ROME – On the cusp of a day trip to Geneva to mark the 70th anniversary of the ecumenically-minded World Council of Churches, Pope Francis on Saturday told a group of African Christian leaders that when it comes to helping a continent that’s been “stripped,” beaten and left half-dead, there can be no division among churches.
“Although significant disagreements may exist between us on theological and ecclesiological issues, there are many areas where the leaders and members of the various communities of the Christian family can set common goals and work together for the benefit of all,” Francis said.
The pontiff compared Africa to the parable in the Gospel of Luke that speaks of a man who traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho, then “fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead.”
Facing such a situation, the pope told representatives of the Organization of African Instituted Churches (OAIC) who visited him in the Vatican on Saturday, the question is how the Christian message can be good news for the people of Africa.
The OAIC is a representative body that brings together African Independent and Instituted Churches (AICs), offers them a forum for sharing their concerns and hopes, and enables churches to minister effectively to their members and their communities.
“As a response to the desperation of the poor, the frustration of young people and the cry of pain of the elderly and the suffering, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, passed on and lived out, translates into experiences of hope, peace, joy, harmony, love and unity,” the pope said.
If there’s a conviction that the continent’s problems would be better resolved by tapping local human, cultural and material resources, he said, the Christian duty is clear: to accompany efforts “to favor a wise and ethical use of those resources.”
A shared commitment to promoting peace in the many areas of conflict in Africa, he said, has to be a priority, as should be concrete forms of solidarity. According to Francis, Church leaders have a duty to help individuals put work together at the service of the common good, defending “the dignity, freedom and rights of all.”
The pope didn’t list any specific conflicts, but there are several he’s spoken about on different occasions, and the list is long: there’s Boko Haram and communal conflicts in Nigeria, the ongoing civil war in Libya that began in 2014, ethnic violence in South Sudan, civil war in Central African Republic, and a conflict in Yemen, which, though rarely drawing a media spotlight, is considered by the United Nations as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of 2018.
The root of many of these conflicts is perhaps what led the pontiff to urge Christians in African societies to foster coexistence among “differing ethnic groups, traditions, languages and religions.” For the same reason, he said, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, he added, is also urgently needed in Africa.
In his remarks, Francis also noted that African peoples have a profound sense of religiosity and of the existence of God the Creator, and also of the importance of the family, love for life and respect for elders.
“Do these religious values and these principles of life not belong to all of us as Christians?” he asked.