A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
One of the Greatest Missionary Stories

Interview With Former Superior-General of African Missions

ROME, 20 DEC. 2010 (ZENIT)
Africa has often been called the forgotten continent. With the visits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, however, Africa is becoming better known among the faithful as home of one of the fastest growing Catholic populations in the world.

For the Society for African Missions, Africa is anything but forgotten. This group has been working on the continent for more than 150 years. 

To learn about these missionaries and their work in Africa, the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, spoke with Bishop Kieran O’Reilly. 

Bishop O’Reilly was ordained bishop of Killaloe, Ireland, just last August; prior to this appointment he served for almost 10 years as the superior-general for the Society of African Missions. 

Q: Africa has seen an explosion of Catholicism from 1.2 million faithful in 1900 to over 140 million today. To what would you attribute this explosion of faith in Africa? 

Bishop O’Reilly: Well as many of my bishop friends in Africa would say, “First of all it’s God’s blessing and it’s a great grace," which it is — to see the numbers coming for baptism, adults as well as young children, to see the number of people coming for other sacraments. 

But I suppose the main reality about Africa is that, since her independence 45 to 50 years ago, we have witnessed a huge growth of the urban reality in Africa. With the growth of the cities, many people have been displaced from rural areas so they have found themselves in cities, which are to a large extent alien, until they can integrate into the communities that are there. Very often these communities are associated with Churches so you have, as it were, people even moving from the rural areas immediately falling into the fabric of Church life in the urban areas. 

Q: And probably seeking it out because it’s one reality that they know in this very strange environment? 

Bishop O’Reilly: Yes, but also in Africa you have a very strong sense of linking between the villages and the people who are from the villages already established in the cities — so you link in immediately. You may be transferring geographically but you link in with people of your area and of your own background. 

Q: Has missionary work changed because of urbanization? 

Bishop O’Reilly: If I speak for us, for our missionary institute — as one of our primary works is evangelization — it has changed. It’s evolving continually because of the reality of the numbers of people that you are now dealing with. And when you ask that question about the numbers it also fits it with the growth of population in Africa because, especially in sub-Saharan Africa the population has grown enormously in the last 30 years and will continue to do so: good health, clean water, so many factors have helped to do that. The reality of the growing Church is very much tied in with the growth of Africa as well. 

Q: In fact it is said that 90% of the population is under 24. So this is also a challenge for the Church. How do look to serving the youth now? 

Bishop O’Reilly: It’s a huge challenge. One of the things that strikes me as I traveled to the big cities like Kinshasa, Lagos, Abidjan, Nairobi, any of the cities all over Africa, is the huge number of young people that are present — especially the secondary school-going population — and then subsequently the number of people who would have qualified for university but are without work. You see a tremendous movement everyday. You only have to go to Lagos to see the number of people and the challenge even for the government to provide the basic services for a population that is growing so quickly. 

The infrastructure required is enormous so for us as a Church, when we set out, one of the main things that we did was to establish schools. We built the church and the next thing you had a school next door — or as often happens in the early missions — the church was the school. But now with the number of children looking for schools, the Church is no longer capable of doing it alone and often the state just doesn’t have the resources. So we have to contribute especially since education is the hope continually. 

Q: What is the answer? 

Bishop O’Reilly: The answer is not to lose hope. The answer is to be committed. The answer is to continue to work with the local Church, to work with local groups, to seek the good help of Aid to the Church in Need and groups like that, generous people overseas. People might say: “Oh we are tired of giving.” No, you are never tired of giving; it’s for the children, it’s for their future, it’s for hope. You don’t ever get tired with that. The challenge is enormous because the population continues to grow. 

Q: In the year 2050, they say that three African countries will rank among the top 10 of the largest Catholic countries in the world: Uganda, Congo and Nigeria. Is the future of Catholicism the Church in Africa? 

Bishop O’Reilly: That is a difficult question. I would say in response that a large part of the future of Catholicism is in Africa but not all of it and as a consequence of that, I believe, there has to be much more awareness of the African reality within our Church. It is not very far away from this city of Rome. It is just across the Mediterranean, but sometimes it can be very distant. So it is the demographic reality — that this is the way it is going to be. So, I think at all levels within the Church there has to be a real awareness of that and proactive planning toward that reality. 

Q: What is the strength of the African faith? 

Bishop O’Reilly: I suppose the strength of the African faith comes from the people themselves, from the manner in which they relate to the existence of God, to the reality of Jesus Christ in their lives and to the way in which Christianity is able to tap into a rich context within their cultures of helping one another. There is a great sense of: “What is ours belongs to all of us." There is great sense of being able to share while, perhaps, in another culture we are more self-centered. This is best seen at the table. You always have food, it doesn’t matter, we put on more rice. There will be food for everyone. No one goes hungry. There is that sense, if you like, of the heart of Christian hospitality and openness that is there. It is very inspiring when you go to different parts of Africa. It is always there. 

Q: What is the weakness of the Catholic faith in Africa? 

Bishop O’Reilly: A weakness I suppose is that it hasn’t been able to address as quickly as possible some of the realities around it. 

Q: For example? 

Bishop O’Reilly: One of the big areas that will always be a challenge is the whole issue of corruption — corruption in society, which is a terrible disease really and does awful damage to the fabric of everything. Good people, well qualified, can’t get jobs because they don’t pay the bribe. The whole infrastructure of power can be so centered on corrupt practices and payment. The Church is trying, but it is very difficult because it is something so rooted in many cultures now and it must be said that it is very often due to the leadership and to outsiders who have come and taken advantage for whatever purpose, maybe to extract resources. In order to get the best deal, they don’t hesitate to pay and then if there are no checks and balances inside the country, the whole thing collapses. 

Q: A quick change of pace: We have been talking now about the growth of Catholicism but we also have seen a growth in Islam. One out of every three Africans considers himself Muslim. What challenge does this pose for the Catholic Church in Africa? 

Bishop O’Reilly: The most important challenge it poses is to be able to work with our brothers and sisters. They live in the compound next door. Our church is built next to a mosque. They work on the same fields. They travel on the same buses. So, one of the most important things is the mutual respect; that must be developed and that has to come with an understanding on our part and on their part of the values we hold and, of course when that happens you begin to discover that our values are common — that there is a common search for the right kind of things. 

The risk always is — and has been in Africa with these two great religions that you mentioned — is extremist elements within them who will take advantage for particular purposes like political, or social or economic to try and destabilize a region, a government or a ministry. But, I think that one of the most important things that has happened in the last 30 years is the amount of rapprochement and how we are working with each other at different levels in the government. I know in Nigeria, with the recent riots in Bauchi, the head of the Catholic Church and the imam immediately come together to resolve and speak about what has happened. So there is certainly a great deal of movement to a better understanding and respect of each other’s positions and the regard for their ways and our ways of living and working together. 

Q: Even Pope Benedict has been voicing very strongly this question of dialogue with Islam as the solution to many of the conflicts that seem to be raging? 

Bishop O’Reilly: It is. Unfortunately many of them are "instrumentalized" as they say in Italian to the advantage of some politician or to some person and then the good work that’s done on the ground is undone very quickly and you’ve got to rebuild again. As we are trying to build a just society and the values of Islam in that regard are the same as ours, so we work together for that. 

Q: Both Christianity and Islam have incorporated many traditional African beliefs. Are we talking about syncretism here? There is also a revival of African traditional beliefs. How do you see this question? 

Bishop O’Reilly: It is a very interesting one and there is a revival and — it is possible to link with Brazil and the different cults that developed there. It is also linked, I think, with the mass media. There is a huge market for plays and stories in which witchcraft plays a big part of the story. That is widely distributed in Africa now. I can see them all over the place. So it’s a big challenge really. In many ways it can come from a situation where there is great poverty and unemployment. Even the very best people, because of their children, will search in any direction. They will go anywhere if their child is not well. Who wouldn’t? 

So the answer has to be in fact, again education, a proper understanding of what the Catholic Church is doing. It is something we are aware of — a careful instructing of our own ministers, religious and lay — in the aspects of this, and that this situation should not bring us back into a time of fear or a time where these forces held an inordinate sway over people's lives. This shouldn’t be the case. There is always that risk in societies where poverty, misery, unemployment is dominant. 

Q: In the document of Pope John Paul II “Ecclesiae in Africa," he wrote that the hour of Africa has come. Would you say that this is the case? 

Bishop O’Reilly: Yes, on some levels. I mean within the Church, it has certainly come because of the statistics you have quoted and the reality of how those statistics are going to grow over the next 10, 20, 30 years. Africa, unfortunately with the economic world the way it is, is becoming more and more bypassed and being used to a greater extent only for its resources, as we can see by the great powers that are doing that. But with regards to Church, I would say it’s moment has come, and I think Pope John Paul II realized that in the future, this is going to be a continent that will be central — not, perhaps, the dominant, but central to the life of the Church in it’s mission. 

Q: How will this change the universal Church? 

Bishop O’Reilly: For the better I hope because, I suppose the richness of all our Churches wherever we come from is the richness of somebody like Paul who can take a quasi-Jewish Greek background, bring it to Rome and put the Gospel in there. So, if we can enculturate the Gospel fully into Africa, Africa will give back a richness that we cannot imagine to the universal Church. And if we can see the face of Christ as it is manifested in their cultures, then we will have a richness that the Spirit wants us to have. 

Q: What has Africa given you? 

Bishop O’Reilly: It has given me that shear sense of the spirit being present in the communities there. It is the communities that I have found the most inspiring and the most humbling. How people will serve each other the way they do without counting the cost. They will give so generously of themselves and to serve the Church. They are amazing. They love the Church. 

* * * 

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 


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For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

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