Catholic Researcher on Why Africa’s “wisdom” is at the Core of Synod on Synodality

Dr. Sylvia Ruambo. Credit: PACTPAN

At the core of the Synod on Synodality conversations in Africa is the African way of living that includes the wisdom and traditions elders on the continent dispense, an official at the Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network (PACTPAN) has said.

According to the Head of Research at PACTPAN’s unit on ‘The Church as the Family of God’, Dr. Sylvia Ruambo, preserving African traditions can help enrich the Synodal process.

“We are all aware of the significant role of elders in African families who are seen as custodians of wisdom and tradition,” Dr. Ruambo said during the June 14 online conversation that African theologians and experts, who seek to deepen the understanding of the Synthesis Report of the 4-29 October 2023 session of the Synod organized.

She added, “Respect of elders and preservation of tradition can enrich the Synodal process by ensuring that the wisdom of past generations is integrated into the Church mission and decision-making processes.” 

Participants at the June 14 virtual conversation that PACTPAN organized in collaboration with the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar (COMSAM) explored the topic, “The Synodal Missionary Face of the Church Family of God in Africa”.


They spoke of how the Church in Africa as a family of God is “coming of age”, and singled out African values that are enriching the synodal conversations.

In her presentation, Dr Ruambo noted that Africa’s value of communal solidarity, and the continent’s values of participation and inclusivity are at the core of the ongoing Synod on Synodality, with the second session scheduled for 2-29 October 2024 in Rome.. 

Also central to Synodal conversations is Africa’s family structure that defines the father as the head of the family and the mother as the heart of the family. She also spoke about the place of elders in passing down tradition from one generation to the other.

Dr. Ruambo emphasized the role of elders in the African family, saying, “Ever imagined how the tradition that was passed down by our elders used to guide us! How good customs were passed down from one generation to another! Imagine how we would be told, as young people, to give seats to our elders on the bus!”

She said that wisdom had been passed from one generation to another, keeping the African society glued together.

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The Tanzanian-born scholar reminded participants during the June 14 virtual conversation of the complementary roles played by fathers and mothers in the African family. She said that this complementariness can enrich the Synod on Synodality.

“Ever heard of the terminology ‘head and heart of the family’?” She posed at the event that took the form of palavers that were enriched by African proverbs.

“In African families, the father has always been the head while the mother is the heart. The Church as the family of God is still a wonderful image that should be fully explored,” Dr. Ruambo said.

She observed that African families consider a family as one that is headed by a father, and loved by the mother, and added, “Their roles are clearly distinct but complementary.”

The Catholic researcher went on to highlight the value of communal solidarity in the African family experience, noting that African traditional families prioritized the wellbeing of the community over individual interests. 


Food, she said, is what brought African families together the most. “We would put food in one plate and allow every family member to pick from the same plate.”

“Imagine those times when children would come together playing and those who were naked were given clothes, and the sick taken care of,” she said, and continued, “This communal approach can be a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on synodality, fostering a sense of unity and collective responsibility within the Church.”

The scholar who has done extensive advocacy for people living with disabilities, including children also explored the value of participation and inclusivity, noting that African families typically operate on principles of inclusivity and participation.

In African traditional families, she said, every member has a voice and a role to play. 

According to Dr Ruambo, the value of a synodal way of working with the Church where each person operates according to their vocation is seen in the new way of being church through Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in Africa.

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Other participants at the June 14 event agreed that sharing food, and the value of SCCs, which are popular in Africa keep the synodal dynamic alive.

Fr. Joseph Healey, an American Maryknoll Missionary Priest widely known for promoting SCCs noted that one of the expressions of the Church as a family of God in Africa is the SCCs. 

Explaining communion in the Church as a family of God in Africa, the founder of the Social Communications Department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) said, “We begin from the grassroots; we begin from below; we begin with the family as the domestic Church.”

“In the Small Christian Communities model of the Church, the small communities are a family. The parish is the communion of SCCs, then the Diocese is the communion of parishes. The National Episcopal conference is the communion of Dioceses,” he said, and added, “We have a wonderful rich expression in Africa. That is the SSC model of the Church.”

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.