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Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

Get up, Africa

A Synod of Bishops gave Witness


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2009, P. 615-619
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The so-called "propositions" of the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa do not present revolutionary ideas and are largely based on earlier church documents. But they have enough substance to help the local churches to be more aware of the huge problems of their societies and to get thus their priorities right.


When in 1994 the first Synod of Bishops for Africa began with a solemn Mass in St. Peter one country was not represented (see HK, June 1994, 304 et seq.). Three days before, on 7 April, the genocide in Rwanda had started, a tragic event that strongly influenced the discussions on the topic of evangelization.


A new Healthy Self-confidence

In the first week of the second Synod for Africa, which was opened in early October, the Archbishop of Bukavu had on short notice to return to his diocese in eastern Congo. A school of the Marist Order had been looted, a parish raided and two priests and a seminarian abducted. Archbishop François Xavier Maroy had to pay a ransom for them. What happened in Bukavu dramatically illustrated the topicality of the theme of the synod: "The Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace - "You are the salt of the earth - You are the light of the world."

Despite some similarities with the first, the second African Synod had its very own touch. The opening of the first synod had been a celebration. For the first time in history the Church of Africa went with drums and dancing into St. Peter's Cathedral in order to take her place in the heart of the universal Church. The liturgies at the beginning and end of the second Synod were rather serious and subdued, with much of Latin Gregorian chant and only a few African elements. The Church and the African continent have considerably changed in the last 15 years. Inculturation of the Gospel into the living traditions of Africa was no longer the central issue. The deliberations were focused on the attempt to find a common response to the enormous problems of globalization by which Africa is hit particularly hard (see, HK, September 2009, 473 et seq.)



Among the 244 bishops attending the Synod 197 were Africans, the others came from the Vatican administration and the churches of all continents, to them about 50 so-called "listeners" (Auditores) were added, half of whom were women. The Synod was no longer a discussion of the African bishops alone, it really became the Church's synod of bishops for Africa, the view of the universal Church to Africa with all its light and dark sides. For many bishops the Synod became an "exercise of ecclesial communion and collegial responsibility (...) a new Pentecost," as it says in proposition 2.

This fruitful exchange between the churches became possible through a new, healthy self-confidence of a new generation of bishops who are no longer afraid to contradict even cardinals of the Roman Curia in the discussion and to carry their argument home. An important factor is that Africa is no longer dependent on charity but is able to give the Church and the world something. In his sermon at the opening of the Synod Benedict XVI emphasized that Africa can give the rest of the world something of value. He called Africa a "spiritual lung". While the Western world often exported "toxic spiritual refuse" in the form of materialism to Africa, Africa had "another patrimony: the spiritual and cultural heritage, which humanity needs even more than raw materials."

For two centuries the Africa mission was a one-way street. Men, and in the 19th century also more and more women went from Europe and America to the "pagans", "ad gentes". Now, the synod reminded the other churches of how much this former one-way street has changed its direction. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, reported that more than 600 African "Fidei Donum" priests are currently working in French dioceses but only 70 French priests in African churches. The stream of European Africa missionaries has become a trickle. Today young men and women from Africa and other countries of the South form the young generation of the missionary Orders. In terms of the church Africa has become a "donor continent". "Our relations developed into a true exchange of our gifts (...) and we are grateful for it," said the Archbishop of Paris.

However, not only priests come from Africa to Europe. Many of the migrants who survived the passage to Europe are Catholic, and many a parish, especially in Belgium and France, owes its vitality and its survival to the migrants from the south. The dialogue "between equals" is more than a pious cliché. It stands on a real basis; and this gives Africa's church a greater self-confidence and the courage to take its own positions. The fact that at the end of the Synod Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana was, as successor of Cardinal Renato Martino, appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was another sign that Africa's church has found its place in the universal Church.


The Church in Africa is a Church of Martyrs

A synod is hard work and requires great discipline of listening. The first ten days were devoted to the Synod Fathers' interventions; on the website of the Vatican all of them were within a few hours available in four languages to all interested parties. Each bishop had five minutes time for his speech, "listeners" four. Thus, piece by piece a mosaic of the continent in its enormous diversity was created, which differs gratifyingly from the clichés about Africa in the media. And at the same time, the burden of suffering and the cross of illness, hunger and misery that millions of Africans have to bear every day became almost physically noticeable.



About half of all African countries have experienced violent conflicts in recent decades, the traumatic wounds of which have not yet healed and are a tremendous pastoral challenge. The Church in Africa is a church of martyrs. Four of the twenty bishops of one of the synodal working groups have spent some time in jail. Bishop Hiboro Kussala from the Southern Sudan (Diocese Yambio) related how a parish was recently attacked by Islamist rebels, and eight Christians were crucified on trees. It was especially moving to listen to the personal testimonies of reconciliation experience, like that of a nun from Rwanda. On the occasion of her pastoral care in the prison in Kigali she had met with the murderers of her parents and had found the strength to become reconciled with them. The inner strength to endure violence, poverty and epidemics without losing hope and joy is the special feature of many Christians in Africa.

Through the interventions of the bishops and auditors a picture emerged of a church that is committed in all areas of life and society; in crisis situations she is often the only structure still functioning in the service of humankind. In the course of this, some issues were particularly often addressed. The Church as God's family was a central model of the first synod. The threat to the traditional African family structures through globalization, which is consistently seen negative, now causes great anxiety to the bishops.

The plundering of resources by multinational corporations, particularly by China (see HK, February 2007, 104 f.), and the resulting destruction of the environment was deplored by several bishops, as well as the corruption among political elites that make themselves accomplices in the robbery of resources. It remains a scandal that the continent that is richest in natural resources is at the lowest end of the development scale.

The migration of millions of people in Africa is an enormous pastoral challenge. People move from the countryside into the city. Millions become homeless by wars. The trade distortions of globalization and climate change make more and more people "survival refugees". A far-sighted Salesian bishop from Angola was already thinking about a migrant pastoral care for the thousands of Chinese who do no longer immigrate to Africa as "guest workers" for a time-limited project but in order to start a new life there.

Armies of new nomads are on the move, but the rather unwieldy traditional structures of a pastoral care that is oriented towards the clergy and the administering of sacraments are responding only slowly. Here, too, Pentecostal and Evangelical groups are often more flexible and effective than the Catholic Church. In Rome the bishops had the opportunity to experience at first hand the problems of migration. During the Synod thousands of illegal immigrants went in the very heart of Rome to the streets and protested against discrimination and injustice. They would certainly have been delighted by the support of the Synod Fathers. Jean-Lonard Touadi, the first African deputy in the Italian parliament, movingly told reporters about the hells through which the often underage boys and girls had to go on their way from Africa to Europe.

It is a tiring task, and yet an important element of the Synod to listen to 240 testimonies. Bishops in hopeless situations of war know they are understood and supported by their brothers in the episcopate. Others, who are struggling with insurmountable financial and staffing problems, realize that they are not being left alone. The fraternity practised by the brothers in the episcopate from around the world and the mutual strengthening of faith and hope made the Synod an experience of church fellowship. "The best thing was the spirit of solidarity that has shaped everything," Cardinal Turkson, the General Rapporteur of the Synod, said at the end.


Will the Role of Women Undergo a Change after the Synod?

Already the so-called "Instrumentum Laboris" of the synod addressed the contrast between what women in Africa do for the Church and society and the lack of their right to a say (see HK, February 2009, 104 ff). The nun Felicia Harry from Ghana emphasized in front of the bishops that nuns do not only want to give catechism lessons and decorate the church, but also contribute their charismas to the decision-making processes of the church. She called on the bishops occasionally to spend two minutes before bedtime with considering how their church would look like without women. Not concealed was the blatant injustice against women, which has many names in Africa: sexual violence and discrimination, forced marriages and polygamy, domestic violence and the exclusion from inheritance.

The bishops expressed their respect and paid tribute to women and admitted that women had not yet found their proper role even in the church. But will they after the Synod have also the courage to give a more marked voice to women in the dioceses and parishes in the decision-making?



Some bishops think of a quota system for women in parish councils or other bodies. The discussion about the role of women in the church soon reaches its limits and makes us aware that in the Catholic Church final decision-making powers are bound to the ordination. The African bishops are the last who would call this principle into question.


A Synod is also a Learning Process

Islam has many faces in Africa. North Africa and Black Africa are separated not only by the Sahara, but also by a theological trench. The churches of the Maghreb are a tiny minority in a sea of Islam. And yet, their testimony of a humble service to the poor has a greater weight than the small number suggests. After being deprived of all her privileges and institutions, the Church had to redefine her mission as an open dialogue and humble service to the society.

The bishops in countries like the Sudan experience Islam as a competitor and as a threat, and many are convinced that a genuine dialogue with Islam is impossible. The evidence of a tolerant Islam, and a practised dialogue between Christians and Muslims opened new horizons for some of them. A synod is also a learning process.

The "growing and fatal magic, a true secret war in the heart of Africa", was mentioned by several bishops and made a topic of discussion. Fetishism and occult practices enmeshed people in fear, created conflicts in society, and would be used as instruments of exploitation. How much the Africans are bothered by such occult practices becomes evident e.g. in the products of the Nigerian film industry, in which magical rituals play a central role. Not only traditional magic, but also forms of Satanism are widespread.

The Synod was shaped by an atmosphere of great openness and freedom of speech. A few bishops dared to analyse some pastoral practices that are perceived as unjust and inhumane even by committed Christians. Is it not possible that the church allows the first wife in polygamous marriages to receive the sacraments asked, for example, the Bishop of Sunyani (Ghana), Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi; they often belonged to the most active parish members and could not escape from their marriage. It is a pity that just a synod that had reconciliation, justice and peace as central theme has not dealt more intensively with these difficult, but in polygamous societies most current issues.

The bishops' interventions and discussions show two strands, a spiritual and socio-political. In view of the overwhelming problems in their countries some people say, "Only God is able to overcome the hatred in people's hearts. Jesus is the answer." And sometimes a certain resignation seems to resonate in such statements.

Others place the emphasis on what the church could and should do and organize: more efficient justice and peace committees, a more profound catechesis, liaison offices with the government, an Apostolic Nuncio at the African Union in Africa, a kind of peace council of reputable elders who could mediate in conflict situations. Here appears sometimes a certain activism that thinks it could change the world with the help of structures and programs. Wherever a problem finds no answer, the obvious solution is that one creates a structure. However, Africa's structures are notoriously weak - the democratic, constitutional, and especially the ecclesial. The 40th anniversary of SECAM, the pan-African association of episcopal conferences, for example, should be held in the week before the synod and had to be canceled at short notice because of lack of money. The tension in every Christian life between trust in the Lord and one's own efforts, between political action and spiritual revolution was also expressed in the Synod Hall.

Such a Synod has structural weaknesses. The interventions raise dozens of ideas and questions. Out of them twelve discussion groups formulate proposals (propositions). What is missing is the possibility of a deeper analysis of the often highly complex issues, even with the help of professionals, as e.g. for the urgent debate on pastoral priorities. Thus, a long list of 57 propositions was formulated at the end. It covers the huge range of problems and proposals for action: from the inculturation of the sacrament of penance over arms trade up to interreligious dialogue, but what is missing is a clear direction of impact.

The propositions do not contain any revolutionary ideas that would have made headlines. They are largely based on earlier ecclesiastical documents. But they have enough substance to help the local churches to become more aware of the major problems of their societies, and out of them to develop their own priorities. A synod cannot take decisions but according to the canon law (canon 342-43) its function is to advise the pope. A continental synod can also not adopt an action programme that could do justice to all the different situations.

The fact that many bishops' conferences do not want to await the official document of the pope but will soon meet in order to figure out which points are particularly important for their context shows that the Synod has, despite its limits, triggered a pastoral dynamism. The propositions were not only ceremonially handed over to the Pope but also to the press.



What is the Result of the Synod?

It is difficult to measure the result of a synod. In Africa, the encounter and exchange is more important than any printed documents. Not only in the synod hall, also in many meetings and accompanying events an intensive exchange between the participants themselves, and with theologians, journalists and politicians took place. Strengthened and supported by the experience of shared faith, and in the awareness to be part of a larger global community the bishops went back to their daily routine. In a continent where Christianity is divided into a no longer manageable number of independent communities, the positive experience of the consistency of the Una Catholica is extremely important.

The bishops also take home a common message, in which they share their findings and decisions with the Christians in their dioceses. Unlike many church documents, the language of this message is clear and generally understandable; its tone is positive and it is oriented towards pastoral care; there are almost no complaints about the colonial past, but call and encouragement to a new beginning in the Light of the Gospel and rooted in one's own culture. A new generation of bishops has understood that Africa's salvation does not come from outside; it has to be achieved by personal effort. "Africa is not helpless. Our destiny is still in our own hands (...). Africa, rise up, and walk!"

During the farewell dinner Benedict XVI, who previously had been present as an attentive listener, commented on the event. He had been afraid that the Synod would be too spiritual or too political. The Pope seemed pleased with the outcome, "To say a concrete but spiritual word - that was the big problem of the Synod, and I think we succeeded with it."


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born 1938) was until 2007 Head of the Network Africa Germany with headquarters in Bonn and Berlin, and since then has performed the Berlin office ( From 1965-1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda; from 1982-1992 Schonecke took over tasks of leadership for his Order of the Africa Missionaries - White Fathers; from 1994-2001 he led the Pastoral Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA).


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