Pope John-Paul II
and Africa

The Catholic Church lives with a great sense of history. Poland, the country that gave the Church Pope John Paul II has a long history of suffering, humiliation and even annihilation. It is not surprising that the Polish Pope had a great sensitivity for the downtrodden people of the world and a special love for Africa, the 'forgotten continent'.

More than most visitors to Africa he was acutely aware of the centuries of slavery and colonialism that has traumatised the soul of Africa. Standing in the ancient slave centre on Goré Island, this "African shrine of Black pain" during his visit to Senegal in 1992, John Paul II asked pardon for "the horrible aberration of those who had reduced to slavery the brothers and sisters whom the Gospel had destined for freedom."

He was convinced that only Christ and his liberating Gospel could heal the wounds of history, restore to the African people a sense of dignity, identity and a healthy pride in their culture. He wanted Africa to regain its rightful place in the human family. "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pope seems determined to tear down another wall, the wall of silence and oblivion…the wall that separates Africa from the rest of the world, the indifference of the Western World towards its part in the destruction of an entire continent", commented La Stampa on the occasion of his 1995 visit.

At the same time, John Paul II knew that in spite of a history of oppression and exploitation at the hands of a Christian West, the seeds of the Gospel had fallen on fertile ground in Africa. He was convinced that the African Church with its vitality and dynamism could make a major contribution to the mission of the Church. Many images come to mind as one remembers John Paul II visiting 43 African countries: meeting Mandela in South Africa, talking to Muslim youth in Casablanca at the invitation of King Hassan, giving new courage to persecuted Christians in Khartoum. However, the main aim of his 14 journeys was to challenge the local churches to become agents of evangelisation, to turn their churches, which in Europe were still considered as mission churches, into missionary churches for the world. With this aim in mind he called representatives of all the Churches on the continent to an African Synod for the first time in history.

The Pope has often been criticised for being centralistic. Yet he knew that the Church had to shed its Western face and get rooted in the different cultures of the world. In calling the various continental Synods, he created a space where bishops of the local churches could translate the basic insights of the Second Vatican Council into their own pastoral context. At the time, some regretted that the Synod did not take place on African soil, but in faraway Rome. Placing a continental Synod there underlined the need that localisation of the Church had to go hand in hand with maintaining strong links with the universal Church. Taking place in Rome, it allowed the Pope and the Roman Curia to listen to the voice of the African Church, showing to the rest of the Church that it had come of age.

The "Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of the Bishops" that opened with a splendid liturgy in St. Peter's in Rome was marked by two events that threw a glaring light on the weaknesses and strengths of the continent and the local churches. The opening of the Synod coincided with the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. This senseless slaughter in one of the most Catholic countries on the continent put a question mark on the way Africa had been evangelised. Later that year South Africa's appalling apartheid system was overthrown without major bloodshed. Some Christians played a major role in the peaceful change. The Christian Bible was used to enslave the Black people; it also had proved a power of liberation. Both events forced the Church to rethink its approach to evangelisation.

Clearly, something was missing in the way missionaries had brought the Gospel to Africa. The Synod identified two areas where evangelisation had not succeeded. There had been no real dialogue with the traditional cultures and religions of Africa. In the mind and hearts of most African Christians traditional rituals and practices existed parallel to Christian beliefs. The appalling abuse of power by both post-colonial regimes and the old colonial masters demonstrated how little political and economic realities had been converted to a Gospel vision. The Synod Fathers identified inculturation as well as justice and peace as the mission fields of the day.

8th April, evening: funeral day of John Paul II. Three confreres near our Generalate on the Via Aurelia heading in the direction of St Peter's Square. The City and Diocese of Rome put up the posters. The one from the City says, "Thank you. Rome weeps and salutes its Pope." The Diocesan one reads, "Thank you, Holy Father. Your Diocese." L. to r. Simon Gornah, Ghanaian, PISAI student, Aloysius Ssekamatte, Ugandan, Gregorian student and André Savard, Canadian, Assistant Treasurer General.)

Out of the Synod also came a fresh vision of mission. The key to any evangelisation of the world was dialogue; dialogue with cultures and religions; dialogue with all forces of society; yes, dialogue even within the Church, whose life was to be shaped along the lines of the highest values of the African family.

As the Roman Curia to a large extent had prescribed the agenda, the fear was that the bishops would be muzzled. Nevertheless, the Pope did not interfere. He sat there patiently and listened attentively. He took a long time after the Synod was over to ponder the resolutions and the texts compiled by a group of bishops. Although he discarded some of the resolutions of the bishops, the document he finally brought to Africa as a Charter of Evangelisation had the potential to cause pastoral revolution.

An actor in his young days, John Paul II always retained a sense of drama. He did not just publish the Synod document. He took it personally to the people of Africa the way a missionary brings the Word of God. As he crossed the whole continent from west to south to east he brought out the different aspects of the Synod document.

He began by signing the Synod document not at his desk in Rome but on his first stop in Cameroon and presented the image of the Church as a family. The proper place to stress that the struggle for a just and peaceful society was an "integral part of evangelisation" was South Africa, which had just overcome the apartheid system without bloodshed and become a beacon of hope for the rest of Africa. The people of South Africa were the living proof that "the difficulties which many parts of Africa experience can be overcome", as the Synod had said. Against the temptations of discouragement and fatalism "the Church had the duty …to strengthen in all Africans the hope of genuine liberation." He urged the Churches to engage in the struggle for democracy, for human dignity and human rights, for reconciliation.

In addition, "in season and out of season" he kept reminding the rest of the world of their responsibility for Africa's problems and of their duty to assist the continent to overcome poverty and set out on a path of human development. In the face of the disastrous effects of neo-liberal trade policies on African economies today, his words and urgent appeals are as timely as ever.

In front of a million people in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, the Pope sent the African Church into mission during one of those colourful ceremonies - vibrant with drums and dance - so typical of all his African journeys. "The Synod has ended…the Synod has just begun", were his last words that evening. He had placed the Synod document into the hands of bishops, priests, catechists and laypeople to take the Synod message into the small Christian communities and transform them into agents of evangelisation. With a remarkable sense for the true strength of the African Church, the Pope entrusted the fruits of the Synod in a special way to catechists "who since the beginning as also today are instrumental for the foundation and expansion of the Church".

Did the Church go and deliver the message or simply put the document on the shelf? The answer varies from country to country, from parish to parish. Maybe the Pope sensed that the Synod did not have its full impact, when a few months before his death he called for a second Synod on Africa.

How much Pope John Paul II had won the hearts of African Christians, Muslims and Traditionalists alike was evident from the way they were glued to their TV screens on the day of his burial. They bade a last goodbye to the man who had always stood for the dignity of every human being and given them a ray of hope.

Wolfgang Schonecke
Assistant General 1986-1992
Cologne, Germany

Excerpts from Ecclesia in Africa

The Church as God's Family
experienced in Living Christian Communities

The Synod made the Church as God's Family its guiding idea for the evangelisation of Africa. For people in Africa, this image expresses very well what the Church really is. For it emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust.

The Church as Family cannot reach all her possibilities as Church unless she is divided into communities small enough to foster close human relationships. The characteristics of such communities are:

= they should be places engaged in evangelising themselves, so that subsequently they can bring the Good News to others;

= they should be communities which pray and listen to God's Word;

= they must encourage the members themselves to take on responsibility and to learn to live as Church;

= they reflect on different human problems in the light of the Gospel;

= these communities are to be committed to living Christ's love for everybody, a love which transcends the limits of the natural solidarity of clans, tribes or other interest groups.

The African Synod comes home,
A Simplified Text (by Wolfgang Schonecke),
Amecea Pastoral Department, Nairobi, Paulines, 1995, 48 pages.