Catholic Students in Africa Pour Their Hearts Out to Bishops in Synodal Conversations

Official logo of the Synod on Synodality. Credit: Vatican Media

Catholic students from various universities across Africa have shared their Church experiences and concerns in a meeting they held with Bishops on the continent, expressing their desire “to be heard” and to be supported in the challenges they face.

The Thursday, October 20 engagement between the African university students and Catholic Bishops is part of the ongoing Synod on Synodality conversations. 

The meeting was also part of the ongoing preparations for the November 1 dialogue between Pope Francis and the youth from African countries on the Synod that has been extended to October 2024

The aim of the planned Papal dialogue with African university students is to stir the participation of the youth in the Synodal conversations, and to inspire them to be engaged fully in the “life of the Church and society”.

Three Bishops from Nigeria participated in the virtual session that was followed by over 100 representatives of university students from various African countries. They were Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto, Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah from the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, and Bishop John Akinkunmi Oyejola of the Catholic Diocese of Osogbo.


The virtual event brought together representatives of student cohorts from seven African countries who are participating in the first six months of the initiative. These are Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Zambia. Bishops from these countries are also accompanying the university students in Synodal conversations ahead of the November 1 Papal encounter.

In their engagement with the Catholic Bishops, the university students shared their deep frustrations over the widespread terrorism in many African countries, poverty and lack of unemployment, as well as their feelings of disillusionment with the way they feel they are left out in Church administration.

Augustine Osemeke, a communications student at Augustine University in Nigeria decried the rampant terrorism in the West African country, which he said had transitioned into banditry that was characterized by kidnappings and killings. 

He further criticized the country’s government, noting that leaders were after enriching themselves through misappropriation of public funds and destruction of electoral processes, a situation he said had left many youths in Africa’s most populous nation disillusioned.

Yet the biggest frustration of the youths, Mr. Osemeke noted, was that the Church was doing very little to encourage young people to work towards a better future for the country.

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“There is increased poverty, unemployment and terrorism that has transitioned into banditry and people, including Clergy and the Religious are being kidnapped for ransom. While some have managed to escape with their lives, there are those who have been killed in captivity,” he said. 

Mr. Osemeke added, “Our leaders do not care. All they are concerned about is enriching themselves. Everywhere, we see the young people’s apathy and refusal to participate in elections and other matters of the nation. The biggest frustration is that the Church is not doing much to raise the spirits of the youth towards changing this situation.”

The Nigerian student lamented that now more than ever, African youth had been left to their own devices to struggle with their identity issues.

“We do not know who we are; we do not know what the society thinks of us, who the Church thinks we are. There is an emerging LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community of people struggling with identity issues. The Church can use social media platforms to engage with the youth in a way to help them through this identity crisis,” Mr. Osemeke said.

From Kenyan-based Tangaza University College, Timona Michael, a student at the Institute of Social Communication (ISC) decried the erosion of the spirit of Ubuntu and the equivalent “Harambee” tradition that has seen Kenyans “pull together” their resources in community self-help activities. 


This virtue, he said, had been replaced by a growing culture of individualism that he said was robbing many youth opportunities to grow, especially after school. The result, Mr. Timona said, was poverty, unemployment and alarming rates of migration from rural to urban areas and from home countries in search of opportunities abroad.

The Kenyan student further appealed to Catholic Bishops to devise structures that would see young people represented in Church administrations, especially at Parish level.

“We, the university students, appreciate what the Church is doing to make the youth included, especially in the organization of spiritual seminars, retreats and the support given to our youth groups. But we also want to be included in the administration of the Church. We want youth represented in Parish councils. This is not happening in many Parishes,” Mr. Timona said.

On her part, Twiza Nachilongo, a student at the University of Zambia underscored what she described as an urgent need for the Church to provide career mentorship opportunities for the youth, noting that the Catholic Church was leaning more towards the spiritual growth of the youth while turning a blind eye on their “other real experiences”.

“The Scriptures say that Jesus grew in favor with God and man. We, the Catholic young people, need this kind of all-rounded growth. At the moment, we don’t have structures for mentorship and accompaniment with the youth belonging to the Church. We appeal to our Bishops to put structures in place that will see youth benefit from older and more qualified members of the Church through mentorship programs,” Ms. Nachilongo said.

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Other issues that emerged from the students’ engagement with the Catholic Bishops were the role of the youth in tackling climate crisis that they said had plunged African countries into deep poverty, as well as their role in taming abuse in Catholic learning institutions where they said cases of rape and sexual relationships for material favors were on the rise.

The university students further decried the eroding family values and the brokenness of their families and called upon the Bishops to devise structures to strengthen the families as the basic unit of the Church and society.

In their responses, the Catholic Bishops urged the young university students to be more active in already existing platforms in the Church community to help the Church to flourish. 

It was observed that the youth are the “least active members of the Church” in some Dioceses in Nigeria, and that the younger members of the Church were also interested in activities that assured them of instant material prosperity rather than seeking spiritual growth.

“In Nigeria, for example, all Dioceses have programs for the youth. Whenever there is an activity, however, these youths will not come. They would rather go and spend time at an event where they are assured to get money, and not at places where they will have better growth,” Bishop Oyejola said.

“You don’t want to listen to us, your elders,” the Local Ordinary of Nigeria’s Osogbo Diocese admonished, and added, “You do only what pleases you. You have heard it said that what an elders see while seated, a younger person will not see even if he stands. You need to learn from past mistakes made by others, appreciate the present as you prepare for the future.”

He continued, “The mistake that you make is wanting to jump into the future without having reconciled the past and the present. The Church is ready to help the young ones. Lead by example so that we don’t have other young people joining these terrorist organizations.”

Bishop Oyejola further noted that the Church had structures in place to form the youth for various vocations, including the calling to family life “to heal society’s broken families”.

On his part, Bishop Kukah assured the Catholic university students of the support of the Church, saying, “The fact that we are having this conversation shows how seriously the Church takes the youth… This should not be a time for lamentation, but a time for revelation.”

He urged the youth to always take a leadership role in the activities they are assigned in Church and to guard against associating leadership with “positions of power”.

“Many seem to see the structure of the Church from the point of view of power; that everyone must be on the table making policies. But leadership in the Church can be exercised at different levels, be it in the choir, in community activities, in youth groups and so on. It should not be a matter of how many of us are on the Parish council, but about how well we do the little things we are assigned to do.”

Concerning the mentorship of Catholic youth, the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese admitted that the Catholic Church still had a long way to go.

“As the Catholic Church, we have always had very little visibility in the public space and we need to work a lot on that, be it in politics, in the civil space, in technical fields, in the legal space and so on. We have very qualified Catholics in these spaces and what now remains is for us to bridge the gap between them and our youth in mentorship programs,” Bishop Kukah said.

On sexual harassment in Catholic institutions of higher learning, Bishop Onah expressed regret that such abuse was allowed to take place under the watch of university governing councils.

The Local Ordinary of Nigeria’s Nsukka Diocese challenged the Catholic university students to “be ready to suffer” for the sake of their counterparts who were selling their bodies to university professors in exchange for good marks in their courses.

“Speak up,” Bishop Onah challenged the youth at the meeting after it emerged that students in DRC were “selling their bodies for marks”.

He added, “You should be ready to suffer for the sake of others in future. Most universities have governing Councils. Take up space on these Councils and speak up!”

“Young people must not be told to give their bodies in exchange for marks. This annoys me. It must not be tolerated. It has to be exposed. You must use your social media platforms and any other tools you can lay your hands on to speak against this despicable act. I hope that the Bishops in DRC have heard of this,” the Nigerian Bishop said during the October 20 virtual session.

Bishop Onah went on to urge the university students participating in the Synod on Synodality conversations to “feel as part of the Church” and not to appear as a separate entity.

He said, “It is time you (began) to see yourself as part of this Church. In these conversations, you should not speak as if you are outsiders. The Bishops are not the Church. All of us are the Church and we can solve our challenges together.”

The Bishops’ dialogue with African university students was the fifth stage of the ongoing preparations for the November 1 Papal encounter with the university students.

The first stage was the formation of the national steering committees to organize the university youth cohorts, mentor the youth, moderate the cohort-based conversations, and the national conversations while providing the cohorts the resources they need for effective Synodal experience. 

In the second stage, cohorts of 15-30 students in Catholic universities in each country of Africa were formed. University students who were selected for the initiative were those who had demonstrable leadership qualities and who had demonstrated a commitment to their faith in “some recognizable ways,” those behind the initiative told ACI Africa.

In the third stage, about five Bishops were selected in each country to serve as Episcopal conversation partners for the national digital youth Synodal conversations. 

Next was the organization of national digital youth Synodal listening sessions between all the cohort members from the respective universities and the Episcopal conversation partners, and the national steering committees.

After the digital engagement with Bishops, stage six will be the listening session between Pope Francis and representatives of the cohorts from the seven countries, the steering committees from the seven countries and selected African Bishops. 

Also participating in this listening session will be Vatican coordinating team members, and Coordinating consultant, Prof. Peter Jones of Loyola University Chicago and his team from North America and Latin America.

In the final stage, participants in the dialogue will be called upon to take back the fruits of this listening exercise to their respective universities for implementation as the fruits of the deliberation.

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.