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The Pope’s challenges in Africa

The Pope has just arrived in Kenya and soon he will go to the parish of Kangemi in Nairobi where two Irish Jesuits have  formerly worked. John Guiney SJ, was only the second Parish Priest of Kangemi and so instrumental in setting it on its feet along with the help of willing parishioners. It’s a very poor parish with all the attendant problems of poverty, including unemployment, poor educational facilities, aids related issues, hunger and disaffected young people.

John is just back from a visit to the parish which he says was ‘in full swing’ preparing for the visit of the Pope. For the first time the people of the slums have managed to harness electricity so they could have lamps lit to welcome Pope Francis when he comes. Nairobi itself had upped its security measures for fear of  terroist attacks on Francis, with people being searched going into churches and shopping malls.

Among the many initiatives John worked on in Kangemi in his early days there was the setting up of a woodwork and carpentry training centre. In the early days the centre had a ‘hand to mouth existence’ but it it gradually grew strong, serving young men who only had a primary school education. In a one year course they were helped to pass two government exams in carpentry. When Gerry Whelan SJ followed in John’s footsteps as PP in the parish he wrote about his encounter with Leonard, the young man who founded the training centre with John Guiney and who was still working there. “He has many gentle demands to make of me with regard to supporting this project in my new job,” wrote Gerry in an article about the parish. “However, when I ask him about the years he has spent in the centre and what he likes about it his eyes light up. ‘This is my vocation,” he says. ‘When I am an old man and I look back on my life I will rejoice to have so influenced the lives of these many young men that pass through our hands.'”

The Pope will also visit the United Nations Environment Programme whose headquarters is also in Nairobi. According to Gerry Whelan this is another important part of the Pope’s visit to Kenya. In Laudato Si Francis  speaks about the “ecological debt” that the North owes to the South. He stresses that continents like Africa pay the greatest price for global warming – which is caused primarily by countries in the North. This is a message he may be want to discuss with UNEP.

Gerry Whelan has been outlining some of the other issues that Pope Francis will encounter on his trip to the African continent. He notes that a key characteristic of the approach of Pope Francis is that he proposes a method for evangelization called “See, Judge, Act” (see Evangelii Gaudium).  Consequently, he is less interested in proposing solutions in the form of good ideas than encouraging a method of how to identify challenges and begin to address them.

This method is intrinsically consultative. Within the Church, it involves consulting with lay people and formulating plans that stress their importance in evangelization. With regard to a broader engagement with society, the Pope repeatedly turns to a call for dialogue at all levels- political, cultural, technical-economic. Indeed dialogue is the main proposal for environmental responsibility in Laudato Si. 

This method seeks to devolve decision-making to regional and local levels. Consequently, the Pope will want to increase the role of national, regional, and continental episcopal conferences. But this entails a paradox, according to Gerry. Because a number of African bishops at the Synod on the Family expressed difficulty with the consultative method of Pope Francis. African culture itself is often quite male-dominated and hierarchical. A central question that now emerges is  how to move toward a broadly consultative African Church?

There are other key issues that the African Church has long been recognizing also according to Gerry. There’s the challenge of ‘inculturating’ the Christian faith in Africa to get beyond the perception that Christianity is a “white-man’s religion”?

In terms of  economic development and nation building there are also many issues to be faced. The Church played a key role in building multi-party democracies in post Cold-War Africa, in a number of countries a Catholic bishop chaired ‘National Constitutional Conferences.’ What role can they play into the future?

There’s also the challenges of ethnocentrism and corruption. These problems run deep in Africa and pose obstacles to political and economic modernization. The Church lives these problems within itself, but is usually a positive influence at the broader, cultural, level. Protestant Churches have a tendency to fragment into mono-ethnic communities.

Gerry also notes that Africa is increasingly facing problems well known in Western Europe.  Urban living, family breakdown, the emergence of the nuclear family, are examples of issues facing many in African countries. How can they be helped and how can African culture to evolve and adopt modern characteristics?

And of course there is the challenge of Islam – a faster-growing religion in Africa than Christianity with ever fewer  Africans remaining with their African Traditional Religion.  Some commentators speak of a race between Islam and Christianity to recruit the remaining populations. Christians feel keenly the problem of Islamic fundamentalism (which tends to be stronger in West Africa than East). They are often the first targets of groups such as Boko Haram.

In addition to all this, some American and European policies in Africa are a cause of concern.  Deep offence has been taken at the linking of foreign aid to legislation on issues such as gay marriage. Some dictatorial African governments have taken advantage of this annoyance to support a ‘family-values’ policy and blunt other criticisms from the Church concerning their behaviour.

It is against this backdrop that the Pope will meet and speak to people on the ground in places like Kangemi and in higher echlons like UNEP.  It will be interesting to hear what he has to say and given his pronouncements to date, we can only expect to be challenged and surprised.