The Church, Africa and the future

The Conference on the Church in Africa hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Center, March 22-25, sought to provide perspective for the future of the Church on that continent. In doing so, it brought together four cardinals, six bishops, three heads of religious orders, priests and nuns, theologians and laity, including African students.

Spiritan Father Paulinus Odozor, organizer of the conference, is the Nigerian-born first son of a local Catholic businessman, and his mother also had been in business before devoting herself to her husband and nine children.

Asked the source of his vocation, Father Odozor cites his time as an altar boy who attended an Irish Augustinian school in northern Nigeria.

“The Church just grew on me,” Father Odozor told Our Sunday Visitor. “I loved it, and I loved the priests I knew, so naturally I became a priest.”

Father Odozor did post-graduate studies in Rome and Toronto, specializing in the American Jesuit moral theologian, Richard McCormick. Since 1999, he has been on the Notre Dame theology faculty and has been a faculty advisory member of the Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame, which was a major sponsor of the Africa conference.

In 2003 and 2004, Father Odozor helped organize two conferences at Notre Dame in response to the pastoral letter of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “A Call to Solidarity with Africa.” The wide-ranging, four-day conference recently held in Rome was a follow-up to those from over a decade ago and dealt with the momentous changes that have since taken place.

Africa is Christianity’s main growth area. In 1900, Christians were some 10 percent of the continent’s population, but now they encompass 50 percent.

It is estimated that by 2030, the number of African Catholics will exceed that of European Catholics. A few years after that, it is expected that African Catholics will outnumber those in Latin America, as well. While African Catholicism has huge potential, it also suffers growing pains. Africa’s challenges include corruption, terrorism, the ravages of AIDS, environmental degradation and colonial influences in subtle forms.

During the recent conference in Rome, OSV spoke with Father Odozor about the challenges and opportunities for the African Church.

Our Sunday Visitor: Africa’s problems seem as formidable as its promise. What did the conference aim to do?

Father Paulinus Odozor: To sharpen awareness for a new level of conversation within the Church in Africa, which will help us face both our own problems and those within society, and to help us invite other parts of the Church, where the Faith might be in decline, to share Africa’s hopes and joys of the Gospel.

OSV: What did the conference achieve?

Father Odozor: There was an openness, which reflected a willingness to face difficult issues rather than evade them. It showed that Catholicism is now an African religion, speaking from inside the cultures rather than from outside, with enough confidence to celebrate all aspects of the Church but also to criticize its defects. This more mature Church is better equipped to face complex questions.

OSV: There was much laughter as the Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, several bishops and other speakers told stories and cracked jokes, creating a friendly atmosphere. This was attractive, but isn’t there a danger of complacency because of the Church’s liveliness and strong growth?

Father Odozor: The jokes and the conviviality are not marks of unseriousness. They are in fact indications of trust in the Lord. And they show that Christian life is not a dreary thing. However, one of the speakers, Obiageli Nzenwa, a Nigerian laywoman who is a human resources consultant, gave a timely warning about not patting ourselves on the back because of what we’ve achieved. Many participants showed awareness that we are challenged now to take the Faith to a new stage; it has to be deepened in the next generation. One question raised in the conference was whether factors such as social media militate against a deepening of studies, of culture and of the Faith. We have to prepare people to resist the pressures of Pentecostalism and other competing religions. In all spheres, in fact, we need to help discern between truth and falsehoods fabricated by ideologies skilled in propaganda. We have to oppose new forms of colonialism and work as well as for peace and justice. One acute issue for us, raised by the Islamist terrorists, is whether they represent Islam or are a distortion of it. These are some of the issues emerging from this conference.

OSV: I noticed that Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, from the area afflicted by Boko Haram terrorism, insisted that it is not so much a religious issue as a social problem with religious labels. And that Archbishop Berthelemy Aboukonou of Benin, who is secretary for the Pontifical Council for Culture, during the conference deplored a new form of colonialism — western governments and NGOs spreading birth control methods destructive of African families. How does the Church get its message across to society as a whole?

Father Odozor: It is heeded to the degree that it is seen as acting for the good of society and not simply to protect its own interests. It does not behave like a transnational corporation but as a body rooted in society and interested to promote beneficial behavior in the public sphere. Catholic institutions are known to be available for and open to all; our hospitals and schools are for all and not just for Catholics, for example. The Catholic Church does not require that you be a card-carrying member of the Church, so to speak, to advocate for you or for your rights. This lack of sectarianism in advocating for the human common good is one reason the Church in Africa is so effective, even when and where it is not in the majority.

OSV: Is there collaboration between the Church in Africa and African-American Catholics?

Father Odozor: Yes, there is, even though one would wish for more collaboration both in numbers and intensity. There are, for instance, some interactions between and among theologians from Africa and their African-American colleagues. One of the American theologians, herself an African-American, Professor Shawn Copeland of Boston College, was at the conference and gave an incredibly rich paper on the situation of African theology in the African diaspora.

OSV: If within a few decades Africa is the continent with the most Catholics, what could it contribute to the Church as a whole?

Father Odozor: Some claim that the future of the whole Catholic Church is visible in the dynamic Church of Africa. But we have to keep in mind that our future is in the hands of God. We must remain humble — as long as we remain humble, walk in God’s ways, and don’t abandon God, we will thrive. Our best contribution would be to give a witness of fidelity to the Gospel. ...

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Inculturation must be applied differently in different fields. For instance, cultural norms can be adopted more readily in liturgy than in dogma where there are non-negotiable truths such as the Lordship of Jesus, the teaching that he died and rose again. The meaning cannot be changed but it has to be spelled out as clearly as possible using terms and languages people can understand, while retaining intact the Catholic truths they teach. The conference participants were alert to the intricacies of inculturation.

My constant concern since my first years at the seminary is that we transmit faith in the Christian God. The conference was reminded that missionaries did not bring religion or the idea of God to Africa. The idea of God was already there in Africa. Missionaries spoke of the God whom Jesus revealed both in himself and in his action and ministry. The question is to what extent the content of the old beliefs have simply been transferred to the new Christian God. The conference was reminded that the danger for Christians everywhere is using the word God, which is not really the God revealed through Jesus Christ but only a “God” of their own making and imagination. I think Pope Francis is bringing this message to the Church as a whole.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.