By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK – Throughout his papacy, during which he clocked some 40 trips to Africa, St. Pope John Paul II would frequently refer to the continent as both a “missionary church and a mission church.”
During the 20th century alone, the African Catholic Church managed to swell from a membership of 2 million in 1900 to 140 million by 2000. And while demographics may not always be destiny, efforts by Pope Francis to turn the attention of the global Church to the south makes any large-scale gathering of African Catholics not just important locally, but worldwide.
That’s why when more than 700 individuals from across Africa gather in Enugu, Nigeria this week for the first ever Pan-African Catholic Congress on Theology, Society and Pastoral Life, organizers believe it will serve as akairos moment in the life of the Church – in Africa and beyond.
Using the Greek New Testament term referring to a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation, Sister Wamũyũ Teresia Wachira, co-president of Pax Christi and senior lecturer at St. Paul University in Kenya, describes the congress as a watershed “because people from all walks of life, women and men, lay and clergy, practitioners and academics will be gathered together to reflect on the Catholic Church as a beacon of hope, especially in Africa.”
Beyond that, organizers believe the congress will utilize Francis’s 2014 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium to offer “concrete proposals and practices for a renewal and reform of our institutions, structures and systems so that the Church in Africa will be able to realize the goal of missionary conversion set out by Pope Francis.”
According to Father Stan Chu Ilo, who serves as a research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Inter-Cultural Studies at DePaul University, the idea for the congress comes after three significant anniversaries in the life of the African Church: the 50-year anniversary of the founding of SECAM, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, and on the 25 and 10-year anniversaries, respectively, of the global synods on the Church in Africa.
After conversations with the working committee of SECAM, members of the Association of African Theologians, and others involved in African seminary formation, Fr. Ilo said “there was the need to come together and think of what has been gained through the celebrations and to do the heavy lifting and tough work or asking the question: ‘Now what?’ and “What next?’”
“The congress emerged out of this concern to think of how to birth the kinds of structures and institutions in our churches in Africa, the kinds of process and channels of dialogue which can lead to spiritual and ecclesial traditions, liturgical and faith and pastoral formation which can become responsive and transformative of our context in Africa,” he told The Tablet.
“It is all about naming these emerging patterns, identifying the challenges, limitations and opportunities out there in this amazing momentum of Christian expansion in Africa and showing how all these can give agency and new life to our people and nurture sustainable and transferable spiritual and social practices to meet the challenging and changing needs of our times,” he continued.
The result: December 5-8, more than 80 African theologians, bishops, priests, religious and laity will offer presentations and lead discussions, and another 650 people are expected to be in attendance as the congress kicks off at Bigard Memorial Seminary, one of the largest Catholic seminaries in the world.
Fr. Ilo says that the four-day gathering is “structured to give voice to everyone,” with more than a third of all the speakers being women and representatives from every language group and region of the African continent.
In the spirit of Pope Francis, he says that the congress will look “away from the citadels of power and privilege,” and focus on programs and ministries throughout Africa that “have shown incredible leadership and stimulated transformational movements in their dioceses and local churches and communities.”
Sister Dr. MarySylvia Nwachukwu, director of academic planning at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu also told The Tablet that the geographic diversity is distinctive of this congress and that one of the concrete outcomes she’d like to see is a “cultural revolution in education,” specifically in Catholic higher education.
“I believe education holds hope of a better future for Africa,” she said.
To further that point, on the eve of the congress, Fr. Ilo insists that the gathering will “not be another talking shop, but a congress of action.”
“This congress is inviting all delegates to think of another possible Africa, another possible church, another possible reality for our people which made the signs of the reign of God in Africa more concrete by showing us the pathway to realizing the dreams and, hopes of our ancestors, while deepening and celebrating the vast human, spiritual and material resources of our continent,” said Fr. Ilo.
And while the congress will have some major ecclesial headliners, Fr. Ilo says that the focus will be on the people of God – “especially those who are poor and who are hanging on the cross.”
Looking ahead, he’s not making predictions on what the end result will be, leaving room for the Holy Spirit to move and, most importantly, making sure there’s space for an “emergence of a church of the poor, a church with the poor and a church for the poor in Africa, and the death of a church of privilege, power and comfort.”