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Verso il sinodo Africano – La Parola agli Oppressi

Toward the African Synod – The Floor to the Oppressed

The African Synod in 2009 will bear the title: “The church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace.” The victims and the experts of peace are the groups to be heard. The church should overcome the infertile overview of Africa contained in the Lineamenta and should face the question of tribalism without fear.
The African church held a “Consultation on the Crisis in the Great Lakes Region” in April 1997, three years after the genocide in Rwanda and the closing ceremony of the First African Synod. It was a high-level event financed by the Vatican and organized by the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). Nearly a dozen African cardinals and representatives of the Roman Congregations and about 60 bishops and archbishops of the African continent attended. The media was not admitted to the meeting because of the delicate nature of the themes. The consultation was to be a serious examination of conscience for the church and its responsibility for events in Rwanda—in the person of bishops, priests and sisters. From this high-level consultation, everyone was waiting for a straight-forward document that would give practical directions on how the church should present itself and how it should react when faced with ethnic conflicts. The document of 10 pages or so was embarrassing in its poverty. It was a succession of stock points, of pious exhortations and of generic recommendations written in a overcautious language.
Incredibly, the first recommendation asked “the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples to continue to support the bishops of this region with special assistance and to strive to increase awareness of the need for solidarity between the sister churches of the world and these victimized churches.” Putting the request for funds at the top of the lists of recommendations exposed once more an unhealthy mentality of dependence. Instead of thoughtful concern about leadership training and the use of local human resources, there was an appeal for alms. Whoever read the documents did not get a sense of the urgency to establish concrete programs to educate people about reconciliation and how to live together in peace.
Only at the end, the very last recommendation, the bishops of the continent recommneded “to putin place a competent out-fit or think-tank which could help them in the analysis of problems and situations so as to alert the People of God in time and to intervene adequately especially in times of crisis.” Even now there is no information about the existence in the whole of Africa of any kind of structure which could be considered remotely as the implementation of this recommendation.
In fact, the 1997 consultation was quickly forgotten. Journalists were denied entrance to the conference room where the deliberation took place, and participants were under order of not giving interviews. Even to find the final document is not an easy job.

The Voice of the Victims

It is worthwhile to reflect on this “failure” because the Second African Synod, nearly upon us, is to be celebrated in October 2009 and to be devoted to the theme: “the church in Africa at the service of reconciliation, justice and peace.” This is an urgent theme today for the African church. In order to develop and deepen it, the question of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts needs to be confronted without fear and followed up with specific pastoral directives capable of opening a viable path on which the church can walk in the future. Ethnicity as a theme may be avoided only at the risk of irrelevance.
Not to repeat the usual stock points, the Synod could highlight the contribution of two particular groups.
First and foremost, the victims! A few days ago, while I was visiting a group of evacuees, following the recent post-electoral violence in Kibera, one of the shanty towns of Nairobi, a Kenyan friend said to me: “Why do our bishops imitate politicians? They limit themselves to statements on television, instead of coming here among us. I mean here—without their motorcar, their secretaries and the usual following of journalists. Let them come in work clothes, like these volunteers, to distribute bread and milk, to feed the hungry babies, to wash their clothes, and above, to listen to people’s stories. They would see their tears; they would hear their sobs. Only then would their words sound true.”
Perhaps Kamau was exaggerating. But his outburst reminds us that the suffering of the victims of war, of racial discrimination, and of ethnic conflicts should be compellingly present in an ecclesial African synod that wants to be credible. Things must be organized in such a way that real representatives of the affected human groups shredded by exasperated ethnicity may speak to the bishops. Thus, Africa would enter into the synod.
The Lineamenta, the preliminary document in preparation of the synod, sketches a portrait of Africa stubbornly even-handed, perhaps, but absolutely sterile. It does not help the Christian community to put love for the victims at the center of their attention. This “disengagement” (others speaking about Africa, not Africans speaking for themselves) becomes worrisome when the Lineamenta lightly touches on the responsibilities of the same churches—just as the 1997 consultation did. In the first draft of a document which the religious of Kenya are preparing as a contribution to the synod, this is precisely the apprehension expressed and they underline the necessity to speak honestly about the sin of the church. They indicate as critical points the role and practice of authority, the centralization of power, the presence of tribalism in the church itself, the compromising of the church in the face of politics. To give voice to the victims would help to be realistic and to overcome the errors of the past and the present.

The Experts

Experts and consultants in all filefs are fashinalble and overvalued all over Africa. When you see them in action, be they peace-makers, peace-keepers or peace-duecators, be they armed with only good intentions or with machine guns, you realize how often are painfully impotent in the face of challenges presented by armed conflicts. Nevertheless, just as the church in the past accepted and assumed the competence of experts in the most diverse human sciences, today the church ought to begin to make use of the experience and reflections of the “experts of peace.” Peace studies have made enormous progress. The nature of the Synod (an encounter of bishops) permits these experts to participate only marginally. That does not remove the necessity that the knowledge and the technical understanding they have developed should be available. There are Catholic institutions (Jesuit Refugee Services, Pax Christi and others) that have vision, worldwide experience and considerable structures in Africa. Their participation in the synod as experts could be employed advantageously. Above all, these groups could help the bishops produce not only general directives, but also to prepare concrete pastoral programs aimed at overcoming tribalism inside and outside of the church.
On the subject of ethnicity, a question which the synod could help to clarify is the issue of terminology. It happens that a problem is not dealt with because of the lack of an appropriate vocabulary or because certain words instill fear. “Tribe” and “tribalism” are terms practically disqualified because hey have taken an absolutely negative connotation. “Ethnic” and “ethnicity” are more neutral. “Community” is the word used now in Kenya that indicates one’s own ethnic group, even if it becomes clear only in a precise context.
The synod must find the right words for speaking about tribalism, but certaily to speak about it is a must. Otherwise the church will continue to find itself taken by surprise by the events, as it has happened in Kenya.

One Comment

  1. Anche io spesso sento alcune parti della Chiesa un po’ lontane dalla vita della gente “comune”. Certamente in Italia i temi sono diversi da quelli di cui si parla in Africa: ma nelle condanne ripetute ed irrevocabili che vengono fatte in alcuni ambiti (per esempio, la morale sessuale), non accompagnate da parole altrettanto forti su altri ambiti, come le molte ingiustizie sociali che vediamo, leggo una difficoltà a confrontarsi con quella che è la vera vita delle persone.

    Intendiamoci, non oso criticare una lettera di quello che viene detto, e sono convinto che, in ogni caso, la riflessione etica e morale che la Chiesa porta avanti da duemila anni non possa che far bene al nostro mondo di oggi. Ma mi piacerebbe che nel modo di portare questo messaggio si mettessero in risalto altre cose, che sento molto più pressanti. Non vorrei, ma mi sembra che succeda, che ne risultasse l’immagine di una Chiesa che giudica e dà ordini al mondo, invece di una Chiesa che vive nel mondo.

    Continuiamo la preghiera allo Spirito Santo perché illumini tutti noi e ci spinga a nostra volta ad illuminare tutto il mondo!

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