Catholic synod studies problems facing Africa

April 29, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY -- Summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II for a special congress, Roman Catholic bishops from Africa are seeking to match the demands of their faith with the social, tTC political and economic needs of a hungry and often violent continent.

For some 300 bishops from the 53 nations of Africa attending a month-long synod here, "inculturation" -- the melding of Roman Catholicism with African traditions -- emerged as an overriding concern. "It is the marriage of faith and life," said the group's interim document.

Relentless tribal savagery in Rwanda, the most Christian country in Africa, is a tragic counterpart to the exaltation of a continent where Catholicism is growing quickly and the Vatican counts 80 million believers among 610 million people.

A practical advantage of holding the synod in Rome is that it exposes the stay-at-home Vatican administration, or curia, directly to leaders of the African church. And such meetings provide a valuable chance for participants to compare notes.

"Exploration of common problems by bishops who didn't necessarily know one another should result in a stronger African church," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a California Jesuit who is following the synod as a specialist in church organization.

The secular context for a church transported to Africa in the past century by European missionaries emerges with painful clarity as the bishops -- 90 percent of them Africans -- recite a litany of continental needs.

"In almost all our nations, there is abject poverty, tragic mismanagement of available resources, political instability and social disorientation," noted Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum of Senegal.

Part of the blame rests with Europe and North America, which contribute material assistance to Africa, but are also responsible for "bombs and weapons to destroy our people, and to create insoluble debts," observed Mozambique Cardinal Alexander Jose Maria dos Santos.

The burden of responsibility for African trauma, however, rests heaviest not on outsiders but on African political leaders, the bishops warned.

Bishop Julius Babatunde Adelakun of Nigeria assailed leaders who "are power-hungry, greedy, corrupt, having enriched themselves at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve."

The bishops said that Catholic teaching must be presented "as a message of liberation and salvation. Justice and peace is at the heart of the mission in Africa. There is a need for a new cultural politics which accepts pluralism, diversity and democracy."

A 34-point working agenda notes the great religious enthusiasm of Africa but also worries about a "shallow faith" among some African Christians -- what one bishop called "rosary beads in the morning, witchcraft in the afternoon."

Bishops have been stunned by missionaries' reports that both catechists and regular worshipers in Catholic communities in some cases participated in the Rwanda slaughter of minority Tutsis by majority Hutus.

The bishops' agenda observes that since the history of the church on much of the continent is short, among Africans there is a "a strong feeling of having received a faith not yet fully at home in our life and culture."

"Christ walks too much among the people in a European garment," said Bishop Bonifatius Haushiku of Namibia.

One result, said Bishop Francis Mugadzi of Zimbabwe, is that Christians lead "double lives, one foot in African tradition, another one in the church."

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