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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – According to recent statistics, Africa added more than 8 million Catholics in 2019, the largest area of growth in the world.
In comparison, America added 5.3 million, Asia added 1.9 million and Oceania 118,000. Europe, on the other hand, saw a decrease of almost 300,000 Catholics.
Kinga von Poschinger, who works at the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, said there are many reasons for the growth of the Church in Africa.
“The fact that this growth in faith in Africa has only increased in recent decades can be explained on the one hand by the fact that the Christian faith is only now arriving in many regions – there are still many areas where traditional African religions are practiced – and on the other hand by the fact that evangelization today is no longer aimed at mass baptisms and thus mass conversions, but at a real and true encounter with God that comes from the innermost part of the human being. And it is precisely this true encounter with God that makes people shine and be a light for the world,” she told Crux.
Following are excerpts of her conversation.
Crux: What explains the fact that the Church in Africa is seeing such growth?
Poschinger: In the entire history of mankind, there has not been a single society, not a single culture, that has not striven (and, incidentally, still strives) for the “higher” or for the perfect. At the same time, however, this perfection does not exist in our world: No human being is perfect, no animal, no plant, not even inanimate things are perfect. This striving for perfection, which has existed since the beginning of human history, can therefore only mean that perfection, that the “higher thing” exists (by analogy, for example, it would be completely illogical for people to feel thirst if there were no liquid in the world to quench their thirst).
For most cultures, therefore, it has been perfectly logical that this higher, this “perfection” is God. In our Western world, too, the striving for perfection, for the higher, for the infinite, is still valid. However, in this striving we rely more and more on science and technology: It is science and nanotechnologies that will heal us, that will prevent us from suffering; that will prolong our age.
On the African continent, this high level of technology does not exist. More than technology, people there rely on nature and on people in their daily lives. It is primarily nature, that provides them with food – not the supermarket, and it is the human being who takes care of them when they are old, sick or suffering – not a machine.
Like everywhere else in the world, people in Africa naturally ask for a “sign of God”, in their lives, for answers to their questions – especially in the face of so much hunger and suffering. But at the same time, they are much more open to seeing such signs in their daily lives. In other words, they engage in spiritual experiences, and see in them a proof of God’s existence. The more people have such genuine spiritual experiences, and the more deeply they are convinced of the existence of God, the more their attitude to life changes. This then not only has an influence on their private lives, but also convinces other people of the existence of God – usually without a lot of words.
The fact that this growth in faith in Africa has only increased in recent decades can be explained on the one hand by the fact that the Christian faith is only now arriving in many regions (there are still many areas where traditional African religions are practiced), and on the other hand by the fact that evangelization today is no longer aimed at mass baptisms and thus mass conversions, but at a real and true encounter with God that comes from the innermost part of the human being. And it is precisely this true encounter with God that makes people shine and be a light for the world.
Why do you think Europe’s Catholic population is shrinking?
In the course of history, the Christian religion (and thus also Catholicism) has become much more materialistic than it was in the beginning. Very often, a good Catholic is judged above all by how many charitable works he has done and what good he has done in his life. But there are thousands of organizations in Europe, through which you can do a lot of very good works, and you don’t have to be a Catholic. That is one reason.
Another reason is that the uniqueness of our faith, namely the awareness that God lives in us (“Abide in me and I abide in you” John 15:4) has been somewhat lost in the teaching of the last decades, perhaps even centuries. The fact that God lives in us is a revolutionary statement. For it ultimately states that every human being has something divine within him or her. (Which, incidentally, in turn explains why everyone strives for the divine, the absolute, the perfect – and should also strive, as mentioned at the beginning).
The goal of our life is therefore simply to recognize the divine in us, in order to then do His will. Or, to put it in the words of Saint Therese of Lisieux: “The Lord does not require of us great deeds, but only devotion and gratitude. He does not need our works, but only our love.” But this is much more difficult than doing good deeds. Good deeds can be measured, love cannot. Besides, we would have to deal with ourselves very honestly. We would have to look our own weaknesses and faults in the eye and overcome our fears. We would have to let our own “ego” become smaller so that God can grow in us. We would have to hear God’s voice within us, to know which direction to go.
And the third reason I would give is that there are fewer and fewer people in Europe, who can teach us how to walk this path and how to recognize God’s voice in us. So even if someone would want to take the arduous journey to go “through the eye of the needle”, it is not easy to find someone who could teach them. Even within the Church, the teaching of Christ is often presented in a very effeminate way and loses not only its flavor, but above all its attractiveness. It is the truth that convinces people, nothing else.
So, the question we should be asking is no longer so much: Do we believe in God; but rather: Do we believe God? If we believe God, the Word of God must become the basis of our lives so that it can be realized in us.
What should this expanding Catholicism in Africa mean for the continent in terms of dealing with its perennial issues of poverty, crime, conflict and disease?
If the faith were to spread in its spiritual depth in Africa, this would have incredible consequences for the continent. A deep commitment to God transforms every human being. He thus discovers his true calling, the truth about himself and his being. The closer a person’s relationship with God is, the greater he also grows in true love. Of course, this also has consequences for his actions. Someone who has grown more and more in love will not do criminal acts. Someone who has an enormous amount of love in him, is ready to give his life for others (Jn 15,13) and thus opens the spiral of violence that has built up in many conflict situations.
At the same time, Christ also gives an answer to the meaning of suffering: In the suffering of the Cross, the fruit of true love is revealed. When illness, poverty or other suffering is sacrificed, an incredible potential of love emerges from it. There are enough examples of this from the lives of the saints, but also very concretely from the lives of people in Africa who live in the midst of terror and violence, suffering and persecution of Christians, and yet say “yes” to God and to life. These people say that it is not always easy to forgive their enemies. But they try anew every day and are thus a living example of true and genuine love.
Is this growth evidence that Christians are standing up to the threats by those who don’t want Christians to survive on the continent?
It is true, that in those areas where Christians are persecuted for their faith, the faith of the people has reached an incredible depth. We met widows in Maiduguri (the city in Nigeria where Boko Haram was founded) who told us: “The terrorists can take everything from us; they can take our houses, they can take our churches, they can take our husbands and children – yes, they can even take our lives. But they cannot take our faith.”
People who are so deeply rooted in faith, who are so deeply gripped by the love of God, have a strength against which nothing can stand. In this sense, they also attract other people who can then in turn reach this depth of faith.