By Thomas J. Craughwell
When Pope Benedict visits Africa this month, he will be visiting a continent that has both ancient ties to the Catholic Church and new exuberance for the faith. If the tradition is true, the roots of Catholicism in Africa are about as old as they are in Europe.
The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius tells us that the evangelist St. Mark was the first to preach the Gospel in Egypt; he became the first bishop of Alexandria and died a martyr there about the year A.D. 75. While St. Mark's connection to Egypt is open to debate, it is certainly true that by 100 there were Christians in Egypt, the first of what would become one of the early Church's most dynamic communities.
From Egypt the faith spread across the Roman provinces of North Africa and then down to Ethiopia. During the age of persecution Africa gave us such great martyrs as St. Apollonia, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. Cyprian, St. Maurice and the Theban Legion, and St. Catherine of Alexandria. St. Anthony of the Desert founded the first monastery in Africa ca. 305. The great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Athansius, and, of course, St. Augustine's remarkable mother, St. Monica, were African. And three African popes have led the Church: St. Victor I (reigned 186-197), St. Miltiades I (311-314) and St. Gelasius I (492-496).
Tragically, Africa, the cradle of so many saints, was also the birthplace of one of the most contentious heresies -- Arianism, named for the priest Arius (d. 336), who denied the nature of the Blessed Trinity, teaching instead that Christ was not the eternal Son of God, of one substance with God the Father, but a kind of inferior secondary God. The Arian controversy raged in the Christian world for more than a century, often causing widespread confusion and dissension among Catholic bishops, clergy, Religious and laity, and sometimes instigating full-blown persecution of Catholics who remained faithful to the authentic teachings of the Church.
After the Muslim conquest of Africa (641-709), Christianity managed to hold on as a large minority faith in Egypt, but it disappeared in North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the Franciscans and the Mercedarians, among other religious orders, tried to replant the faith in North Africa, but they met with virtually no success. A new missionary effort was launched in the 15th century when Portuguese navigators began to explore the coast of West Africa. Following in the wake of the explorers, the Capuchins and the Jesuits took Angola as their territory, the Dominicans evangelized Mozambique, and the Augustinians opened missions in Zanzibar and Mombasa. This was the Church's first concerted effort to bring the faith to sub-Saharan Africa.
The great surge in African converts to the Catholic Church began in the 19th century, when England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany and even Belgium divided up the continent into colonies. Along with European administrators and European settlers came European missionaries, including the White Fathers and the Holy Ghost Fathers, who became especially famous for establishing missions in remote regions of Africa.
Catholic mission societies and religious orders insisted that no priest, sister, or brother could be assigned to an African mission until he or she was fluent in the local language and familiar with the local culture. But making converts was only part of the missionaries' mission: They also encouraged native vocations to the priesthood and religious life, thereby laying the foundation for a self-sufficient Catholic Church in Africa.
It was dangerous work. Many missionaries died of tropical diseases. Some converts -- the Martyrs of Uganda, canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964, for example -- were forced to choose between obeying their chiefs or obeying the law of God. In fact, Africa can still be a dangerous place for Catholics. In Nigeria, Catholics have been attacked and persecuted in Muslim-dominated parts of the country, and missionaries as well as native clergy and religious are often the targets of repressive regimes.
The darkest moment for the Catholic Church in Africa in modern times came in 1994. Just as the bishops of the world were meeting in Rome and praising the growth of the Church in Africa, ethnic warfare erupted in Rwanda. Catholic Hutus and Catholic Tutsis slaughtered each other without mercy, sometimes inside Catholic churches, undeterred by the fact that they were massacring innocent men, women and children in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
In some cases, Catholic priests and nuns encouraged the killings, placing their tribal loyalty ahead of their Catholic principles. In the Rwanda genocide, between 800,000 and 1 million people were murdered.
Today a kind of reverse missionary endeavor is taking place, with Africa sending its surplus priests to serve in parishes in Europe and the United States. Every year, about 300 international priests arrive in the America, about half of them from Africa.
Arrival at Nsimalen International Airport in Yaounde, Cameroon.
Courtesy visit to President Paul Biya at the Unity Palace in Yaounde.
Celebration of evening prayer in the Basilica of Mary Queen of the Apostles in Yaounde.
Meeting with representatives of the Muslim community of Cameroon in apostolic nunciature.
Mass on the occasion of the publication of the instrumentum laboris, or working document, of the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa, in Amadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde.
Visit to the Cardinal Paul Emile Leger Center (National Center for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped.)
Arrival at Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport in Luanda, Angola. Courtesy visit to President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in Presidential Palace of Luanda.
Meeting with political and civil authorities and with diplomatic corps.
Meeting with bishops of Angola and Sao Tome and members of papal entourage in chapel of apostolic nunciature in Luanda.
Mass with bishops, priests, men and women Religious, members of church movements and catechists in St. Paul Church of Luanda.
Meeting with young people in Coqueiros Stadium in Luanda.
Mass with bishops of IMBISA (Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa) at Cimangola esplanade in Luanda.
Meeting with members of Catholic movements for the promotion of women.
Private Mass in chapel of apostolic nunciature.
Departure ceremony at Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport.
Bishops in Africa
Priests in Africa
(an increase of 1,111 from 2006)
(an increase of 1,306 from 2006)
(an increase of 166 from 2006)
Pupils in Catholic schools
Other Catholic charitable & welfare institutions
Research by Thomas J. Craughwell.
The numbers listed here are drawn from a report published by the Fides Service at the Vatican for 2007.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author "Saints Behaving Badly" (Doubleday, $15.95) and Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Cardlinks series.
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