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The African Synod: A Task for the Future

The following is the transript of an interview I gave to a English-speaking mass media.

As it has been underlined by many commentators, the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for the Second African Synod,  The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace,” is extremely relevant. It focuses on the main issues of the African public life today, issues on which the Catholic Church has the moral authority and the competence to speak and act, especially when considering the dramatic failure of the modern African states and governments, born out of the colonial time, to address them.

Before the Synod started, I heard African Catholic friends express some concerns. First concern was the total lack of interest by the “international” media. This lack of interest has persisted during and after the Synod but, personally, I do not believe we should be worried by it. We know the agenda of this mass media: Press people are not interested in the real independence of Africa, or in any serious religious event. They can write a long article on the possibility of an African being a pope, because it is a “curiosity,” but they do not care about the myriad of African Christians who live their faith with humble conviction, and would never publish an article on the fact that the Church alone takes care of almost half of the African HIV/AIDS sufferers. On the other side, Church synods are not held to attract or please the media; they are, first and foremost, meetings to deepen communion and self-awareness, and also a service to Church governance.

Second important concern, at least from some observers, was the fact that, in the Church, there appeared to be a number of “lobbies” who wanted, at all cost, to put forward their concerns. This is somehow normal, since in the African Church, as everywhere else, people have their own agenda and their own very legitimate and positive issues and, often, they spend their lives for them. They could be concerned with public health, HIV/AIDS, education, development, organic farming, environment conservation, mass media…, you name it. It is not surprising, therefore, that they see a synod as a chance to put a particular agenda in the limelight. It is an expression of the richness of Christian commitment. It could become a problem only if pushed too far, and fragmentation and confusion is created.

The need of new structures

If one reads all the interventions available and the final proposition presented to the Holy Father, it appears that the Synod fathers were able to avoid the trap of diluting their interest over many issues. The final propositions are well and strongly focused on the themes of reconciliation, justice and peace.

In fact, the propositions are much more elaborated than the proposition presented at the end of the first African Synod, to Pope John Paul II in 1994. The 2009 African Synod propositions present a serious analysis and a beginning of theological reflection on the main social and political situations of the continent. Moreover, they even go down to give practical pastoral and administrative guidelines, suggesting the creation of new structures so the African Church could carry on its service in a more effective manner. One could even think that the practical proposals are so numerous that they go far beyond the possibilities, in terms of personnel and finance, of the African Church. For those who know the reality of missions, parishes, dioceses in Africa, often struggling to provide the most basic pastoral and administrative services to the faithful, the realization of these proposals seems a dream too big.

It has already been observed that the follow up to the first African Synod has not been so strong. How will the African Church be able to implement the enormous task set down in the 2009 propositions? Are they destined to remain just words? If they are to be implemented, it will require a serious effort to spread them over several years. A fellow missionary told me: “I wish my bishop, on his return from Rome, will keep up the enthusiasm and set us all to work for reconciliation, justice and peace, according to the given perspective. We will have to work for the next twenty years just to see the beginning of their implementation, but it will be worthwhile.”

Dependence on the West

The synodal interventions have displayed also healthy self-criticisms, especially on issues referring to justice internal to the Church, such as the treatment of women, the payment of workers, and so on. To redress internal injustices is, undoubtedly, a work that has to be done.

In the light of the above there is an underlying challenge that does not appear in the propositions and even in the hall interventions. I am referring to the very unhealthy dependence that the African Church has on the West. We could say that we are not ashamed because this is a sign of fraternal communion but we have to admit that, too often, even in the Church, those giving the money dictate the way in and the aim for which it has to be spent. Where will the money to build the numerous new structures and commissions foreseen in the prepositions come from? And more importantly, what are the plans to make the African Church at least less dependent on the sister Churches in the North and West? Is nobody worried by the fact that, at national and diocesan levels, economic administration is still the reserve of expatriates? Does this fact really have no consequence to the capacity of the African Church to act for reconciliation, justice and peace?

A very positive point underlined by many is that the African Synod helps to build up communion in the Church. Bishops and cardinals, who rarely can visit each other and share their concerns, are given such a chance and, staying together for a certain period of time, allows them to know their strengths and pastoral problems and to discover how they are united by the same faith and the same Church. This is not a small achievement. Maybe, in the long run, it will be the most important achievement of the series of African Synods since, hopefully, they are going to continue. As a Synodal Father says: “There were internal Church politics and power games, of course, because we are humans, but they were kept to a minimum. We were all concerned primarily to reach a consensus about the service that the Church should provide for the growth of a more just society.” The Church is, first of all, communion and love in Jesus. If a synod strengthens this communion around Jesus, it can be said to have accomplished its task.

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