ASSISI, Italy, NOV. 11, 2009 ( The president of the Italian episcopal conference opened the group's general assembly noting that today is still the era of martyrs.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco began the bishops' meeting Monday in Assisi, drawing from testimonies given during last month's special synod on Africa.

He referred specifically to seven Christians crucified in Sudan.

"Really, even ours is a time of martyrs, [though] for the peoples who live in often unappreciated freedom this seems incredible, and almost impossible," the cardinal stated, as reported by the Fides news agency. "But we also know that every year, a large number of those working for the Gospel are asked to sacrifice their lives."

Referring to the synod on Africa, Cardinal Bagnasco pointed to "many lessons" learned, saying it was an "undeniable renewal in the Gospel" and an undertaking of new paths in reconciliation.

The Italian prelate suggested that the synod should be for the citizens of the Northern Hemisphere a calling to an "impartial examination of their responsibilities."

He noted the strong indictment that there is "spiritual toxic waste" coming from rich regions of the world and poisoning Africa, and lamented that these words might not have been duly heard, given poor coverage of the synod by the international press.

Cardinal Bagnasco said that Africa is in a privileged position to challenge the developed world.

"The unique strength of the African mindset is to be, with its irrepressible popular spirituality, with its instinctive belief in God the Creator, with its astounding religious attitude, a constant challenge for all sated and distracted of the so-called developed world," he said.

Going hungry

The president of the Italian bishops' conference noted that hunger continues to be the main issue impeding African development.

"The Church is also committed to work with any means available, so that no African lacks daily bread," the cardinal said. "From the scientific point of view it is now accepted that the phenomenon of hunger is not dependent on the material scarcity of resources, but by social and institutional factors, which we should try to improve without further ado."

The cardinal affirmed that Italy is ready to "renew its traditional openness to the peoples of Africa, primarily by helping to promote their internal development, and finding a more suitable way toward a partnership that honors our own and others' dignity." 

He encouraged a "vision of Church" that always considers others.

"What is expected of us, in short," the cardinal affirmed, "is a greater missionary awareness.”