There is good news for the future of Catholicism
By Michael Swan
Photo: Women pray at a church in April 2015 in Bossangoa, Central African Republic. (CNS photo/Michael Stulman, Catholic Relief Services)
The Church, the world, and the future are all more African today than they have ever been.
Africa is no dark continent – some distant impoverished mystery cut off from the enlightenment of Western democracy, technology, and prosperity. Africa is becoming an engine of the future, especially the future of the universal Church.
Between 2005 and 2015, Africa’s economy grew by 50 per cent, far outpacing the global average of 23 per cent despite costly, disastrous wars in several countries. But Africa’s future is about much more than economic developments, which are a mere side effect of the demographic and cultural power of a young continent.
In 2013, there were 200 million Africans between 15 and 24, one-fifth of the continent’s population. By 2045, there will be 400 million young Africans in those critical years of higher education and first steps into the workforce.
In contrast, Canada’s youth aged 15 to 24 are just over 4.5 million, or 12.5 per cent of our population, and nobody is projecting growth in that demographic.
Africa’s youth will not accept lives cut off from the wealth of the 21st century. As the young tend to do – because they will be the workers, innovators and consumers – the coming generation of Africans are expected to become global wealth creators in this century. Africans, 15 per cent of the world’s population today, will be nearly 40 per cent by 2100.
The Church is a part of this rising, youthful Africa. One in five Christians in the world today are Africans living south of the Sahara. In the last 100 years, the region’s Catholics have grown 70-fold, to 470 million African Catholics from seven million.
Nor are Africa’s Catholics merely cultural. “This is a very religious continent by any standard,” Jesuit Father Agbonkianmeghe Orobator said during a recent visit to Toronto. “I mean believing people, people of faith.”
There may be few atheists in foxholes, but anyone who has been to Africa can tell you there are fewer there. Africans speak dozens of languages and live in a great variety of cultures, but they share the bedrock conviction that everything depends on a relationship with God.
It’s not an individual or individualistic relationship with God. African religion springs from African community and finds its home in the community. “Sumus ergo sum,” Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson said in 2010. “We are, therefore I am.”
Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny (recently appointed to a key post in refugee policy for the Vatican’s department for Promotion of Integral Human Development) spent a decade in Africa helping to establish the African Jesuit AIDS Network. He believes Africa is making crucial contributions to how the Church thinks, feels and acts in the world today.
“Years before Pope Francis called on the Church to act as a field hospital, I witnessed it doing precisely that in Africa,” said Father Czerny via email.
“In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis took it further,” said Father Czerny. “Because we are, because we come from us and are going toward us, there’s our common home to take care of, not optionally, but necessarily.”
Still, the 49-year-old Father Orobator, who heads up the Jesuit theological college in Nairobi, Kenya, rejects any suggestion Africa will follow Latin America as the premier staging ground for new thought and action in the Church of this century.
“I don’t think it’s Africa’s turn,” Father Orobator said. “I don’t think we take turns. I’m a firm believer in what we call the world Church or the global Church.”
Led by prominent prelates such as Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, a vocal proponent of the Church’s traditional teachings and practices, the African Church is often regarded as a conservative voice.
To some extent that may be true, but Western labels are difficult to apply to Africa. In any event, expecting Africa to provide some new formulation – reconstituting Catholic teaching and practice the way liberation theology did in response to crushing Latin America poverty and military dictatorships – is unlikely to happen.
“We make contributions (to the Church) not as a concession but rather by the fact of being baptized and full members of this community,” Father Orobator said. “As a community we come bearing gifts. We come bearing graces and charisms to enrich this global community. So every time is the African Church’s time.”
The Jesuits in Africa believe they have a contribution to make in creating a truly African, indigenous democratic culture. “A bunch of Jesuit schools is a very good idea and we have taken that as a very important mission for the Jesuits in Africa,” Father Orobator said.
“We believe very strongly that education has a role. And not just any kind of education, but education that actually focuses on the person – on transforming the person and transforming communities, on empowering people to be transformational leaders.”