The churches in certain parts of the world are too empty on Sunday morning, and pastors from those regions wonder what can be done about it. Well, one prelate, who comes from a continent where empty churches is not the problem — Africa — says there is a way that he thinks will fill them.
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT last week in the Vatican, Archbishop Charles Palmer Buckle of Accrau, Ghana, said if people welcome the novelty brought by their missionaries, rather than urging them to conform, then not only there will be a surge in Church participation and Mass attendance, but the Universal Church will be enriched.
In the interview, the African archbishop recalls Pope Benedict’s description of the Church in Africa as the “spiritual lung of humanity.” He also predicts that Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to Kenya, Uganda, and Central African Republic, Nov. 25-30, will bring a greater sense of unity to the continent, and he shares his hope that the Holy Father will come back to visit the fastest growing Church in the world very soon after the end of the 2015 trip.
The archbishop also speaks to ZENIT about the family in Africa, especially challenges for young couples, whose heads are often turned by media’s distortion of family values.
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle also points out that Africa, as the fastest growing Church in the world, needs tangible support, including institutions, especially while such structures in other parts of the world remain unused and empty.
ZENIT: Africans have had a good representation in the synod, what do you feel African bishops and participants have brought?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: You can see that culturally — because most of the African prelates were formed in Europe and America — we are bringing a richness that comes from two different cultural perspectives. What is our own African, cultural perspective. And what is the cultural perspective of the French, or Germans or Italians or Spanish and so on. So I would say we are contributing to the universal Church in a very universal way. We are bringing our own, in addition to what we have acquired in terms of cultural richness.
ZENIT: Is there something you believe, regarding the family, is most important to African bishops?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: In fact, for us in Africa, the family is so crucial. Already in 1994, at the special assembly of the synod of bishops for Africa, we already chose what we call ‘Church as family.’ So already at that time, we had chosen to develop our Church as family, mainly because family, as a concept, as an institution, speaks to us, from the depths of our culture, anthropologically, spiritually, philosophically, religiously. So yes, we chose this in 1994.Then already in 2009, when we were here for the second special assembly for Africa of the synod of bishops, Pope Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, made a prophetic statement that Africa is ‘the spiritual lung of humanity,’ already at the opening Mass, and then in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus. He puts it in twice, as a development, that we would have to contribute strongly to Africa and the Holy Mother Church. So for us, coming to participate in the synod for the family, is like bringing coal to new castle. We are here to share. We have been here sharing from our own experience, from our own cultural perspectives, but we are open and here to listen to what the family means to Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans, to people from North America. We are listening very attentively because we would like to avoid the pitfalls that families in these so-called advanced countries have fallen into. We would like also to help them look at families from its beautiful, original perspective. You maybe use primitive in the sense of traditional, original perspective. So we believe we are being enriched and we are enriching also, all the other participants.
ZENIT: What do you believe is the biggest problem facing families in Ghana?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Definitely, most of our families in Africa are young people, because this is a continent where more than 65% of our population is less than 35 years of age. So two-thirds of the African population is young. So if you would take from when they are 18, about when they get married, to about 45… it means the family is crucial to everything in Africa, to education, to religious formation of the people, to the cultural development of the people, to the social, political and economic aspects…So I would say, in Ghana, my biggest worry is how to help the people who marry. Know that Christian marriage is different from our traditional mentality of marriage, we admit there are some issues, like polygamy and other things. But also we need to help our young people who are getting married. [We need to] bring that cultural richness of family, love for for children, love for a more extended relationship, so it is not just father, mother, and children, but also for grandparents, for uncles, for aunties, and even for people who may not be from the same clan, but have been adopted into the family.
My worry is how to help them keep the wealth of Christian marriage and Christian families, and at the same time the deeply Christian values that are also found in the African understanding of marriage and the family life. Definitely, because of poverty, because of lack of education, because of weak Christian values in many aspects, our young people are going through many challenges, because of the media. The media has become a component of the formation of the young people. So we will have to see how to use the media positively to influence the formation, education, the Christian understanding of doctrine and faith, and also to help them learn to avoid the negative influence of the media culture.
ZENIT: Could you explain specifically what things the media is doing incorrectly?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: A lot of the media is West, and when they speak about family, it is only father, mother, children, and they are presenting other, sorry to say, unacceptable forms of family. They present often too many freedoms of the woman and man and even of the children, which can bring about disintegration of the family. Often it stresses self-centered over self-sacrifice, and individualism to the destruction of the individuality. They ignore what makes a family a family, namely that it is a school of formation, of education, of where we learn to forgive, where we learn to live with differences.
The media at times suggests, if it’s hard, just quit. It leads to a defeatist attitude, a certain aggressiveness. It does not lead to solidarity and collaboration, but more to a detriment of these true familial elements. Those are some of the negative western media influences which make it harder for our young people to get married and stay in marriages and use that also to bring their contributions to society, because society is a bigger family, where we have many of the same aims.
ZENIT: What are the biggest difficulties the Church in Africa faces?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Let’s put it this way. The Church in Africa is growing very fast, and therefore will need a lot of help to put together the needed institutions to facilitate that growth, such as seminaries, Catholic universities. We need a lot of help from these countries which have these facilities, which, unfortunately, many are lying empty. They bring a lot of our people, many here to Europe, to teach in seminaries, to be in the parishes, etc., for them to share and bring the African mentality and values. Bringing the teaching from the African philosophy, African anthropology, African sociology, African spirituality, and the rest. To bring our contribution to the Universal Church.
Another thing that sometimes we are not happy about is that there are many African missionaries in Europe and America already. We have priests offering services and religious sisters offering services in Germany, France, Italy, in Spain, even some of the Eastern European countries, in the United States of America, in Canada, and many others. We would like them to be seen as missionaries who have come to share and therefore, we pray, that Christians in Europe and America do not constrain them …
ZENIT: What do you mean by constrain them?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: Do not constrain them to adapt to the European cultural mentality of Christianity because if you want an African priest to be at your parish in the United States, in Canada, or in Europe, and them to behave exactly like the German priest, the Italian priest, the French priest, American priest, then you are not enriching yourself.
They shouldn’t be compelled to conform, but should be conformed to bring novelty. A new way of worship, a new way of sharing, a new way of talking, a new way of evangelizing, so that Africa can bring its contribution also to the Church. But sometimes, people think, they see the African priest, and they think, ‘Oh, he is here to fill a gap, or a short time thing,’ or something like that. They don’t think of him as a missionary, but the truth is that he is a missionary, and he is there to bring to the Universal Church the wealth that the Church of Africa offers.
This novelty of preaching, or perhaps singing, and being with the people in traditionally African ways, is not something that should be changed to conform.The African missionaries bring this richness and newness where they go and this could help the universal Church bring people back to Church. Pews are often empty and I believe if our priests can share and offer their unique identity, the pews will fill.
ZENIT: What are your hopes and expectations for Pope Francis’ visit to Africa?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: We are looking forward to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, and permit me to add that already in February, SECAM [the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar], its committee, our continental body, we also asked him, we invited him to get ready to visit in 2019 when SECAM will be celebrating its golden jubilee.
SECAM was born in 1969 with the first visit of Pope Paul VI, to Kampala [Capital of Uganda]. We are looking forward to his coming. We believe his first visit to Africa will really charge up this continent, because the continent of Africa is the fastest growing Church in the world, but also to give us direction, so that we won’t just be growing vibrant and wild, but that we will grow vibrant and united. His presence will give us a deeper sense of unity.
Everywhere he has been to, he has influenced Catholics, non-Catholics, even anti-Catholics, and the rest. So we believe that his visit will not only charge up and strengthen the Church in these three countries, but also will be a boost for the whole African continent. And we hope and pray that what he will see in Africa will also push him to come again in 2019 when we are celebrating SECAM’s 50th Anniversary.
ZENIT: Has the invitation been extended already?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: We extended it verbally and I think we have also extended it in writing yes.
ZENIT: Has Pope Francis responded yet?
Archbishop Palmer-Buckle: We’ll leave it to the Holy Father to do that. [smiling]