The Church in Africa: Instrument of Dialogue and Reconciliation

The Church in Africa: Instrument of Dialogue and Reconciliation

Nicola Gori

Interview with Mons. Chidi Denis Isizoh on the upcoming Second African Synod

Mons. Chidi Denis Isizoh, an official of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Vice-President of the "Nostra Aetate" Foundation, which helps non-Christian students desiring to learn more about Christianity, granted the following interview to "L'Osservatore Romano" on the current Muslim-Catholic relations in Africa, in the context of the Second African Synod that will be celebrated in October.

The "Instrumentum Laboris" of the upcoming continental Synod devotes two paragraphs to dialogue with African Traditional Religion and with Islam. What is the current state of their relations with Catholics?

In general, the rapport is good. But this answer needs to be qualified.

In most places Catholics (Christians in general) and people of other religions, particularly Followers of African Traditional Religion and Muslims, live and work together. Religion is not something separated from other activities of life. It is the way of life. There is no word for it in many African languages. The commonest form of relationship between Christians and people of other religions is that of dialogue of life and of cooperation where each person lives out the ideals of his or her religion: being a good neighbour, honest, showing concern for those in need, contributing money, talents, etc. for the common good in the village, participating in taking decisions for the progress of the society, helping to fight against criminality, and so on. In these areas of sharing, each person brings out those values which his or her religion has taught him or her. Most ordinary people in Africa are satisfied to be together and collaborate in projects of common concern in villages and towns across the continent. Often they do not delve into the profound theological issues of their religions. The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has often called for this deep level of dialogue in truth and charity.

Christian-Muslim relations in many countries of Africa are good. This is good news that does not often hit the headlines of major news media. There are obvious exceptions to this happy relationship when we think of two or three countries where from time to time there is a demonstration of intolerance and where some political leaders manipulate religious feelings to achieve their goals. It is necessary for true religious leaders to work together to prevent politicians and people who have other interests from hijacking religion to serve their purpose.

Followers of African Traditional Religion are most friendly to Christianity. Many new Christians in the last century came from them. With reference to interreligious dialogue, the Church has two approaches: one to adherents of the Traditional Religion and another to converts from it. With adherents, the Church encourages normal dialogue as I have just described. The more challenging is the approach to converts. As African Traditional is a religion that embraces the totality of life, it furnishes categories of thought for interpreting what I may call "events of life" — happy situations of birth, marriage, title-taking and so on; sad events like sickness, bereavement, and so on. The Traditional Religion provides answers and prescribes solutions. Christianity also provides its own instruments for understanding "events of life".

Now, when a Christian encounters these "events of life", he or she first tries to find a response from his or her new faith (Christianity). If it happens, in a case of a person not properly grounded in the Christian faith, that no immediate and satisfactory solution is found, he or she goes back to the Traditional Religion to look for answers. This switching from one religion to another is a real pastoral challenge in some parts of Africa. The recommended solution by the Church is what has been described as "pastoral attention" which is meant to provide guidance for such Christians in difficulty. This pastoral attention comes in the form of intensified catechesis, pastoral advice from priests, instructions on the faith, closeness and solidarity of fellow Christians, praying together, visitation by pious societies and so on.

In what common areas is collaboration with Muslims possible?

Christian-Muslim dialogue in the sub-Saharan countries of Africa has one important advantage. African Traditional Religion provides a sociocultural context for the African Christians and Muslims to understand each other. They share the common world view offered by the traditional religion. It is often easy for them to understand the thought-patterns of one another.

There are many areas in which both Christians and Muslims can work together in Africa. In the area of education, they can work together to eliminate illiteracy and ignorance. They can help to inculcate sound morality in the art of governance. They can learn together to understand their rights and responsibilities in the society. They can work together to fight poverty. They can help to promote sound democracy by jointly monitoring elections and boldly condemning irregularities. They can help to promote social justice and honesty in public and private life. They can jointly demand politicians to give account of their stewardship.

Forty years after "Populorum Progressio", the Encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" denounces the insufficient development of peoples. What are the obstacles that still delay development in Africa today?

The latest Encyclical of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has something for every person and people. I find this statement very important:

"Progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient". The strong emphasis is on the integral development of the human person.

There are many areas in which Africa has made progress in the spirit of Populorum Progressio and Caritas in Veritate: international cooperation within the continent, defence of the values of life and family, education, democracy, national dialogue and debates for coexistence, and so on. These may not be in perfect form but progress has certainly been made.

Yes, there are obstacles that retard the progress of development.

The legacy of colonialism is still visible today. The amalgamation into modern nations of different ethnic groups that should have been existing elsewhere as separate countries poses a major obstacle that delays development. Did we not witness the disintegration of former USSR or ex-Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries? Are the struggles for autonomy in some European countries not a reality we are aware of in the world today? What we witnessed in the former USSR and other blocks was a return of the component countries to their natural state of existence.

In most countries of Africa they are stuck with these weird amalgamations of different peoples (often referred to in the media as tribal groups) created by colonial masters. Right from the beginning, tension was built into the structure of these African countries. From time to time it explodes. It leads to conflicts and struggle for power and control of resources. Yes, many years have passed. Smaller countries with fewer ethnic groups have managed to overcome their unnatural union. But larger countries will have to continue to negotiate and dialogue. This is evident in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, South Africa and the Sudan. This prolonged national debate on the way to coexist delays development.

Greed, desire for quick wealth, corruption, lack of accountability on the part of leaders and so on create obstacles to development.

The issue of migration is a human phenomenon. Some Africans who are discouraged by lack of adequate conditions to make a decent living in their own countries try to migrate to "greener pastures". This brain drain by many skilled workers is an obstacle to development in their countries of origin.

There are still people who think that formal education in schools is bad for their religion and society. Illiteracy and ignorance constitute obstacles to development.

There is, of course, the international conspiracy by some countries in the northern hemisphere to keep what they have and negotiate what others have. There is the issue of unfair conditions for international trading. In this age of globalization, some of the values which make for integral development and are treasured by Africans are assaulted: life, family, etc. The Holy Father wrote clearly about such forms of injustice perpetrated in the world today.

The main themes of the upcoming Synod will be reconciliation, justice and peace. What contribution can the Church make to enable these values to take root in African society?

We all are praying for the success of this Second Synod of Bishops for Africa. The choice of the theme "Reconciliation, Justice and Peace" shows how much the Church in Africa is alive in her responsibility on the continent. The last 50 years have been dominated by issues of independence and nation building. In their struggle for self-determination and self-governance, many African countries experienced wars, conflicts, national debates, and so on. At the end of this first phase, one may ask: what next for Africa? This is what this Synod is all about. Which way forward?

It is important to note the order of the theme. The first thing is reconciliation and then justice. Reconciliation and justice lead to peace.

Very often in our world today we notice that after hostilities, the first thing some people think of is setting up courts to try so-called "war criminals", condemn them, put them in prison or, in some cases, execute them. Does this bring peace? Sadly, no. Asking and obtaining a "pound of flesh" is the human way of exacting vengeance. For some people, it assuages the wounded and makes them feel that the offenders are punished. Does this really heal the wounds of war and conflict? It is doubtful.

There is a different way to heal the society after wars and conflicts. It is the way of reconciliation. This is also a Gospel value. Our Lord Jesus Christ recommended it (Mt 18:15-17). Happily, an African country (South Africa) has applied it and presented it to the international community as an alternative to the War Crime Tribunal.

The Church has a vital role to play. She is the voice of the voiceless. She speaks on behalf of the oppressed, the marginalized and the down-trodden in society. After several wars, conflicts and debates in Africa, with so many people wounded physically, psychologically and even spiritually, the Church rises to the challenge to play her role as instrument of healing and peace through dialogue of reconciliation and justice. Recommending and promoting forms of healing of broken societies, particularly on the continent of Africa, will probably become one of the highlights of the forthcoming Synod.

How can the Year for Priests be an opportunity for African priests to rediscover their identity and mission?

As rightly described by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, priesthood is a gift and a mystery. We have reasons to thank God for the increase of vocations to the priesthood in Africa. Some people think that it is because of the economic difficulties that many young men take to the priesthood in Africa. This is the language of those who do not seem to have faith in God's gift to human beings. They tend to look at it purely from human perspectives of economic gain, a life of comfort, etc. I can testify that many of those who become priests are not from the worse-off families in Africa. A good number of them overcome difficult obstacles from their families before they become priests. There are some who are missionaries in other parts of their own country or in distant lands much worse than their place of origin.

In this special year, we must thank God for the many faithful African priests serving in different remote villages without attracting news headlines in the world. Some of them travel several kilometres on motorbikes and bicycles to reach their parishioners. Most do not receive any fixed stipend for their sustenance. There are those too who work in big parishes with all that is associated with modern life. We cannot fail to praise the generosity of our Christians who support their priests. We remember catechists who are auxiliaries of priests.

There are certainly reasons for concern in some places in Africa. The greatest threat of our time is the danger of schism created by the recent illicit ordinations to episcopacy and priesthood. This is a sad development that calls for fasting and prayer. There are some priests who find it increasingly difficult to live out their vows. Some are lured away by other secular attractions. Although it is a worldwide phenomenon not restricted to Africa, it is a situation in the Church which must be recommended for prayer.

In this special year, all priests are called to return to the original spiritual fervour that led them to the altar to commit themselves to be consecrated alter Christus in all its theological implications. It is an occasion to examine one's prayer life, commitment to one's priestly vows, lifestyle, and dedication to the ministry. We fall on our knees to thank the Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, for choosing us as instruments, poor as we are, to work in his vineyard. During this year the Holy Father has invited each priest to rededicate himself to the Lord and his mission. It is consoling to discover so many channels (cf. The Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary, Special Indulgence for the Year for Priests) for gaining graces and indulgences made available to Priests and the People of God by the Church during this special year.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 September 2009, page 8

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