The New Evangelization - Africa


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 centuries.

North Africa

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 recovered.

— 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 was lacking.

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 activity.

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.