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Waiting for the Second Synod for Africa

Is Africa the future of the global Church? Numbers are in its favour. In 1900 Sub-Saharan Africa’s catholic people were less than two million, but in 2000 they increased up to 130 million: an amazing growth that never happened before in the Church’s history. The atmosphere of enthusiasm and joy of being Christian makes the participation to a Mass into an African village an absolutely new experience for European Christians.

Somebody dreamed of 2009 as the year of Africa for the Church. The visit made by Pope Benedict XVI in Cameroon and Angola last March, the planned plenary assembly of Secam – the institution that coordinates all the African Episcopal conferences – which was supposed to take place in Rome at the end of September, and now the Second African Synod, in Rome, from 4 to 25 October and that is focused on the topic “ The Church in Africa in service of reconciliation, for justice and for peace”, were all justifications for a certain optimism. The stimulating reflections of Caritas in Veritate on relevant topics for developing countries, for Africa in particular, have created even more hopes. The African Bishops could perhaps take some step further the richness of the social teaching of the Pope, applying it to the concrete African context, or “inculturating” it, to use a word that was so much used by the first African Synod.

New expectations came from the arrival at the White House of an Afro-American President, whose father came from Kenya and his grand mother lives in a Kenyan village. Obama’s visit in Ghana in July, the one of the U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton in other seven African countries only few weeks after the President’s departure and the important African presence at the G8 in L’Aquila made hopes grow for an increase of political and financial measures suitable to get over the heavy historical and cultural burden that weighs on Africa.

However, the list of expectations and hopes ends suddenly here. Numbers, words , international meetings, bold proposals abounds, but actions are missing. Unfortunately, when talking about Africa – in the ecclesial as in a political contest – hopes and the most solemn pledges rarely translate into something real, tangible. Africa seems to be part of a different dimension, where words remain, always and forever, only words.

That’s why the up-coming synod is considered with healthy scepticism by several African intellectuals and leaders. The high hopes raised by the announcement and preparation of the first African synod, followed by a strict curial control, the exclusion of the best African theologians of the time from the synodal process, a carefully edited final document and little or no action, has not been forgotten.

The doubts on the result to the present synodal process, which, it must be said, has not been followed on African soil with particular interest, are that are well expressed by Monsignor Peter Sarpong, archbishop emeritus of Kumasi in Ghana, one of the survivors of an eminent group of African theologians and pastors who in the aftermath of the independence years lead the most important African dioceses.

He says, «I think that the preparatory document for the synod is too generous in evaluating the results obtained from the first synod in 1994. Considering the optimism that filters out the text a person could also wonder: what about the conflicts that go on in many areas of our continent?» And he adds, «I am not saying I have doubts about the sublimity of the ideas expressed. I am only asking about the possible solutions for these problems. How can we become the earth’s salt? What is needed to have a Church family of God and transform it into a catalytic agent of justice and peace?»

So, «the risk is that the Second African synod could be exactly as the previous one: an occasion to repeat big truths on the Church, but without suggesting practical applications.»

The African Church still lacks the capacity to influence the society to promote an integral human development. The causes are many, and go from the almost total dependency from the West in terms of financing, organization and theological research to the fast numerical growth of the faithful that stretches the already weak organizations.
A case in point is the fact that most of the few seminars and workshops organized in view of the Synod have been financed by Western donor agencies and the cancellation of the already mentioned Secam meeting in Rome. Last August 17 the current president of Secam had to announce its cancellation quoting as the main reason that the funds available were not sufficient to pay for the board and accommodation of the foreseen 250 participants. Yet such a meeting could have been an important moment to prioritize and coordinate the interventions in the synodal hall. This cancellation says a lot about the dependency of a church that is not able to raise enough funds for her own meetings.

But the contrast between words and actions is even sharper in the political and civil society field. In every African country high sounding declarations about democracy, human rights, economic development, fight against corruption, nepotism and tribalism are written daily everywhere. With rare exceptions of a slowly growing civil society, the reality is that represented by millions of refugees that moves around the continent in desperate search of a dignified life, and by the thousands that try to escape through ships across the Mediterranean Sea.

You do not escape from your home if you can have a dignified life there.

The faces of the people weeping when refused entry in Lampedusa is the hardest count of indictment against certain African governments and the unequal international system that feeds the monsters who are leading Africa. The image of a government that treads on human dignity will be a national shame for Italian people for years. But this is another story. Those images remember us ruthlessly that African people do not count, they are only and always losers, imploring beggars, even in front of their own leaders.

How can we surmount the negativity of those images? African bishops – whom are accompanied by a relevant group of non-Africans at the synod – should help us by saying something prophetical. Something that, just because will be really prophetical, will have not only the taste of courage and truth but also that could be able to move the best resources of the African Church to promote a deep internal renewal and an effective action in service of reconciliation, justice and peace. Then Africa will really start becoming the future of the global Church, not in virtue of the numbers, but in virtue of the vision and of the actions to implement the vision.

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