ROME – Africa’s continent-wide bishops’ conference is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week, with senior African Catholic leaders expressing public pride in five decades of rapid growth and missionary expansion.
Sunday opened the 18th plenary assembly for the “Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar” (SECAM), which this year coincides with the body’s Golden Jubilee.
In a July 22 message signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin marking the occasion, Pope Francis voiced gratitude “for the many graces received by SECAM and for the fraternal communion that has characterized its work over these fifty years.”
He prayed that SECAM’s members “may be strengthened in missionary discipleship, for the great work of evangelization consists in striving to make the Gospel permeate every aspect of our lives so that we, in turn, can bring it to others.”
“In this way, SECAM will continue to be a valuable service to the local churches throughout the entire continent of Africa,” he said.
Born in Uganda during St. Pope Paul VI’s visit to the nation in 1969, SECAM brings together forty different national and regional bodies of Catholic Bishops in Africa. Pope Paul VI’s trip fifty years ago marked the first-ever papal visit to Africa, and the July 29, 1969, establishment of SECAM cemented the continent’s growing influence in global Catholicism.
SECAM is headquartered in Accra, Ghana, but the plenary is being held in Kampala, Uganda, and will run from July 20-29, centering on the theme: “Church-Family of God in Africa, Celebrate Your Jubilee! Proclaim Jesus Christ Your Savior!”
The idea of the Church as the “Family of God” has long been a theological cornerstone for African Catholicism, and was cemented by two Synods of Bishops for Africa in 1994 and 2009.
Jubilee celebrations were launched in Kampala, Uganda July 29, 2018, and they will close on the same day this year, marking the formal date of SECAM’s establishment.
In a striking example of some of the maladies African nations continue to face, the Ugandan government on July 19 was compelled to issue a statement promising attendees that they would not contract the Ebola virus, which ravaged western Africa during a 2014-2016 outbreak that resulted in over 11,300 deaths.
According to the statement, a small outbreak of Ebola was declared on June 10 in the Kasese district in South Western Uganda, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The outbreak was limited to three members of one family, all of whom died, and no new cases have been reported.
In comments to attendees at the opening Mass, SECAM President Gabriel Mbilingi, Archbishop of Lubango in Angola, noted that over the past 50 years, Catholicism in Africa has grown more than on any other continent in the world.
According to African news site PLM Daily, Mbilingi said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed with great dynamisms and joy” in Africa “despite difficulties that His proclamation has encountered: poverty in lacking means, challenges within religious sects and social instability in several countries.”
He emphasized the importance of investing in healthcare and education, noting that these are key areas of the Catholic Church’s social action, often most visible on the peripheries of society.
Mbilingi pointed to the high number of young people in Africa, saying that in the next 50 years, “We envisage our Catholic Schools to be even more capable of offering students…an education that will provide knowledge, skills, values and attitudes aiding in the search and practice of the truth, honesty, work, responsibility, loyalty, and a strong no to corruption.”
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was also present for the launch of this week’s plenary and jubilee activities.
According to the press office of the State House of Uganda, in comments to the prelates gathered at Mass, Museveni pointed to the rapid spiritual growth on the African continent, saying the presence of some 300 people for SECAM’s anniversary celebrations “have brought blessings to Uganda.”
However, he also noted that Africa, though being roughly four times the size of Europe and with a significantly higher population, has lagged behind in economic development. Noting that Africa has grown spiritually more rapidly than any other continent in the world in recent decades, he said economic progress ought to keep the same pace.
In a July 15 press release from SECAM general secretary Father Joseph Komakoma, Jubilee celebrations this week have drawn some 300 participants, including local faithful, clergy and Church hierarchy, as well as Vatican representatives and delegates from religious communities.
This week’s reflections, which will center on the progress of the Church in Africa over the past 50 years, will culminate with the publication of the “Kampala Document,” intended to be both a pastoral review of SECAM thus far and a guide for the direction the continental church will take going forward.
Tens of thousands of copies of the text, which will be available on SECAM’s website, are expected to be printed in English, French and Portuguese.
Over the past 50 years the Church in Africa has exploded. Not only has the general Catholic population skyrocketed, but the number of senior church leaders from the African continent is mounting, specifically under Francis, who has given a red hat to at least one African prelate in every consistory he’s held since taking office, with 10 being named in total during his tenure.
Africans who maintain a high standing in the Francis era include Cardinals Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, Robert Sarah of Guinea, Cardinals John Onaiyekan and Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who though recently retired, was tapped by Francis to help guide him in curial reform.
By sheer numbers, African bishops are slowly overtaking other regions in ecclesial realms due to the rapid growth of Catholicism on the continent.
In one recent illustration of this, Africans represented most of the prelates present in Rome for a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the protection of minors in the Church, including heads of all bishops’ conferences worldwide. Of all the prelates in attendance, Africa has the broadest representation, with some 36 bishops participating, followed by 32 from Europe, 24 from the Americas, 18 from Asia and just four from Oceania.
Africans also played a key role in the 2014-2015 synods of bishops on the family, with several African prelates emerging as champions of what was considered the more conservative or traditional bloc forming part of the meta-narrative of the 2-year discussion.
Francis, who in the past has referred to the European continent as a “grandmother” who is “slowly losing its soul,” has often drawn attention to the fact that while in the past it was the great Christian west sending missionaries to evangelize the global south, now the roles have been reversed, as many from Africa’s growing clerical population are coming to serve in western parishes, where both pews and seminaries are emptying out.
Whatever SECAM’s vision will be moving forward, the priorities outlined in the “Kampala Document” conclusions will likely increasingly set a tone for global Catholic discussion.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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