ROME – One year after Africa’s continental body of bishops outlined a bold new vision for evangelization during a high-stakes meeting, the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted those plans, offering both challenges and unexpected opportunities.
“Evangelization in Africa more than elsewhere in the world simply has to adjust to the new post COVID-19 normal. There is simply no option beside that,” Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of Oyo, Nigeria, said in comments to Crux.
Chairman of the Pan African Episcopal Committee for Social Communications (CEPACS), the social communications branch of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Badejo spoke on the occasion of the July 29 observance of SECAM Day, which this year will be formally celebrated on Aug. 2, the nearest Sunday.
Last year SECAM celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its establishment during St. Pope Paul VI’s visit to Uganda in 1969, which marked the first-ever papal visit to Africa. Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, SECAM is composed of 40 different national and regional bodies of Catholic bishops in Africa.
While outlining the need for a bolder, more pro-active evangelization at last year’s discussion, none of the bishops at the table were expecting a pandemic would force most of those efforts to go exclusively digital.
According to Badejo, the past few months have been marked by a tremendous effort “to retrain and re-orientate agents of evangelization to gyrate towards online catechesis.”
Both pastors and faithful have also been forced to learn how to worship remotely and to conduct certain pastoral duties through new media, he said, noting that, “There have been hurdles and challenges, but the interest seen among the faithful is quite heartwarming.”
For some prelates, he said, it has been “a great challenge to keep up with some segments of the faithful” by learning new skills and even a new language “in the spirit of collaboration and co-responsibility” during the continental outbreak of COVID-19.
Given the unique dynamic the coronavirus has created, Badejo said that going forward, “the new visage of evangelization in Africa … must lean heavily on the concept of co-responsibility.”
“The ‘new normal’ of dependence on online work will necessarily make a lot of pastoral initiatives quite democratic,” he said, noting that under this dynamic, laypeople will have “more responsibility” in carrying the Church’s work forward.
Much of the Church’s task moving into the future, he said, will involve seeking solutions to violent conflicts and the “wave of religious extremism, poverty and migration,” on the continent, while also targeting unemployment and a general restlessness among young people, who compose the bulk of Africa’s growing population.
In a July 29 statement released to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the week-long plenary assembly for the Golden Jubilee, SECAM President Cardinal Philippe Ouédraogo of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, said that coming out of last year’s celebration, the goals of SECAM were to pursue a “more profound” evangelization on the continent, to “intensify” efforts to promote pastoral solidarity among members and to “be more proactive.”
“The Golden Jubilee celebration evidently raised hopes that SECAM would more visibly play its role and exert a positive influence on areas that touch the daily life of the people, both within and outside Africa,” Ouédraogo said, but noted that the coronavirus pandemic has put a major dent in these plans.
The cardinal was himself hospitalized with COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, one year after the Golden Jubilee, the situation in Africa and the surrounding Islands has remained the same, within and outside the Church,” he said, adding that the situation is compounded by the coronavirus, which “has wreaked havoc everywhere.”
Citing a recent report from Catholic charity organization Caritas Internationalis, Ouédraogo noted that Africa is “the worst affected of all continents in terms of COVID-19 effects,” which include food shortages, the loss of small businesses, and unemployment.
Preexisting conditions such as droughts, floods, poor harvests and locust invasions add to the misery and “constitute a serious challenge,” he said.
“For those in the grip of anguish and misery, it is easy to conclude that God has abandoned us and the pandemic is punishment for our sins, individual and communal,” he said, but insisted that “If we experience pain or if we suffer, [God] participates in it in order to overcome it.”
Ouédraogo urged those who might be questioning their faith or doubting God to have courage and not to “give in to despair; continue to pray and wait for God’s time.”
COVID-19, he said, has exposed “how vulnerable we are, irrespective of color or status,” and has also highlighted the necessity “to be each other’s’ keeper.”
“This is a time for all African peoples to reactivate the value of solidarity that has shaped our worldview and traditional society,” he said, calling it “shameful and regretful” that not even a pandemic has halted violence and “terrorism” in some African countries.
“We continue to kill ourselves on a daily basis,” he said, and echoed Pope Francis’s call “for an immediate end to violence everywhere in Africa and elsewhere in the world.”
By practicing solidarity, “we will be better placed to face the impact of the pandemic and to turn our economies around, while relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us the grace to love and to be compassionate,” Ouédraogo said.
He also voiced appreciation for all those committed to evangelization in Africa and to government leaders and healthcare professionals who are working to fight the coronavirus and to keep countries safe and “who have shown extraordinary dedication to alleviating the suffering of the sick.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen