From Africa, Lessons in Evangelization
What can we learn from the continent’s growth of the Faith?
The largest annual gathering of Catholics in Africa almost certainly is the celebration of the feast of the Uganda Martyrs, Charles Lwanga and his companions, which takes place each year on June 3. At the Martyrs’ Shrine at Namugongo near Kampala, Uganda, more than 1 million people assemble for Mass to honor the witness and heroism of a group of 30 or so believers killed for their faith between 1885 and 1887. Both Catholic and Anglican — with the Catholics canonized in 1964 — these martyrs’ exploits served as harbingers of a remarkable flowering of Christianity in Uganda and elsewhere. Within a few decades, a large number of the martyrs’ fellow Ugandans had become Christian, many of them Catholic, and the martyrs’ stories continue to inspire Africans and other believers in Africa and around the world.
Uganda is far from alone as a contemporary Catholic heartland in Africa. In a global perspective, sub-Saharan Africa represents a place of significant Catholic growth, with an increasing number of the world’s Catholics living on the continent and a larger share anticipated in the years and decades to come. Over the past 100 years, and especially in the past few decades, the center of the world Christian movement — and the Catholic Church in particular — has shifted southward from Europe and North America to Asia, South America and Asia, and perhaps nowhere has growth been as remarkable as sub-Saharan Africa. Besides the obvious demographic increases, from maybe 15 million Catholics in Africa in 1950 to 175 million or more today, perhaps even more striking is the evident dynamism of the Catholic Church. Churches draw large crowds on Sundays and feast days, numerous men and women choose to be priests and religious, and the Catholic Church is among the most respected social institutions in most countries.
For many of us who live in the United States, Catholic vitality in Africa can seem quite foreign, especially as we notice parishes shrinking and consolidating in our dioceses, Catholic schools closing and dispiriting newspaper stories about scandals of clergy sex abuse. In light of this contrast of perceptions, one might ask: Does the present situation of the Catholic Church in Africa have lessons for Catholics elsewhere, especially around the issue of evangelization? As a historian and theologian who focuses on the Catholic Church in Africa, I offer three tentative lessons from which we might draw. These are more suggestive than exhaustive, presented to highlight reasons for hope, inspire resilience and zeal, and educate us on the ongoing dynamism of our heritage of faith.
LESSON NO. 1
Treasure credible witnesses and forge generative institutions.
As ongoing devotion to the Uganda Martyrs suggests, African Catholics continue to draw strength from heroic icons of faith in their daily discipleship. Those martyrs themselves were inspired by missionaries who shared the Faith with them, struggling at times to find connections where cultural and linguistic differences existed, yet persisting even when aware of their personal limitations and challenges from their circumstances. Nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa encountered Christianity while it suffered under European colonial overrule into the 1950s and ’60s when independence was achieved. This political domination, though not always motivated by greed and undergirded by hubris, nonetheless caused a great deal of suffering to Africans in body, mind and spirit.
Nonetheless, people were drawn to the Catholic faith, often by compelling missionaries, even more often by early adherents among their own people. Notable converts in Uganda and elsewhere included thousands of catechists who carried the Faith to others and taught it, often learning new languages to do so. Soon schools followed, some persisting to this day, some educating elites, others offering literacy and numeracy to ordinary people. These schools relied on dedicated African teachers and formed African independence leaders. Nearly all the first presidents of sub-Saharan African countries were educated in Christian schools, and one, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, has had his cause for canonization introduced.
Life in post-independence Africa also has been difficult for many, with many states predictably fragile, urbanization and population growth challenging basic needs for many, and armed conflict all too common. In the face of such difficulties — which, though easy to exaggerate, are undeniable nonetheless — the Catholic Church represents a source of hope for many Africans. The role of Catholic institutions in supporting and generating that hope and producing credibility is hard to overestimate. The Church provides a great deal of education and health care in Africa, and thousands of faith-filled African Catholics staff and support clinics, hospitals, schools and universities, as well as banks and cultural centers. The strong reputation of the Catholic Church for integrity across the continent — not universal, but still quite widespread — derives from these institutions and the people who run them, especially in places where other social institutions suffer from reputations for corruption and mismanagement.
In Africa and elsewhere in the Catholic world, faith-filled individuals and faith-inspired institutions reinforce one another.
LESSON NO. 2
See religious diversity and fellow believers as valuable and not dangerous.
As Christianity, including Catholicism, grows in Africa, so, too, has the continent witnessed the growth of other religions, notably Islam. In addition, the traditional religiosity of African people maintains its role in many places — sometimes in self-conscious religious bodies with their own adherents, more often in the deep spiritual assumptions that abide in African Christians and Muslims. A sense of a sacred world, a remarkable hospitality to others (including their religious ideas), a profound concern for what Pope St. John Paul II called the culture of life — these are legacies of traditional African religiosity in sub-Saharan Africa today.
One might imagine that where other religions are vital, Catholicism might suffer. This can be true. At the same time, many of the most Catholic places in Africa are also places where other forms of belief and practice also thrive. Uganda itself has a strong Anglican church and Muslim community, and other places see large Catholic populations coexisting with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Muslims as well.
In fact, Africa provides evidence of two counterintuitive features of religiously diverse settings. First, historically speaking, certain places where two different Christian bodies exercised considerable missionary efforts have seen the strongest growth in both groups. This is true in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Religious competition, though at times it can degenerate into harmful bitterness, also can generate solid Christian communities marked by zeal and self-sacrifice.
Second, today religious conflicts often are less among populations that are religiously diverse — where, for instance, Muslims and Christians live in close proximity to each other in sizeable numbers — than in places of religious homogeneity. In the latter, in fact, religious minorities can suffer greatly, especially when outside agitators enter and advance polarizing messages about threatened religious values. Places of Muslim-Christian conflict in Africa have been much in the news recently — in Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan and the Central African Republic, for example — but they remain few, thank goodness, especially considering that Africa represents the continent that has the most Muslims and Christians living together.
Certainly there is much to learn about the practices and instincts for interreligious and ecumenical cooperation from African believers.
LESSON NO. 3
Encourage liturgical energy andface-to-face spiritual interactions.
Visitors to Africa who attend Catholic liturgical events almost invariably notice the enthusiasm of African Catholic worship. Drumming and dancing feature in many Masses, processions on feasts such as Corpus Christi and during Holy Week draw large crowds, and visits of popes to Africa have gathered millions to rejoice and pray. Over the past few decades, a vivid Pentecostal style has become a growing feature of Catholic liturgical life, sometimes in the official Catholic Charismatic renewal, which is very popular, but also in more pervasive and widespread habits of call-and-response greetings, expressive gestures and exuberant singing. Such a style of prayer resonates with many African Catholics, perhaps influenced by traditional African spirituality, maybe also related to a desire for God’s power to be palpable amid feelings of distress and vulnerability.
Besides this liturgical gusto, Africans also have long appreciated the place of small groups of believers gathering to celebrate their faith together. Lay associations have a long history in the Catholic Church, and African Catholics are no exception. In fact, the Uganda Martyrs themselves gathered together when their missionaries faced exile, supporting one another and evangelizing their neighbors.
Today, African Catholics gather in prayer groups linked to charismatic spirituality, while others share devotion to Mary and other saints, or come together around particular interests shaped by gender and lifestyle. Youths, groups of the elderly, women and groups of professionals all gather to grow in faith together.
In addition, many African bishops’ groups have encouraged small Christian communities as a pastoral strategy to foster engagement with Scripture and the tradition in light of the day-to-day concerns of believers. Such groups respond to local experiences of injustice and address inequalities of service delivery, political corruption and restrictions on political participation.
An old Latin adage has it: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (“There is always something new out of Africa”). Africa’s Catholic vitality is something comparatively new, and it represents a source of fruitfulness for the global Church.
We see this in the African clergy and religious who serve around the world, including in many places in the United States. We see it in Africa’s heroic witnesses and life-giving institutions, the creativity of its interreligious and ecumenical relations, and in the prayerful energy and shared associational life that are so evident in African Catholics. What might be ways that Catholics in the United States can draw upon the wisdom and witness of African Catholics today?
FATHER PAUL KOLLMAN, CSC, is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.