Cardinal Pengo on the Church in Africa: Mission and Challenges

Paper Presented at Inauguration of Research Area at the Lateran

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ROME, DEC. 6, 2011 ( Here is the text of a paper presented Nov. 25 by Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). He was speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the Research Area for Interdisciplinary Studies Related to African Culture at the Pontifical Lateran University.

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Having been designated as the Honorary President of the new Research Area for Interdisciplinary Studies Related to African Culture at this august Pontifical University, in the capacity of being the current President of SECAM, it is my honour and pleasure to present to you a brief reflection of the Church in Africa regarding its Mission and Challenges.

The Church in Africa, among other things, can be described as a “young church”, given that most the African continent more or less only came into contact with Christianity in the past 100 years. For most of this time, the main task of both the early missionaries and the subsequent pastoral actors has been that of preaching the Gospel to people who were hearing the it for the first. I must hasten to add here that there are still many Africans who have not yet come into contact with Christianity, meaning that the period of primary evangelisation is still going on in Africa.

However, much as the Church in Africa remains a «young» Church, one must acknowledge that after 100 years of evangelisation, there ought to be clear signs of deepened faith by those who have received it.  The quest for deeper evangelisation has been the preoccupation of the African Church in the main in the recent past and was at the heart of the two Special Assemblies on Africa of the Synod of Bishops in 1994 and 2009.  In short, this is what forms the basis for a reflection on the Mission and Challenges of the Church in Africa today.

My short paper treats this topic from the perspective of the following areas:

1. True Conversion and Witness of Life

It is a given that there is a phenomenal growth in the population of Catholics across the continent. Statistics given during the Second  Special Assembly on Africa of the Synod of Bishops indicated that that there are now about 170 million Catholics in Africa with booming vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This is indeed a great blessing and cause to rejoice in the Lord for the blessings showered upon Africa.

However, there is a concern that in spite of this phenomenal growth, the Church in Africa faces the challenges of justice, peace, unity, and reconciliation as seen in the numerous conflicts that bedevil the continent. for instance, it is a well documented fact that as the First Assembly on Africa of the Synod of Bishops was sitting in Rome, in 1994, a genocide was unfolding in a predominantly Catholic country – Rwanda.

One can also marvel at the critical role the Catholic Church has played in Africa in promoting health and education through its numerous hospitals, clinics, health centres and hospices, as well as the schools and socio-cultural centres. However, as one Zambian Bishops observed, it is was becoming a worrying trend to see that when many Africans want good education and healthcare they go to Catholic schools and hospitals, but when they want spiritual care they go to the new Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. The Bishops concluded that it was perhaps a perceptions that «we» (Catholics) are now seen as good social workers and less as accomplished witnesses to the spiritual aspects of our faith.

This has prompted the Church in Africa to note that there is still lack of true conversion and Christian witness, which together constitute a fundamental challenge to Evangelization in contemporary Africa (Ecclesia in Africa no. 77).

2. On-going Catechesis and the Formation of Christians

In order to respond to the challenge of lacking true conversion in the lives of many African, the Church in general has chosen to focus on on-going catechesis and formation of Christians and all pastoral agents.

This is in line with the sentiment of Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, who drew our attention to the what he said was the most important resource in Evangelization, after the grace of Christ, that is the people. As a member of the body of Christ, each person has received the mandate to proclaim the Gospel, hence “the whole community needs to be trained, motivated and empowered for Evangelization, each according to his or her specific role within the church” (Ecclesia in Africa, no. 53, see also nos. 54 and 75, which speaks specifically about the formation of the lay faithful). The Church faces the task of intensifying her efforts towards on-going catechesis and the formation of her pastoral agents especially lay members at all levels. 

3.  Ensuring that the Image of Church-as-Family of God becomes a Reality Everywhere on the Continent

Over-coming divisions among the peoples of Africa was one of the challenges identified by the Synod Fathers during the First Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops in 1994 (cf. Ecclesia in Africa no. 49). It also came up during the recently concluded Second Special Assembly for Africa (October 2009). In adopting the image of Church-as-Family of God, the Synod Fathers opted for values such as care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue, trust and unity (Ecclesia in Africa no. 63)..

4. The need for the Incarnation of the Gospel in African Life and Culture

As remarked by the Synod Fathers at the First Special Assembly for Africa and in Ecclesia in Africa, inculturation is an urgent priority in the life of particular Churches, for the firm rooting of the Gospel in Africa. It is for Evangelization, a path towards full Evangelization and one of the greatest challenges for the Church on the continent on the eve of the third millennium (Ecclesia in Africa no. 59).

The family is said to be the smallest Christian Community. The Church places a lot of emphasis on the role of the family in evangelization. However, stable families are dependent on rich cultural values and identity which are handed over from generation to generation. The modern African society faces great challenges in this area from the intrusive nature of modern means of communication (internet, social media, cell phones, satellite TV…) which carry social values that are alien to both African tradition and Christian faith.

5. The challenge of adequate means necessary for the African Church to fulfil its mandate of evangelization and on-going formation

Though richly endowed with natural resources, the paradox of Africa is that it remains a materially poor continent. This poses a number of challenges for the fulfilment of its mission to evangelise. Africa has inadequate material means in terms of finances and means of transportation. Many dioceses are in rural areas where distances hamper effective pastoral means. Lack of enabling infrastructure like good roads, modern means of communication, electricity, and training means hamper effective pastoral ministry.

Furthermore, Africa has to contend with the rise of numerous “new churches”, mainly evangelical and Pentecostal, reduces the pastoral space for evangelization. Some refer to this as “cacophony of religious voices”. When one considers the challenge of expansionist Islam, the religious challenge becomes more accentuated.

6.  Natural  Resources

Catholic Social  Teaching (CST) emphasises that natural resources and the environment is a common patrimony for  all humanity. It is a special gift to all humanity from God that all human beings present and future generations are required to guard jealously (The Compendium of the
Social Doctrine of the Church Nos. 466-471). This is why during their Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, the Synod Fathers expressed strong concern and sadness at the senseless destruction of natural resources as well as degradation and abuse due to human actions borne out of greed for profit both by local Africa leaders and in complicity with foreign interests, is now going beyond what is sustainable and useful. (Proposition No.22). We have large areas of land facing significant erosion due to desertification.  Various eco-systems are hanging in the balance. Pollution levels have increased due to unregulated industrial activity.

For the Church in Africa, the challenge in this area is one of concerted efforts to conscientize the people about the sanctity of nature in as far as our Christian faith teaches us that «God the Creator made all things good (cf. Gn 1); and gave the earth to us humans to cultivate and take care of as stewards (cf. Gn 2:15). Looking at nature from the common good point of view is the only way Africa will remain habitable beyond the present generation and to guarantee sustainable and responsible care of the earth.

With this in mind, local churches in Africa are being urged to «introduce environmental education and awareness; persuade their local and national governments to adopt policies and binding legal regulations for the protection of the environment and promote alternative and renewable sources of energy; and encourage all to plant trees and treat nature and its resources, respecting the common good and the integrity of nature, with transparency and respect for human dignity. (Ibid.) The Church is also demanding that Mining Law and Licenses of the extractive and mining industries should be revised and formulated in such a way that they protect local peoples’ interests and rights, and protect the environment.

7.  Migration and Development

It is known that migration is a universal human phenomenon and that it requires dialogue and prayer to deal with it adequately. The Bishops in Africa are aware that there are various types and cause factors of migration some of which are positive and can meaningfully contribute to development at various levels of human existence. Other types of migration have only led to negative consequences such as criminality, brain drain, spread of disease, estrangement from family life, human trafficking, prostitution, etc. Uncontrolled and undisciplined migration, coupled with the human trait of jealousy and greed, has resulted in antagonism and. In short, migration calls for a serious concerted action by the governments of Africa and the Church.

In an increasingly globalized world, the church recognizes that the movement of people from one part of the world to another is increasing. It also believes that migration is a development issue and that it is not just southerners who migrate to the north but vice versa too, as well as within south and south. Migrants contribute to the economic development of their adopted countries. Therefore the Church in Africa calls for the rights and the dignity of migrants to be safeguarded. It is also calling upon the African states and the EU member states to ratify and execute all legal instruments on migration which are internationally agreed upon, in particular the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

8.  Women, Youth and Social Justice

The Bible says God «created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them» (Gen 1:27). This is the motivation behind the renewed efforts to tackle the issue of the dignity of women in Africa.

It is a non fact that due to certain cultural traits coupled with high poverty levels, the issue of women’s dignity is a serious one in Africa. The Church. however, has not shied away from this challenge by courageously calling for the restoration of the dignity of the women in Africa. To change the situation, more attention ought to be placed on giving them sound education and increasing their representation in decision making processes. Emphasis is also being put on fighting poverty, human trafficking and the negative portrayal of women in the media

The Church in Africa faces another challenge regarding the increasing phenomena of child labor, drug trafficking and human trafficking which the African youth has to contend with today.

One agrees entirely with the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, who said,  “we know very well that youth are not only the present but above all the future of humanity. It is thus necessary to help young people to overcome the obstacles thwarting their development: illiteracy, idleness, anger, drugs. In order to meet these challenges, we urge young people themselves to become evangelizers of their peers” (Ecclesia in Africa, No.93). The church considers pastoral care for youth to be part of the overall pastoral plan of our dioceses and parishes so that young people will be able to discover very early the value of the gift of self and essential means to reach maturity. In this regard, we consider the celebration of the World Youth Day as a privileged instrument for the pastoral care of youth which favors their formation through prayer, study and reflection. This is why we are looking forward for the day Africa will host this important spiritual event.


In the past quarter century Africa has faced the devastating effects of the well documented HIV/AIDS pandemic, together with malaria and tuberculosis. The good news is that there are now many new initiatives that has helped to mitigate the effects of this terrible disease. It is noteworthy to lay emphasis on the new approach to the pandemic which is now seen, as the Second Synod on Africa  observed, not as a pharmaceutical problem or solely as an issue of a change in human behaviour. but an issue of integral development and justice, which requires a holistic approach and response by the Church. (Prop. N.51).

While delighted at the encouraging reports of reducing HIV and AIDS prevalence rates across the continent, the Church is disturbed the pharmaceutical’s desire for super profits in the midst of the dire needs of the infected. The church in Africa calls for commitment not only to research for cure but also to the affordability of HIV and AIDS related drugs

10.  Rule of Law and Democratic Transitions

For the Bishops of Africa it has been always clear that “our God is a God of Peace (cf. 1Cor.14:33) and Christ is our Peace which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal.5:22). He is the one source of every genuine peace” (‘Christ Our Peace’, Pastoral Letter, SECAM Publications, 2001, No.48). “Sent by God and God himself, Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of peace, because he reveals and establishes in human history the fullness of divine life (Col. 2:9). This peace is a constant call of God for the Church and for everyone:  «Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow» (Is. 1:17). «This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this: to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God» (Micah 6:8).

Based on this appeal, the Second Vatican Council emphasized the duty of the Church in the promotion of justice and peace and its involvement in all spheres of human society with the light and leaven of the Gospel..

Thus the Church in Africa feels specially called to intervene positively in order to help bring about the establishment of the rule of law and democratic processes. With political conflicts endlessly ravaging Africa, hampering social development in the process.

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