Even before his beatification and canonization, I had always believed that perhaps the Church in Africa should consider officially making St. John Paul the continent’s patron saint.
Like millions of others, I have deep a personal affection and attachment to him. I also believe it would be difficult to imagine any other individual who contributed more to shaping world opinion about Africa, by encouraging its people to rise up and walk.
In the course of his papacy from 1978-2005, he visited almost every country on the continent, and these trips had a most profound impact on Africa’s political, economic and social life.
Even more important and profound was his impact on the pastoral life of the Catholic Church in particular, and the body of Christ in general, in Africa. Among other things, he significantly extended the frontiers of ecumenism and dialogue with Islam and traditional religions.
When Africa looks back, it must do more than merely pay tribute to this great man.
By the time he died in 2005, Africans had formally joined the ranks of the saints on the Catholic calendar. He had appointed almost 20 cardinals across the continent, and moved African prelates to the highest and sensitive positions in the pastoral administration of the Catholic world.
We remember the historic positions held by such eminent Africans as the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin and Cardinal Francis Arinze. We remember the phenomenal pastoral expansion of the Church through the creation of more cardinals, archbishops, and new archdioceses and dioceses.
This diversity in the beatifications of Blessed Isidore Bakanja and Blessed Iwene Tansi were acknowledgements of the contributions of Africa, and a summons to a greater engagement with the mission of the universal Church. In various ways, their choice pointed to the fact that the sufferings of Africa still had the seeds of hope.
Again, the historic convocation of the Synod of Bishops for Africa in 1994 helped to place Africa at the center of the universal Church, and a second synod would follow again in 2007.
In his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, “Ecclesia In Africa”, John Paul provided a road-map pointing to a greater role for the Church in using the Gospel to bring succor to a troubled continent.
Considering how the Catholic Church had triggered political changes in the Philippines, parts of Latin America and Poland, the Holy Father pointed at the opportunities that lay before Africa, especially after the collapse of Communism. There were high hopes that African nations might turn the corner and create a more peaceful and democratic society. Ordinary people saw hope for ending the tragic years of dictatorship, oppression and corruption in the hands of its own leaders.
The end of apartheid and the emergence of President Nelson Mandela sparked further excitement, especially given the role that the Churches had played in ending apartheid and sparking up sovereign national conferences to usher in Democracy.
In the eyes of many optimists, Africa’s second liberation was at hand. The Catholic Church had found itself in the center of political changes in countries like Benin, Malawi, South Africa, Congo, and Zaire among others. It was believed that countries like Nigeria and South Africa would lead the change.
Sadly, things have not turned out that way.
With time, the promises of the so-called second liberation began to wither. Old-school dictators such as Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Sasso Nguesso (Congo), Paul Biya (Cameroon), Yahaya Jammeh (The Gambia), and Yoweri Museveni (Uganda) would be joined by others such as Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Joseph Kabila (Democratic Republic of Congo).
It is curious, and disturbing, to note that almost all these dictators lay claim to being Catholic, no matter what their state of Catholicism may be today.
Dictatorship has deepened the culture of human rights violations while breeding resentment and frustration among our people. Resource-endowed countries have not been able to use their huge wealth into improve the quality of lives of their people.
As dictators continue to consolidate their hold on power at all cost, elections have become miniature civil wars, producing violence and death. Our communities are daily fractured along ethnic, regional and religious lines.
Today, diseases that the rest of the world has forgotten about, such as malaria and Tuberculosis continue to kill millions of Africans. Our people remain vulnerable to the worst epidemics (such as Ebola and Zika for example), natural and human disasters, and other forms of wars.
For a majority of Africans, life still remains, in the words of Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.
Against this sorrowful backdrop, how can the Church give hope to Africa? Against the backdrop of its rich history in confronting Caesar, how can the Church lead Africa in the battles for life?
Islamic extremism has bred a culture of violence that has taken its toll on the Christian communities around the continent, putting a severe strain on interreligious dialogue.
But, we must remain hopeful and prayerful.
The real challenge now is for the Church to walk the talk by leading the charge for a more robust engagement of the state, ending destructive inequalities and the mismanagement of resources.
We must go beyond grand moral exhortation, finding channels to express a deep sense of moral revulsion. This requires the Church to unleash its social teachings among its people, drawing attention to the values of dialogue and a premium on human life, based on solidarity and the common good.
All hope is not lost. We invoke St. John Paul to intercede for a continent that he loved so much.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah leads the Diocese of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, the most heavily Muslim region of the country, and is the author of several books on inter-faith relations and civil society in Africa. He’s also served on national commissions in Nigeria for the investigation of human rights violations and for conflict resolution.