EVANGELIZATION OF THE CONTINENT
Within the last ten years, a number of countries in Sub-Saharan
Africa have been celebrating the centenary of their evangelization.
Certain countries in the same region are presently making preparations
to celebrate their own centenary. Although for many of these countries,
the centenary celebrations reflect the historical reality, it needs to
be recalled that the contemporary evangelization of Africa does not
represent the first effort to Christianize this continent. The ancient
flourishing Churches of North Africa, which produced luminaries such as
Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, disappeared completely. The great
flourishing Church of Saints Cyril and Athanasius survived but
considerably weakened, among the Copts of Egypt and Ethiopia. In Nubia
(present-day Sudan), it disappeared completely.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, serious efforts were made to
establish the Church in West Africa, in Zaire, Angola and Mozambique.
Dioceses were even erected, but those Particular Churches eventually
disappeared altogether. Reasons for the disappearance of Churches which
existed in North Africa and in Sub-Saharan Africa before the 17th
century are instructive for the new evangelization.
The Ancient Churches in Africa
Egypt was the only African country in which Christ dwelt temporarily,
and, for all practical purposes, as a refugee! Egypt was also the first
African country to welcome the Gospel. It gave the Church Athanasius,
Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Origen and a host of other
great figures of the Ancient Church.
Africa occupies an important place in the history of monasticism,
since Egypt was an early site in which monastic life flourished. The
Christian anchoritic life can be dated to the end of the third century.
Saint Antony of Egypt (c. 251-356), often referred to as the
"Father of Egyptian Monasticism", became the father of a
community of anchorites. But it is Pachomius of Egypt who must be
regarded as the founder of Christian cenobitism, strictly speaking, as
opposed to anchoritism. This he did by founding a community in which the
members accepted a rule composed by Pachomius, and bound themselves to
an ascetical manner of life, in common and the same for all, under the
direction of a superior.
The Early Church in Egypt was so vitally missionary that by the
middle of the fifth century the entire country was completely
christianized. Even the monastic communities contributed much to the
primary evangelization of Egypt. Athanasius' missionary interest
extended beyond the frontiers of Egypt, since ca. 350 he ordained
Frumentius, a native of Tyre, for an area which has been universally
identified with Ethiopia and its contemporary capital, Axum. It was
missionaries from Egypt who christianized Nubia in the sixth century.
The Church in Egypt became overwhelmingly Monophysite in the fifth
century, and, with it, its daughter Churches in Nubia and Ethiopia. In
640, Alexandria, the gateway to Egypt, fell to the Arab Muslim invasion.
Then, the gradual and inexorable Islamisation of Egypt began. The Coptic
Church survived, but became considerably weakened in the course of the
In North Africa the Catholic Church was probably planted in Carthage
no later than the first half of the second century. According to
Tertullian, writing in 197, Christianity had even then penetrated all
ranks of society (Ad Scap. 56).
As early as the third century the ascetical life had achieved a
noteworthy expansion within the Church in North Africa, witnessed by the
existence of several monasteries at Carthage by the year 400. The form
in which monasticism spread from North Africa to all of Western
Christianity is due mainly to the influence of St. Augustine. St.
Augustine’s sermons and letters also reflect the commitment of a 5th
century North African bishop to the work of evangelization, referring to
numerous tribes who had not yet heard the Gospel. In some of those
tribes living in the frontier zones of the Roman provinces,
evangelization had already begun in Saint Augustine's time, as witnessed
by the tribes living in Arzuges to the south of Byzacena and Numidia.
Later on, many native tribes in Mauritania Caesariensis in the extreme
west were evangelized by the North African Church. However, the
missionary activity of this Church was greatly hampered by the long
confrontation between the Catholic Church and the Donatists, as well as
by Vandal invasions.
Decline and Disappearance: An Evaluation
The decline and total disappearance of this flourishing Church is a
sad fact of history. The Arab Muslim invasion of North Africa, which
began around 643, was completed by the capture of Carthage (698) and
Ceuta (709). The Moslems gradually brought about the extinction of
Christianity, reducing the number of bishoprics to three for all Africa
by the time of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). Even these three bishoprics
disappeared entirely by the l3th century.
What are the reasons which could possibly explain this tragic
disappearance of the Church in North Africa? Among the remote
causes, mention could be made of the following:
— The presence of Donatism in the Church in North Africa
reduced the Church's interior strength considerably. In spite of the
Catholic victory over the Donatists at the meeting held in Carthage
in 411, Donatism never completely disappeared, and was still to be
found in North Africa during the 6th century. A very important
lesson that could be learnt from this sad situation of the Church in
North Africa concerns the crucial importance of promoting, with
vigilant and unflagging solicitude, the intimate bonds of communion
among all the faithful in the Body of Christ which is the Church.
— The Vandal persecution of the Church inflicted upon the
latter a spiritual and moral damage which weakened the Church
considerably, a weakness from which the Church never really
— The North African Church never translated the Bible and
liturgy into native languages (Berber and Punic), or incorporated
elements of local culture to form a national Church. Latin
provincial culture was received by the inhabitants along with the
Christian Faith. It is here that one can see a fundamental
difference between the North African Church and the Church in Egypt.
In Egypt and Ethiopia the Christian Faith was very soon expressed
(Bible, Liturgy, etc.) in the Coptic and Ethiopian languages, even
the minority ones. If the Bible and the Liturgy had been translated
into the Berber language, it is quite possible that Christianity
would have survived in North Africa, in spite of Islam, as it did in
Egypt and the Middle East.
The immediate causes of the decline and disappearance of the
Catholic Church in North Africa would seem to be the following:
— The Arab-Muslim invasion brought about a serious decline in
the Christian population, due to casualties in battle and the flight
of many to Italy and Gaul.
— Another cause is the pressure exerted upon Christians
and pagans to convert to Islam. In North Africa, following the
Arab-Muslim invasion, Christians were permitted free exercise of
their religion, on payment of a tax and agreement not to
proselytize. But ca. 720 heavy pressure was exerted by Caliph Omar
II on the Christian Berbers to convert to Islam. By a rapid
conversion of the Moors, followed by a gradual process of attrition,
Islam succeeded in weakening the Church in North Africa which, in
turn, lead to its total disappearance.
The Church in Sub-Saharan Africa
Evangelization: 15th and 16th Centuries
The exploration of the African coast by the Portuguese in the 15th
century was soon accompanied by evangelization. As early as 1462, Pope
Pius II entrusted the evangelization of the Guinea Coast to the
Franciscans led by Alfonso de Bolano. By 1486, Dominicans and others
were active in West Africa, notably among the Wolof in Senegambia. The
Guinea mission depended upon that of Cape Verde where a bishopric was
eventually created in 1553.
At the request of the King of Benin, who had come into contact with
the Portuguese in 1485, the Church was planted in that kingdom. However,
no great results were achieved. The mission in Benin, served only
intermittently from Sao Tome which was made a bishopric in 1534 by Pope
Paul II, simply vegetated. In the Congo (present-day Zaire), systematic
evangelization began in 1490, conducted by Franciscans, Canons Secular
of St. John the Evangelist, and secular priests. From the start, its
success was remarkable. Nzinga was baptized under the name Dom Jodo
(1491). A church was built in his capital, which was named Sao Salvador.
A truly Christian kingdom, closely modeled on that of Portugal, arose on
the left bank of the river. During the reign of King Alfonso (1506-43)
Christianity spread widely. Missionaries arrived regularly from
Portugal; and young Congolese were sent to Portugal for instruction. Dom
Hernique, son of the King, was elected (1518) and consecrated (1521)
bishop of Utica. He soon returned to the Congo, but died in 1530.
Dominicans, Discalced Carmelites, and Jesuits sent missionaries. Sao
Salvador became an episcopal see in 1597.
In Angola evangelization began in the second half of the 16th
century. Francis Borgia had undertaken to establish a mission there for
the Society of Jesus. The Angolan mission was not initially as
successful as that in the Congo. It was only established when the
bishops of Sao Salvador took up residence at Loanda in 1626. It is to
the credit of the early Portuguese missionaries in Zaire and Angola that
they displayed remarkable missionary farsightedness by setting up a
seminary for the formation of indigenous priests.
On the East African Coast, particularly in Mozambique, evangelization
began during the first half of the 16th century. Saint Francis Xavier
stopped over in Mozambique on his way to the East. In 1561 the Emperor
of Monomatapa was baptized, thereby arousing a strong movement towards
the Catholic Church. These hopes were to be destroyed by Muslim intrigue
and influence. By 1591 the mission in Mozambique counted 20,000
Catholics. During the 17th century new evangelizing efforts were again
undertaken in Monomatapa by the Dominicans. A college and a seminary
were erected. However, in the course of the 18th century, decline and
decadence set in among the Christian communities and among the
missionaries, and by the middle of the 19th century, the Portuguese
mission in Eastern Africa was practically extinct. A very crucial and
decisive achievement of Portuguese Catholic missions in East Africa was
the rolling back and weakening of Islam beyond Mombasa. They succeeded
in holding down Islam in the south.
Early missionary work in Madagascar by Portuguese Franciscans and
Dominicans during the 16th century did not enjoy much success. Jesuits
started a mission there in 1613. They were followed by the Discalced
Carmelites (1647), and the Vincentians; (1648), all without significant
impact. Small scale attempts were undertaken intermittently, but the
French Revolution brought an end to all missionary work on the Island.
Possible Reasons for Failure
In spite of the heroic evangelizing efforts of the 15th and 16th
centuries, Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa had completely disappeared
by the beginning of the 19th century. Among the many reasons for that
extinction, the following should perhaps be mentioned here.
The missions in Sub-Saharan Africa were entrusted to Portugal which
claimed the privileges of patronage (patroado) earlier granted to
it by the Popes. Insistence by Portugal on its patroado
privileges practically nullified the efforts of the Sacred Congregation de
Propaganda Fide to exercise effective control and to direct
evangelization in those territories. Certain religious orders also
managed to obtain privileges which enabled them to circumvent or
obstruct Propaganda's missionary policies and approaches.
While insisting on its patronage privileges, which enabled it to
exclude missionaries of other nationalities from Sub-Saharan Africa,
Portugal became increasingly unable to supply enough missionaries for
the region. This even led to prolonged vacancies in the bishoprics in
Africa, which in turn, resulted in the decline and decay of what had
been laboriously built up.
While insisting on its exclusive right to direct evangelization in
Africa, the Portuguese government tended to prefer its commercial
interests to the spread of the Faith. There was no effort made to
penetrate beyond a coastal strip to the interior.
The Portuguese Catholic missions thrived only in areas which were
effectively under Portuguese power, and consequently they acquired the
character of ecclesiastical colonies. With the exception of the Italian
Capuchins in the Congo and in Angola the early Portuguese missions did
not face up to the need for inculturation. A deep and accurate knowledge
of the African languages and of the customs and mentality of the people
The tropical climate often killed the missionaries within a short
time after their arrival. This is one reason why the mission in the
Kingdoms of Loango and Kakongo (1766-1776) had to be abandoned.
A New Period of Evangelization
Missionary Roots in the 19th Century
Towards the middle of the 19th century the evangelization of Africa
was resumed, thanks to the heroic dedication of many missionary
institutes of men and women. During the 19th century, Spanish and
Portuguese influence had waned and the system of patroado had
weakened and declined, thus leaving room for the Sacred Congregation de
Propaganda Fide to get a firm and untrammelled hold on missionary
policy and strategy in Africa. Today, the Catholic Church is present
everywhere in Africa, the result of barely one century of apostolic
On 31 December 1986 the total population of Africa stood at
571,946,000. At that date the number of Catholics in Africa was
74,988,000, representing 13.11% of the total population of the
continent. Indeed, the sacrifice of countless missionaries has been
richly rewarded. According to the recently published Year Book of the
Catholic Church, the area of the Church's fastest growth, at present, is
Africa where the increase has been 50% in the last 10 years.
An Historical Update
The resumption of the evangelization of Africa in the last century
took place during an era in which most African countries were dependent
territories. The colonial period in Africa has now come to an end.
Therefore, the context in which evangelization has to be carried out is
a new one, that of independent African countries.
During the colonial period, the agents of the evangelization of
Africa were exclusively missionaries from abroad, members of the various
missionary institutes. Today that situation has changed. Indigenous and
expatriate clergy and religious work hand in hand in the task of
evangelizing Africa. On 31 December 1986 there was a total of 481
bishops in Africa of whom 348 were natives of the continent. The first
indigenous African bishop of modern times, Bishop Joseph Kiwanuka of
Masaka, Uganda, was ordained bishop in 1939.
On 31 December 1986 there was a total of 18,353 priests in Africa. Of
these 8,591 were incardinated diocesan priests. At that time a total of
38,579 women religious (temporarily and finally professed) were serving
the Church in Africa.