|Monday, January 9, 2023|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
he present article is a fellow-up to our previous 'Tribute' to Pope Benedict XVI, where we discussed the salient points of his contribution in inspiring African theologians in the area of promoting inculturation theology in the continent. In the present write-up, however, our aim is to highlight, yet, another area where Pope Benedict XVI (former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), has manifested in a special way, his love for Africa. Namely, in the area of promoting the universal value of African spiritual patrimony, through his teachings and homilies on reconciliation in Africa. Especially, as reflected in his choice of the theme of "Reconciliation, Peace and Justice", as the cardinal point of his pontificate and pastoral solicitation in relation to Africa and its people.
In his Homily during the Eucharistic celebration for the Opening of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on October 4, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI refers to Africa as the "Spiritual lung of humanity." He also decries what he calls a dangerous "Virus" that nowadays is spreading to the continent from the so-called developed world. This dangerous "virus", according to him, need to be resisted at all cost. As he puts it:
"When Africa's treasures are mentioned one immediately thinks of the abundant riches of the territory which have unfortunately become and continue to be a cause of exploitation, conflict and corruption. The Word of God, instead, makes us look at another patrimony: the spiritual and cultural heritage, which humanity needs even more than raw materials. "For what does it profit a man", Jesus was to say, "to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mk 8:36). From this viewpoint, Africa constitutes an immense spiritual "lung" for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope. But this "lung" can also become ill. And at this moment at least two dangerous pathologies are infecting it: in the first place, a disease that is already widespread in the Western world, in other words practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilistic thought."
Continuing, Benedict XVI, says:
"In this sense, colonialism finished at a political level has never really ended. But precisely in this perspective, a second "virus" should be pointed out that could strike Africa too, that is, religious fundamentalism, combined with political and economic interests. Groups that relate to various religious affiliations are spreading on the African continent; they do so in the name of God but according to a logic opposed to divine logic, in other words, not by teaching and practicing love and respect for freedom but rather by intolerance and violence." (Benedict XVI, Homily at the Eucharistic celebration for the Opening of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, Rome, October 4, 2009).
Benedict XVI sees Africa as a font of humanity's spirituality, although lamenting that it is afflicted nowadays by myriads of challenges, both from within and from without. In spite of the challenges, however, Benedict XVI has continued to insist on persevering Africa's deep spiritual nature and culture, because, humanity has a lot to learn from Africa and its people, not only on material wealth of the continent, but especially, from Africa's deep spiritual patrimony and cultural heritage.
Benedict XVI identifies the Traditional African Religion and Culture's deep sense of God as Creator of the Universe and as the Absolute Being (Supreme Being), as the source of Africa's deep spirituality and religiosity. That is, the African spiritual view of life, including "the idea of God, as the first or Ultimate Cause of all things." According Benedict XVI:
"The recognition of the absolute lordship of God is certainly one of the salient and unifying features of the African culture. There are of course different cultures in Africa but they all seem to agree on this point: God is the Creator and source of life. … The primacy of God, Creator and Lord. … Africa is the depository of a priceless treasure for the whole world: its profound sense of God, which I have been able to perceive first hand at my meetings with African Bishops on their ad limina visits, and especially during my recent Apostolic Visit in Cameroon and Angola, of which I retain pleasant and moving memories. … Thus the primacy of God the Creator visibly stands out in [Africa] with eternal validity " (Ibid.)
Benedict XVI and the Second Synod of Bishops for Africa in 2009
Benedict XVI has called on Africans to strive always to bear witness to the continent's deep spirituality and religiosity as a people. He charged Africans, to preserve this, as their great spiritual and cultural treasure. This is why the Pope went on to hold in 2009, in Rome, a Second Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa, on the theme of "Reconciliation, Justice and Peace." This was to complement Pope St. John Paul II's 1994 First Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa, which concentrated principally on the theme of inculturation in general term, and which gave the Church in Africa, the African renewed image of the "Church-as-Family of God" on earth.
It was indeed, in the context of this Second Synod for Africa, that Pope Benedict XVI made his first pastoral visit to Africa in 2009, the 11th international trip of his pontificate (and later his second pastoral visit to the continent in 2011). The visit took him to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, from 17 - 20 March, and then to Angolan capital Luanda, from 20-23 March 2009. According to him, although, his 'visit was limited to the two countries, nonetheless, he intended, through the visit, to embrace in spirit, all the African peoples and to bless them in the Lord's name" (General Audience, 1 April 2009).
It was during this visit, too, specifically, in Yaoundé, that Benedict XVI presented the "Instrumentum Laboris" (Working Document) of the Second African Synod, and spoke about some of the continents challenges. In particular, the Pope spoke about promoting unity and reconciliation, and expressed the hope that "Africa will be able to find the strength needed to face its (sometimes) difficult daily existence, and thus it will be able to discover immense spaces of faith and hope which will help it to grow in God."
Two years after the Opening Ceremony of the Second African Synod in Rome, Benedict XVI returned to Africa, to Benin Republic (18 - 20 Nov. 2011). The principal aim of the Second Visit was to present the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae munus (or final document), which was the fruit of the Second African Synod. The Pope used also the occasion of the pastoral visit to pay homage to Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a native of Benin and former Dean of the College of Cardinals with whom he worked for many years in the Vatican.
The high point of the apostolic visit to the Republic of Benin was the signing of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae munus, Latin for the Commitment of Africa. Many see Benedict XVI's signature document on Africa as a strong endorsement and reaffirmation of his love and strong respect for the resilience of Africa and its people. He called on Catholics in Africa to have faith in themselves, in their own authentic traditions, and to strengthen their faith and hope in God, to be artisans of unity and reconciliation.
In all, Pope Benedict XVI, challenged the African people, "Look to the future with hope: trust in God; reconciliation is the fruit of inner change." He reminded all the faithful to realize that the Church, in Africa, is meant to be a sign of hope and reconciliation, justice and peace before the world, and of that unity to which the whole human family is called through faith in Christ the Redeemer. "All is lost with war; all can be reborn with peace."
In the post-synodal exhortation, itself, Africae munus, Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of conversion of heart as an essential path for building a society of reconciliation, peace and justice. In short, Benedict XVI speaks of a spirituality of reconciliation and communion for the African churches: Reconciliation is not an isolated act but a lengthy process by which all parties are re-established in love - a love that heals through the working of God's word. Reconciliation then becomes at once a way of life and a mission. In order to arrive at genuine reconciliation and to live out the spirituality of communion that flows from it, the Church needs witnesses who are profoundly rooted in Christ and find nourishment in his word and the sacraments (cf. Benedict XVI 2011: Africae Munus, no. 34).
According to Pope Benedict XVI, since the vocation of all men and women is one, we must not lose our zest for the reconciliation of humanity with God through the mystery of our salvation in Christ. Our redemption is the reason for the confidence and the firmness of our hope, "by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be loved and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey" (Africae Munus, no. 172; see also Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, (2007), no. 1).
Between the Two African Synods (1994 & 2009)
Again, the Second Synod for Africa of 2009 was meant to complement that of the First Synod for Africa, which took place in Rome in 1994 and was presided over by Pope St. John Paul II. The two Synods have equipped the Church in Africa with some stimulus and guiding pastoral orientations for the work of evangelization in the continent at a time like this. They both present the evangelization challenges in the continent and African situation in general, not as that of despair and hopelessness. Rather, as moment of 'springtime', a period of hope for the Church and people of the continent. For the Fathers of the two Synods, today's phase of evangelization in Africa, presents challenges and prospects for the young churches of Africa.
Therefore, at the first Synod in 1994, the African Bishops considered as realities of major concern the present situation of things in the continent and from there put forward a missionary ecclesiology of the "Church-as-Family of God" as a possible guiding model of evangelization in the continent. Here, we meet a striking characteristic of the local churches in the continent, the attempt to view evangelization from the perspective of a missionary activity, which aims at building up the church as the family of God on earth.
This is an effort of the Africans to define the Christian community (Church) in terms which are perceptible to them and which are rooted in the gospel, Christian tradition and the cultural ingenuity of the people. The concern is about founding local churches, which would express the profound Christian and African values of communion, fraternity, solidarity and peace. For in a truly African community or family, joys, difficulties and trials are shared in a trusting communitarian spirit and dialogue. Thus, in the teaching of the African Bishops at the First African Synod in 1994, the relevant image of what evangelization is all about in the African context is seen in the building-up of the Church-as-the-Family of God on earth. Evangelization invites humanity to participate in the very life of the Trinity, calling it to return, through the Son, in the Spirit, back to the Father "so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15: 28). (Cf. First African Synod of Bishops (1994): Message, no. 25).
Therefore, one of the most acclaimed achievements of the First Synod is this evaluation of the image of the Church-as-Family of God (an extended or universal "Family of God). It is the key for understanding and evaluating the documents of the Synod. It is an ecclesiology developed in the context of proclamation and evangelization with its inspiration generally from St Paul the great missionary. The inspiration is specifically from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians on reconciliation of the Jews and the gentiles with one another and with God (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).
Then comes the Second Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa in 2009, which as stated already, was presided over by Pope Benedict XVI. The full title of the Second Synod is, "The Church in Africa in service to Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace: "You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world" (Mt 5:13, 14)." Drawing from this title and the documents of the synod itself, the Bishops at the Synod sessions held in Rome in 2009 discussed the theme of "Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace" - in the wider context of the present-day geopolitics, neo-colonialism, globalization, and the socio-economic and ethno-religious political factors that shape the contemporary African society. If the 1994 Synod provided the Church in Africa an opportunity for self-definition (of the Church-as-Family of God in Africa), and the self-awareness of its evangelizing mission as a Church. The Second Synod of 2009 offered the same African Church another avenue for critical self-examination, to articulate in concrete terms, the scope and strategies of that mission of the Church-Family in the areas of promoting reconciliation, justice, and peace, which are the most cogent challenges facing the continent today.
Again, if the First African Synod gave more attention to the questions of inculturation, the Second Synod devoted most of its attention to social issues from the perspective of the Social Doctrines of the Church. In other words, like the First Synod, the Second Synod too, has proved to be a creative assembly of the African Bishops, during which reflections were offered on the many ways the Church can contribute to promoting reconciliation, justice and peace in a continent devastated by conflict of different forms and dimensions. The deliberations at the Second Synod provide a unique insight into the prospects and challenges for the Church in Africa today.
Put together, the two synods (1994 and 2009) have one thing in common. They both show the attention African local churches have started to give to the question of forging relationships between Africans of different ethnic groups, religious and cultural backgrounds sharing one community or nation-state. There is a pressing concern for the local churches to help in building a truly nation statehood in different Africans countries facing political crisis and problem of co-existence, often caused by the existing inherited arbitrarily colonial created nation states' boundaries in the continent. As well as in the strengthening and deepening the relationships among Africans of different groups and origins living in the same Christian community, parish or nation-state, and between them and people of other religions or cultural backgrounds and ethnicity, living in the same society.
It is disturbing that Africans of diverse ethnic groups cannot stay together in one parish church or organization without rancour and suspicion of one another. This is not to talk of staying together in peace, equity and fairness, to forge ahead in building a truly just and all-inclusive nation state, without rancour and suspicion of one another.
In Africa, exaggerated ethnocentrism, religious intolerance and religious disturbances have continued to frustrate any effort at building a truly nation statehood or states in the post-colonial Africa. This has also been the major problem militating against the on-going work of evangelization and church formation in the continent. This situation affects both ecclesial and civil communities in Africa. The two synods have all addressed this problem. (See John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa, 49; Benedict XVI, Africae munus, 34).