March 13, 2009


Catholicism in Africa

Pope Benedict XVI will visit Africa next week. It is a part of the world where the Catholic Church is prospering and growing, in striking contrast with what is happening to the Church throughout Europe.

The pope is visiting two African countries during this pilgrimage, his first to that continent. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made 14 pilgrimages to most of Africa’s 53 countries over a period of 20 years during his long papacy. He understood the importance of encouraging the growth of the Church there.

So, of course, does Pope Benedict. During the trip to Cameroon, he will personally deliver the working document to those who are planning next October’s Synod of Bishops on Africa. It is highly unusual for a pope to present a document of this sort personally.

He will then visit Angola to help the Catholics of that country celebrate the beginning of evangelization there some 500 years ago.

It was the latter part of the 20th century, though, that witnessed the explosion in Africa’s Catholic population. It went from about 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, most of that growth occurring during the last quarter of the century. Today, it is about 160 million.

The number of priests and religious sisters continues to grow. According to the Fides Service at the Vatican, in 2007 there were 32,370 priests in Africa and 58,781 religious sisters. The current 24,000 African seminarians comprise 20 percent of those studying for the priesthood throughout the world.

It’s no wonder, then, that African dioceses are able to send priests here to the United States, including to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Today, 11 priests from Africa are serving in our archdiocese.

When we think about Africa, we seldom think of it as a Catholic continent, and, of course, it isn’t in North Africa. But it was in North Africa that Christianity first spread in that continent.

The evangelist St. Mark is credited with being the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the Roman Empire’s most important cities during the first century. Christianity spread west from Alexandria. Carthage, which was in present-day Tunisia, became one of the Church’s most important dioceses.

Some of our greatest early saints were from North Africa, including Athanasius, Augustine, Cyprian, Perpetua, Felicity, Monica and Anthony. There were even three African popes: Victor I (186-197), Miltiades I (311-314), and Gelasius I (492-496).

All that, of course, was before Muhammad founded Islam and before the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh century. Christianity continues to exist as a minority religion in Egypt, but it was wiped out throughout the rest of North Africa.

Islam dominates the countries in North Africa, and there are occasional tensions between Christianity and Islam, including in Nigeria.

As mentioned, the pope will help to celebrate the beginning of evangelization in Angola 500 years ago. That is when the Portuguese began to explore West Africa and religious orders began sending missionaries. It was the first time the Church tried to evangelize the southern part of the continent.

Such missionary work was slow, and dangerous, 500 years ago. It was better during the 19th century after European countries divided Africa into colonies. The White Fathers and the Holy Ghost Fathers, in particular, became well known for their African missions.

However, the 19th century was still dangerous for Catholics. In Uganda, Charles Lwanga and 21 of his companions were martyred during the years 1885-87, some by the sword and others by burning. Pope Paul VI canonized them in 1964. He then became the first pope to visit Africa in 1969. By then, one-third of the population was Catholic.

Many parts of Africa have serious problems—Darfur in Sudan, the Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Liberia and other countries. But many good things are also happening there, not least the spread of Catholicism.

Unfortunately, Catholicism itself can’t solve all the problems. That was too clearly demonstrated back in 1994 in Rwanda where Catholic Hutus and Catholic Tutsis butchered each other, sometimes inside churches. Between 800,000 and 1 million people were massacred. It was African Catholicism’s worst moment.

Let us pray for the Church there as Pope Benedict makes his pilgrimage.

—John F. Fink

Local site Links: