INTERVIEW: Cardinal Napier Reaffirms Pope's Desire to Change Pastoral Approach, Not Doctrine

While Warning Against False Media Reports, Leading African Prelate Explains How Francis’ Actions Have ‘Noticeably Dampened Down’ Synod’s ‘Atmosphere of Suspicion’


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In the Synod of Bishops on the family, Africans have their thoughts, arguments and proposals clear in their minds and believe their expectations will be largely met, “namely that the Church’s age-old traditions and teachings will be clearly and firmly restated.”

In an interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Wilfred Napier said this, reiterating, “Pope Francis has declared that there will be no changes in doctrine, only in pastoral methods and approaches.”

In last year’s synod, Cardinal Napier participated as president of South Africa’s bishops and then was tapped by Pope Francis to join the organizing committee for this year’s synod.

In this interview, the cardinal speaks on how he thinks the synod is going, what matters most to the African people, and what concrete developments there have been since the last synod, particularly in methodology and how the changes are helping to ensure that African bishops are heard.

He also shares with ZENIT why Pope Francis’ visit to Africa at the end of November is critical at a time when so many are in a crisis of faith and there are concerted attacks by governments and agencies. He also discusses the recent beatification of Blessed Benedict Daswa.
The African prelate also suggests information on the synod fed from media last year can “most kindly be described as inaccurate, and less kindly as false.” 

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ZENIT: How is the Synod going? And what are the hot issues for Africa?

Cardinal Napier: Most probably because Pope Francis and Cardinal Baldisseri intervened early on to reassure the Synod that the process was within the rules of the Synod, the atmosphere of suspicion is noticeably dampened down. So we are able to concentrate on the issues rather than the process. Personally I am quite at ease with having more, rather than less, time in Small Group Discussion.

For one thing, it has meant that we could get down to the main issues right away, in an ambiance where dialogue is more possible than in the Aula where at best what we have is a succession of monologues.

Since the methodology has us going through the Instrumentum Laboris chapter by chapter, the issues that affect Africa are certainly coming up and we have adequate time and opportunity to air them. So far, the “see or listen” activity of the “see, judge, act” methodology is giving us plenty of scope to raise the issues that concern us. Differences are in emphasis rather than substance.

ZENIT: What concrete positive developments have there been between Synod sessions?

Cardinal Napier: I believe the main one has been that most African Synod Fathers were able to meet in Accra, Ghana, to prepare for the Synod in two ways. First, by drafting and publishing a comprehensive document on the Church’s mission in regard to the future of the family, a coordinated response, if you like, to the Instrumentum Laboris; and second a hard hitting declaration addressed to their governments and the United Nations regarding the new and more insidious form of colonization, ideological colonization, which consists principally in setting as preconditions for aid the adoption of norms and practices that are quite foreign to Africa, and indeed seek to weaken, undermine and totally destroy some key values of our African cultures and belief systems, in particular Christianity, which Europe and the West did so much to build up in Africa and are now dead bent on subverting in favour of the anti-life, anti-person, anti-God ideologies being imposed on all and sundry through the United Nations and its agencies.

Because we, Africans, have got our thoughts, arguments and proposals clear in our minds, I believe our expectations will be largely met, namely that the Church’s age-old traditions and teachings will be clearly and firmly restated. Already Pope Francis has declared that there will be no changes in doctrine, only in pastoral methods and approaches. Secondly, we expect that he and other like-minded prelates will give concrete expression to Pope Benedict’s description of the Church in Africa as “the spiritual lung of the Church universal.” We take that to mean that he will be affirming what the Church in Africa is doing already and will continue doing, living and preaching the Gospel, implanting the Catholic faith as faithfully and vigorously as possible.

ZENIT: How is Pope Francis responding to the challenge of the family in the Church in the world and in Africa?

Cardinal Napier: Since the 2014 Extraordinary Synod, where he said very little apart from urging the Synod Fathers to speak openly and freely, but listen humbly, and then warning at the end of the Synod against two radical positions which would threaten the Church’s unity — namely rigid traditionalism and radical liberalism, Pope Francis has used his weekly Audiences and other occasions by and large to restate the Church’s teaching. He confirmed this in his address to the PreSynod Vigil of Prayer and his homily during the Opening Mass.

I think the African Delegates are currently quite relieved, even happy with what the Pope has done!

ZENIT: What are your hopes and expectation of the Pope’s visit to Africa next month?

Cardinal Napier: I think what I’ve said above gives expression to one set of hopes and expectations, namely the affirmation of the African Church for what it is and stands for in the worldwide Church, but also the re-affirmation of doctrines of the Church, especially in those areas where there is a concerted attack by governments and agencies mentioned above.

A third expectation is that the Holy Father will hold up significant role models of Christian living, among whom we in South Africa are pleased to mention Blessed Benedict Daswa, recently beatified by papal legate for the occasion, Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB. We are still walking on air after witnessing that historic event! This visit gives Pope Francis an ideal opportunity to highlight the crucial role that the Church in Africa has to play, at a time when so many other churches are in a crisis of faith, of identity and of compromising with the world and its dogmas!

ZENIT: It’s been said the Synod is not a parliament; does Synod 2015 fit that description?

Cardinal Napier: I don’t think so! In many ways it is doing what Synods have always done – being the meeting of Bishops as brothers and colleagues, seeking together the best ways of dealing with the challenges and problems that confront the Church in their local areas as well as at the universal level. Naturally when that happens they will be describing what they experience in daily life and ministry. For that reason, they will have different, even contradictory experiences, which inevitably shape their perceptions, their analysis of the root causes of the problems faced, as well as the solutions which they propose.

Regarding the media, to be honest, these early days of the Synod have been so charged, that I have not been able to take in what the media are saying. Nevertheless, my hope and prayer is that unlike the last time, they will not be fed information which can most kindly be described as inaccurate, and less kindly as false.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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