The Catholic Church in Africa

Author: D'Souza


(In an interview with Fr. Alexander M. Apollonio, FFI, STL)

A Growing Church

During the Synod of Bishops dealing with Africa we made an analysis of the state of our churches there. Here we treat the more important churches of our diocese, where the number of the faithful are growing.

At Cotonou we have eleven parishes, but in each parish the minimum number that we have every week for catechism ranges from a thousand to two thousand persons, among whom are children and adults who come to prepare themselves for baptism, for first Holy Communion, Confirmation and for catechetical formation.

We have some very zealous parishes. When I was coadjutor, the bishop had need of another parish priest and asked me if I could help in a parish which every week was having eight thousand persons for catechism; another parish had from nine to ten thousand.

There are many confirmations every year in the parish of St. Michael at Cotonou. Last year on one occasion I administered Confirmation to 1250 persons.

St. Paul was once called by a Macedonian in a vision to spread the Gospel among Macedonians. The same thing also happens often to us when we are called with insistence to evangelize entire villages. This is a grace from the Lord; it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is showing Himself even more widely today in Africa.

These churches are young, very young. Some are only from forty to fifty years old.

Others trace back a hundred or even a hundred and fifty years. Of course we are not speaking of the church of North Africa, which dates back to the times of St. Cyprian and St. Augustine, but of churches dating from the 19th century. For this we must render gratitude to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

We all feel that the new church in Africa is still delicate, especially since our African nature has not yet blended well with our Christian nature, for difficulties are seen at both personal

and cultural levels. Our present position is therefore still precarious-similar to that of a mountain path along the edge of a cliff.

Besides, at present there are many sects, and one sees the growth of many, many religions. This was brought to light during the interventions at the Synod.

Death and love for life

During the opening Mass of the Synod, the Holy Father praised the African peoples' respect for life. This is well merited, since African families welcome with joy the gift of life. Yet what is happening today in Rwanda reveals that even in Africa respect for life still has to grow. I recently spoke with a priest of Rwanda who had been afflicted by terrible news: his whole family was wiped out, and sixty persons there were massacred.

Today in Africa there is a new idol: exaggerated racial or tribal pride. In the name of this idol, in order to affirm the superiority of. one's tribe over the others, many thousands of persons are killed-women and children included. And when such pride is mixed with politics, the situation becomes more dangerous and killings are multiplied- killing even in the name of God. This is an absurdity that is used to throw discredit on religion.

Contrasts therefore exist, and not only on the physical level but also on the personal, social and cultural levels. Such a situation-as was justly recalled by the Holy Father and many of the Synod Fathers-is aggravated by widespread misery, by economic difficulties As the public eye is only on these negative aspects, people forget that there are still many good and valid aspects. Hence today's Africa finds little to recommend it in the eyes of public opinion.

Today the parable of the Good Samaritan can be applied to Africa. Africa is somewhat like that man who came down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was ambushed by brigands and left half-dead by the roadside. Africa is in this situation, and we must save her. The first thing to be done, as I have said at times, is to attempt to heal the existing discrepancy between the faith and African culture on the personal as well as on the social level.

In order to accomplish this it will be necessary to evangelize. But how are we to do this? At the Synod we emphasized the principle of evangelization: first there should be a witnessing to the faith, then preaching, catechesis, and so forth.

Fruitful and unfruitful inculturation

The principal point that springs forth from the principle of evangelization is the necessity of tending to holiness. There was a series of interventions of the Synodal Fathers that dealt with genuine inculturation. In the Catholic Church in every century there have been persons who have gotten somewhat lost and even at times fallen into heresy when searching for a link between cultural life and faith. Without a doubt, inculturation involves some risks, and for this reason we have need of criteria or points of reference to avoid falling into error. In the Synod we put forth the directions which the Holy Father had already presented: it is necessary to verify always the compatibility between Catholic doctrine and what we would propose, institute or do. Besides, every local church should be always in full accord with the universal Church.

The Synodal Fathers also added that, as Christ said in the Gospel that a tree is known by its fruits, inculturation can also be judged in the same manner. Here we see the sign of true, worthy inculturation. An inculturation that does not produce fruits of holiness is not genuine inculturation. Our inculturation will have to aim et producing saints. Inculturation does not only mean introducing traditional African songs and dances in the Mass. Yes, it is also this. But if our hearts are not united to God we will not have accomplished anything. It will be like water that flows across the surface of our skin and then evaporates. This was insisted upon by the Synodal Fathers. I am also of the same mind, and have said that our inculturation should not be a folklorization but should produce saints, and in order to realize this, we must be in communion with the Holy Spirit.

In summary, these are the two fundamental points of evangelization: inculturation and holiness. We must be instruments of this holiness: this applies not only to religious, priests, seminarians and catechists, but also to families, to our lay sisters and brothers. There is therefore need of a deep formation not only on the intellectual level, but also covering all aspects of life, in order that the discrepancy between faith and life will vanish, and that all may realize the value of the gift of oneself totally to Jesus without holding back, even if giving the witness of martyrdom were to be necessary. All of us are committed to this task-first, to be so formed ourselves, and then to render service to others, achieving their formation.


A subject under inculturation urgent to be dealt with, I believe, is the phenomenon of witchcraft. By witchcraft I do not mean the use of traditional African medicine, the use of herbs, etc., but I am referring to another phenomenon which the Church knows well, being very much spread among the peoples-a subject widely treated and discussed in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Witchcraft in Africa is a scandal, a stumbling block to many Christians. In fact many leave the Catholic Church-at times temporarily-and go to the sects in the search for remedies for various ailments because, when they ask help from a Catholic priest, they only get disappointed without obtaining any healing.

In this matter we must remember that Christ received the unction and was sent to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind. We, instead, are not capable of healing others, to be of service to this people threatened by the devil and by suffering. Very often we limit ourselves to saying: "Pray, pray...." But the response is: "I have prayed, but I always suffer." And when one goes to the hospital, even the doctors say: This sickness is not for us to deal with. Go and search among the traditional methods!

Among these traditional methods of healing there are some types of medicines involved that are being used for "mysterious" ailments.

Some say that these medicines are works of the devil, but no other alternative is offered. I proposed to the bishops to undertake a serious study on the matter of witchcraft and on the use of these traditional medicines in order to find out if all are contrary to our faith or if there are some "traditional" medicines that Christians can licitly use.

Among the innumerable sects that prosper in Africa, there are the Jehovah's Witnesses, the followers of various Indian gurus, of Rev. Moon, and also sects founded by fallen- away Catholics. Masonry is also making much commotion and propaganda. Nevertheless the most serious phenomenon in Africa is witchcraft: there lies the work of the devil because the aim of witchcraft is that of bringing harm to others.

Coexistence with Islam

Another African reality to keep in mind is Islam. We hear many worrisome newsbits. There is a plan which certain Muslims are putting into action: to make Africa the contrary of Europe.

Europe for Christ, Africa for Allah. Islamic fundamentalism has taken a foothold in many African states, especially in Northern Africa by promoting political action that is radically antiChristian and anti-Catholic in particular. In these states, as in Libya, Sudan, Algeria, there are still many who are being martyred for the faith.

Using all means it is necessary for us to help our brothers and sisters who are undergoing persecution by reason of their Catholic faith, to fight against the temptation to take revenge; because revenge is a non-Christian reaction. We must be ready to forgive; dialogue is necessary!

Dialogue with Muslims will always be difficult, even among those who are not fundamentalists; besides, from their point of view, we are looked upon as pagans. Among the propositions of the Synod it is hoped that in the Islamic countries a convention will be reached in which a reciprocal living together among Christians and Muslims will be achieved and that Christians will come to be recognized as believers and not as pagans. Difficulties do not give us the right not to dialogue. We must always try to dialogue with them: it shall be less difficult with the nonfundamentalists, but more difficult with the fundamentalists.

It must be kept in mind that the faith of the fundamentalists is not really a religion, but is a form of politics. Like the Marxists, the fundamentalists also practice brainwashing in order that people might be convinced of their religion. Dialogue is therefore difficult, but not impossible; we must do all we can in order to accomplish this.

Above all, one can dialogue on fundamental values like those concerning life. Even if religion is not talked about, it is important that a certain brotherly relation independent of a professed creed be established, for the sake of coexistence. In fact, these people still follow teachings of the Old Testament. But their idea of one's "neighbor" extends only to those people who are of the same tribe, the same religion.

Brotherhood among peoples is a progressive revelation. Jesus revealed it fully in the parable of the Good Samaritan. For the Muslims, instead, whoever does not believe in Allah and Mohammed His prophet is not their brother. Either one converts to that faith in Allah or remains an enemy.

However, for us Christians, it is possible to live together harmoniously, in mutual respect, even without being brothers in the faith.

Islamic fundamentalism in Africa comes from abroad. I myself have some Muslim cousins, children of my aunt, the sister of my mother. It would seem that for us living together might be a nightmare, but it is not so. This is because of the mutual respect we have. For the fundamentalists, however, it would be difficult.

Here is an example of difficult coexistence: two Catholic priests in Mauritania were mutilated by an Islamic fundamentalist because it was an Islamic state. One of these priests was in church when one of these fundamentalists came and cut off his arm. When the wounded priest began to shout, another priest came at once; but thereupon the Muslim cut off his arm too. After he had finished these barbaric deeds, the fanatic began praying to Allah in church and was eventually arrested.

As can be seen it is rather difficult for Christians to live peacefully in these Islamic countries.

What I now will tell you may perhaps make you laugh, but it is significant [and suggests that at times evangelical prudence can fruitfully suggest a more "reactive" attitude].

In one African country there was a conflict between the Muslims and the Christians. The Muslims burned down churches and killed Christians but the Christians did not want to make any reaction. Then the bishop made the following statement: "The good God has said: He who does not have a sword sells what he has to purchase one. Do this also." (Cf. Lk. 22:36.) The Christians then burned down one or two Muslim shops and, from that day on, the conflicts ended...

There is a Christian Catholic influence

This episode precisely makes one reflect on many things.

Although the Catholic Church may be a minority in Africa, it enjoys a unique prestige that makes it stand out over all the other faiths-religions and sects. All look up to her with hope, Christians and non-Christians alike, for the purpose of finding a way out of many problems that exist in Africa. A paradox was arrived at when even in Islamic countries or at least in places where Catholics were a minority, a Catholic bishop was chosen as head of government during the most difficult moments of the state while waiting for an agreement to be reached between the different parties.

In general it can be said that a great part of the African people fear sin but have a concept of God that still belongs to the Old Testament: He is the omnipotent Creator, the just Judge. But

Jesus inaugurated an economy of mercy that has difficulty in bearing fruit in the hearts of men because of their stubbornness.

How do we help the people to recognize the true religion?

By means of faith and charity. Without faith there cannot be charity, but without charity faith is dead: charity is the soul of faith. The greatest social works can be performed, but if the people do not sense the charity that animates your actions, they will not believe you nor follow you. One must possess the sentiments of Christ: He stooped low with tenderness to sympathize with the mysteries of the people; in this way He conquered them. We must do likewise if we want to win souls to the Catholic faith.

This article was taken from the December 1995 issue of "Christian Order". Published by Fr. Paul Crance, S.J. from 53, Penerley Road, Catford, London SE6 2LH. The annual subscription to "Christian Order" is $20.00.