, 22 February, 2020 / 3:59 AM
At a conference organized to deliberate on the challenges and opportunities of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II “Ecclesia in Africa” after 25 years of its publication, a Kenyan Bishop acknowledged the “revolutionary” nature of the document but noted the exhortation’s threefold limitations.
“25 years later after the issuance of the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Ecclesia in Africa’ by Pope John Paul II in 1995,” Bishop John Oballa said in his keynote address, “many church leaders, agents of evangelization and theologians can prudently say that its vision, message and mission was an ecclesial ‘revolution’ intended to bring deeper evangelization, holistic transformation and relevant renewal to the life of the people on African continent.”
The document is revolutionary because of the demands the Holy Father gave to the Church on the continent, Bishop Oballa noted.
“The Holy Father challenged the Church in Africa to study, articulate, implement and pray over her mandate in the FIVE main pastoral dimensions of,” the Kenyan Prelate said referencing Pope John Paul II’s invitation to pay keen attention to the proclamation of the Gospel, its inculturation on the continent, engagement in interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, justice and peace, as well as social communication.
Bishop Oballa described the five focus areas proposed for the Church in Africa as “five pastoral-roadmap agenda” that was meant to “be witnessed and lived through a dynamic and relevant informative, formative and transformative ‘Ecclesia in Africa’ catechesis, sustainable local ecclesial leadership and personnel, and to contribute these to the universal Church.”
Despite these strong orientations about the document that is characterized with “many enriching and inspiring teachings,” the Bishop of Kenya’s Ngong diocese expressed some misgivings about the impact of the document on the people of God on the continent.
“In spite of some notable progress of the Church in terms of Catholic population, vocation-increase, spread of the Gospel, diocesan infrastructural, health, social, educational progress, etc.,” Bishop Oballa told participants at the symposium, “there are evidence-based challenges of the seemingly, shallow levels of faith, nominal Christianity, inability to address the emerging contexts of numerous independent churches, civil wars, bad governance, widespread corruption, institutional injustice, lack of rule of law, devastating spread of HIV/AIDS, famine, diverse forms of immorality, illiteracy, abuse of drugs, neglect of the youth and unemployment.”
In his considered view, the various challenges of the 25-year-old document can be explained in what he termed a “threefold” gap, comprising lack of clarity of the document’s message, that the people of God in Africa have not participated in its implementation, and that its application in daily life seems limited.
The message of Ecclesia in Africa is neither “substantively ‘clear’ nor meaningfully ‘contextualized’,” Bishop Oballa who doubles as the Vice Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) observed, adding that the content in the document has not been “‘inculturated’ to many.”
He used previous research to demonstrate that in Africa, there is “still on-going degree of pastoral dichotomy between Faith and Life; between Christianity and Culture; between Catholicism and other religions, ‘Religious Dual-affiliation to righteous and unrighteous beliefs and practices refuse to die.”
According to the 61-year-old Prelate, the “lack of ‘peoples’ full on-going conversation and participation in its (Ecclesia in Africa) implementation process” constitutes a second limitation of the 25-year-old document.
He looked at the two-day Symposium, organized by Tangaza University College (TUC), the Kenya-based Catholic Institution of Higher learning jointly owned by some 22 Religious Orders and Societies of Apostolic Life, as an opportunity to engage selected people on the 25-year-old document.
“I believe the conference wants to theologically, pastorally and spiritually rejuvenate, renew, re-align and revive the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Ecclesia in Africa’,” the Kenyan Prelate noted and adding that the document “‘unfortunately’ has been described by some quarters in the Church as being ‘static’ or ‘inactive’ or ‘dying’ or ‘historic relic’”.
The third limitation of the document, Bishop Oballa told the Symposium, is the seeming “lack of authentic spirituality and witnessing of it in daily life.”
“The failure to implement and spiritualize the recommendations of Ecclesia in Africa is summarized into one word and that is Failure to: Witnessing! Witnessing! and Witnessing,” Bishop Oballa said.
Most of the teaching and spirituality in the document, Bishop Oballa said, “is not witnessed in daily life. In other words, the Apostolic Exhortation is NOT fully witnessed.”
He explained, “The greatest challenge raised by some Church leaders, socio-religious experts and theological researchers is ‘Lack of understanding, lack of commitment, lack of owning the Documents and not TRULY belonging to Christ.”
The failure on the part of the people of God in Africa to apply Ecclesia in Africa in their daily lives “made Pope Benedict XVI to convoke a Second Synod for Africa in 2009,” the Bishop recalled in reference to the October 2009 meeting convened under the theme, “The Church in Africa in service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace” that resulted in the Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus.
Despite the threefold gap in the document, Bishop Oballa argued, “The majority of us believe that ‘Ecclesia in Africa’ is alive and has to be kept alive with authentic witness in the third millennial Church in Africa. This is our belief, our hope and testimony.”
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa