This past week, Pope Francis visited three very poor countries in Africa: Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius.
Those countries have suffered many tragedies over the last several decades. From colonialism to dictatorship, from corruption to famine, they have endured a lot. During the civil war in Mozambique in the 1980s, for example, more than one million people died. Health care is so scarce in Madagascar that it has fewer than 60 dentists for a population of 22 million.
The problems in the three countries are hard for any American to imagine. When Pope Francis talks about the peripheries, he is referring to places like the three countries he just visited in Africa.
Watching the events on TV, you could tell the papal visit was a very special moment for the three countries. The Masses were huge events, with up to 1 million people participating in at least one of them. The joy and enthusiasm of the participants were evident.
While I was watching the images and reading the news about the trip, I remembered trips by the Holy Father to Chile and Ireland, where attendance was much lower than expected and protests against him were very loud.
Both Chile and Ireland had received St. John Paul II with great enthusiasm during his visits decades before. Both countries were going through challenging times when the Polish pope’s visits took place. Both were in a much better economic and political situation when Pope Francis arrived. But the prestige and moral authority of the church had diminished, and many people had stopped going to Mass.
Is the pope popular when we need him and rejected when things get better? Is that the reason millions came to see him in Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius? In a certain way, yes; we tend to get closer to God — and his vicar — when we face great challenges or tragedies. But it would be simplistic to reduce the phenomenon to an economic formula. There are plenty of poor places where the church isn’t flourishing.
Africa is often called “the future of the Church” because of the tremendous increase in the number of Catholics and in vocations to the priesthood and religious life there. While churches and convents are closing in Europe, the reverse is taking place in Africa.
According to some reports, 240,000 people left the church in Europe between 2014 and 2016. During that time, Africa gained more than 6 million Catholics.
Many countries in Africa gained independence during the decades following World War II. The local churches were often led by bishops from their metropolis. The Europeans were the original evangelizers of those nations. After independence, the local clergy assumed a more visible role.
Today, we can say that many African countries — and some Asian ones, too — are called to be the new evangelizers. We can see that reality each summer in our own diocese. Last summer, out of 80 visiting priests, 31 came from Nigeria, 22 from Ghana, and 20 from India.
The church in the West faces challenges like the extreme secularization of society, the effects of the sexual abuse crisis and the frequent internecine theological and cultural wars. The church in Africa, on the other hand, seems to be more focused on the urgent needs of its people and on the evangelization of millions who had never heard of Jesus Christ.
When the Holy Father says that the church should be “like a field hospital,” in many ways he is describing the church in Africa. Maybe it is that urgency that makes it so dynamic, so alive. Maybe that is the reason Africa is called “the future of the church.” And this past week, the pope went to see the future.