctrine appears certainly a little helpless and simple - as effective as its principles have proved to be in Europe. The challenges were well compiled already for the first synod for Africa and discussed in detail in the papal letter, but the recent developments within the area of justice, peace and reconciliation urgently require a new meeting of this kind.

The assembly of bishops' alone is not sufficient, what is needed is the revival of the entire church on the Black Continent. What was started with the first synod must not simply be put ad acta - the motto is continuation. However, the situation has considerably changed and got worse. It is time and again emphasized and stressed that also positive developments took place. But the losses and deteriorations are unfortunately many times clearer and more concrete. They turn up within all areas, but especially in the school system and health service as well as in the question of labour securing people's livelihood. This is the reason for a large part of migrations. The general insecurity of life threatens many people and makes them look for ways out, which are partially searched for also in drugs.



The preparatory paper - the so-called "Lineamenta" - proceeds from this situation and clearly and unambiguously describes it, before in view of those circumstances the role of religions is brought up. "Quo vadis Africa?" - This is the great question. The church is looking for an answer from its centre Jesus Christ. She offers him as word of life in abundance and as bread of life. From him she determines her own task and her engagement for reconciliation, justice and peace in Africa.

But here a language- and a representation problem become apparent. Synods can inspire, create awareness, trigger engagements, and as event they can become a stimulus to work together and to summon up strength. But how was it to happen and how should it look like in our time, in order to achieve the expected effect? We are constantly exposed to campaigns and mobilizations for shorter and long-term goals. They are started and realized by most modern advertising methods. But do they correspond to the way that Christians and church have long since developed as appropriate for gospel and faith? It is not about an automatic programming of behaviours. Responsibility, readiness to make decisions and personal courage are in demand. The splits between emphasizing the good things and at the same time realistically looking at the situation with its horrors and its cruelty often appears little convincing. The concentration on religious questions seems to be particularly alienating as long as the simplest preconditions of life more and more dissolve and wane or break away.

There certainly remain questions in view of the compilations of successes and improvements in the last decade. It seems that they have not caused genuine hope and confidence, as imploring as one here refers to them, because more and more Africans choose the way into emigration. The church's task extends of necessity to the respective missing preconditions, without which faith and the preaching of the gospel remain without foundation. The questions of reconciliation, justice and peace have not by chance become the topic of the forthcoming synod; but there are quite concrete difficulties, each with a character of its own, which is to be clarified by diagnosis and suggestions of therapy. Means developed and tested in Europe will only in a restricted way be able to do justice to it, particularly since they had here also very ambivalent consequences and gave, as theoretical teachings, often cause for new disputes. Effective motives for a living commitment look in many cases differently. Is it not for this reason too that a synod for Africa has to deal with questions which are inseparably connected with thorny political difficulties?

It will be important to find possibilities for this without causing the church testimony as such to become suspect. For on the other hand there will also be political forces trying to take away the possible effectiveness of such statements. Are not already in the available texts considerations of this kind clearly noticeable? Who then will set an example by doing something? Demands become only urgent where they are implemented in practice and produce results that find recognition. The demands imposing themselves in view of the second synod reach very far. But the possibilities to tackle them in practice are limited. Of course, some things can be achieved by examples, but they too need a certain extent and a genuine effect, in order not to be dismissed as trifles.

All these questions have to do with the acquisition, the reception of such synods. How are they taken up and implemented? What does, what does not convince? It is not certain that the view of those who formulate the texts is really identical with the view of those who ought to and must implement it in practical terms.



One cannot reproach the latter for it, if they strive to the best of their knowledge and belief. But has their knowledge and belief rightly been assessed by the formulations or has it been overtaxed straight away? Do they have a possible access, or is the matter - for whatever reasons - blocked to them? What is taken in, is always taken in according to the possibilities of the in-takers, the old scholastics already said. Taking this into consideration, it had to be examined whether many a failure with regard to the first synod was not due to the lack of such possibilities. That's why this aspect should from the beginning be applied to the planned synod in a way that considers already the difficulties of reception and at the same time avoids them as far as possible.

Joseph Ndi Okalla, the first publisher of "D´un synode africain à l´autre", has this problem taken into consideration: "Hermeneutics of the Reception of an African Synod" (13-31) and differentiated for it between a biblical, theological and ecclesiological reception and a reception of the memory - a pastoral and practical one. In questions about the matter itself one could formulate brilliant suggestions, which were then nevertheless not taken up. For a successful realization the approval of the different parties has therefore to be won.

In this context also the question arises: Where is the best place for the synod? The first Synod for Africa took place in Rome. The post-synodal letter "Ecclesia in Africa" was then published on the Black Continent; review and preview were likewise attempted there. That is important for the reception. And it does by no means prevent that representatives of the world church go to Africa and bring in there their view from a different perspective. At the end of the preparation paper the spiritual contribution to reconciliation, justice and peace is emphasized. Here too one could ask about the specific African colour, as there is no general, non-descript spirituality, which would only be a colourless abstractum. But some points of the attached questionnaire with its 32 topics already point into this direction.

It is to be wished that the impulse triggers a wide echo and encourages many people to contribute to the preparation of the synod by laying broad foundations not only with answers but also with further hints. Thus it could be guaranteed that the work of the synod remains connected as close as possible with the experiences and difficulties of the churches in Africa and produces results which as genuine assistance find a broad acceptance there. The independence of the church in Africa will be a problem that should not be underestimated. Also the question of self-financing, which is mentioned and discussed there, and the steps necessary to achieve this goal belong to it. It is probably not the most central task of African Christians, but it is unquestionably of decisive importance for their self-confidence and responsibility.

The destiny of the Catholic Church in Africa will also be of importance for the situation of the church as a whole, the living unity and common viability of which depends on an exchange in which old and new things have their place just as much as giving and taking, promoting and demanding, living with and for one another, independence and co-operation. The view on it may differ, the respective concrete forms likewise. But it cannot be accepted that the unjust structures of the world are once more repeated in the church.



From Europe it is difficult to give Africa advice. But it is probably possible to exert influence on those forces in the world that are responsible for these developments, at the same time, however, often follow maxims that neither have the well-being of Africa in mind nor are they rooted in the Christian faith. Today nobody can any longer opt out of globalization. The necessary influence can hardly be enforced by purely religious arguments. This is a challenge for the world church, which - just for the sake of its own credibility - must not leave the synod for Africa to its own devices. Its topics "reconciliation, justice and peace" have a world-wide dimension. A lot would already be won if one already in the preparatory consultation succeeded in developing suggestions for it that can give Africa genuine hope.

The way of the church in Africa to its second synod, the search for a solution of the many and diverse problems of the continent is of importance for the entire church. The first Synod placed itself summarily under the image of the family of God. In the second one Africa is to be presented as homeland of Jesus Christ. But has he really found a home there? And that for everybody? Are the Africans allowed to go in this direction, even if it leads to new and surprising expressions of church? One could ask further questions of that kind. We are still standing between the synods. The reality of Africa is characterized by flight, AIDS, civil wars, clashes about mineral resources and political structures. Despite its large deserts the continent is not poor, but much of what is obtained there benefits others, whereas the Africans in many things live on imported goods.

Taken in a world-wide context Africa was with regard to economy and infrastructure called the "forgotten continent". But Africa is part of our world and in many ways its victim. It has therefore to be looked for reconciliation beyond Africa, as much as it remains also a task on the Black Continent. Justice in Africa is only possible in a broader global context. Peace in Africa is by no means a question that can only be regarded from the perspective of a neutral observer. Africa has long since arrived in South and North America - as consequence of a history that does no credit to the civilized world. Africa pushes its way also towards Europe, and the fears growing there have long since caused behaviours which too do no credit to today's history of mankind. A reflection of the churches in Africa will remain incomplete without a reflection of the churches elsewhere. And a mere reflection is not enough. Perhaps the Second Synod for Africa opens ways leading ahead.


{1} See Johannes Paul II., Apostolisches Schreiben "Ecclesia in Africa" (VApST 123, Bonn 1995).

{2} "D´un synode africain à l´autre, Réception synodale et perspectives d´avenir: Église et société en Afrique", edited by Joseph Ndi-Okalla u. Antoine Ntalou, Paris: Karthala 2007. 232 p. Br.



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