It has the highest number of converts to the Catholic faith. And it also has the highest number of martyrs. As at the dawn of Christianity. The past and present of a continent that has ever more influence in the Church worldwide
by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 11, 2015 – It is the continent with the highest number of converts and martyrs. And yet it is also the most overlooked and undervalued, on the part of a Western Christianity grown old.
Or at least it was so until a short time ago. Because since the sword of Islam has become more ferocious and is not only reaping its victims in Africa, above and below the Sahara, but is extending the menace to the northern shore of the Mediterranean, attention to African Catholicism has become everywhere more acute and anguished.
Not only that. Africa is also the big surprise in the global balance of the Catholic hierarchy. The synod of last October was glaring proof of this. After starting out with a bent that was strongly Eurocentric, and Germanic in the first place, the path was found to be blocked by unexpected resistance from the African bishops to any sort of change of doctrine and practice in the matter of indissoluble marriage and homosexuality.
And this resistance is expected to be even more entrenched at the next round of the synod, to judge by what has been foreshadowed by one of their most authoritative cardinals, the Guinean Robert Sarah, prefect of the congregation for divine worship, in the book-length interview “Dieu ou rien,” edited by Nicolas Diat and published in France by Fayard:
“The idea of putting the magisterium into a pretty box, separating it from pastoral practice - which can evolve according to circumstances, fashions, and impulses - is a form of heresy, of pathological schizophrenia. I solemnly affirm that the Church of Africa will oppose any form of rebellion against the magisterium of Christ and of the Church."
“How is it to be accepted that Catholic pastors should take a vote on doctrine, the law of God and the teaching of the Church on homosexuality, on the divorced and remarried, as if the word of God and the magisterium had to be ratified, approved with the vote of a majority? […] No one, not even the pope, can destroy or change the teaching of Christ. No one, not even the pope, can set up pastoral practice against doctrine. This would mean rebelling against Jesus Christ and his teaching."
African Catholicism is considered young - and therefore unripe, immature - because it has grown up only over the past century, from the million Catholics at the beginning of the twentieth century to the almost two hundred million today.
And yet the blood of the martyrs is enough to disprove this presumption of immaturity, not least the twenty-one Coptic Christians decapitated “in odium fidei” by Muslims on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean:
Saint Milad Saber and His Twenty Companions
The following article - published in “Il Foglio” of March 7 - helps in understanding the African Catholicism of today by situating it in its real historical background.
A YOUNG CHURCH AND VERY ANCIENT
by Matteo Matzuzzi
It would do so much good “for the Christians of Europe to realize that a substantial part of their Latin Christian roots is found in the south of the Mediterranean," as then-bishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, prophetically announced at the beginning of the third millennium. In part because, as French historian Claude Lepelley, who passed away a month ago, wrote, “Western Christianity was not born in Europe, but in the south of the Mediterranean.”
This seems strange to those who think that it all began with Saint Benedict and his rule; and that before Montecassino and Cluny there were only the Christians who were fed to the lions in the arenas of the pagan Romans, after getting caught praying to the God made man.
And yet, this is history. After all, the most ancient works of Christian theology composed in Latin come from Carthage, not from Italy.
At the time of Tertullian, in fact, the Christians of the northern coast of Africa wrote in Greek, and not in Latin. He would be the one to abandon the "koiné” of Aristotle for the language of Virgil, so as to reach a wider public as is done today with the paperback books at discount prices that are constantly churned out into the market. A monumental and complex work, so much so that Tertullian was already stuck when he came to Genesis, uncertain about the translation of “logos”: he was not convinced that “sermo” was a sufficiently exhaustive term. And the most ancient Latin versions of the Bible also crossed the sea from Africa, well before Jerome translated it into the form that was handed down over the centuries and came down essentially unchanged almost to Vatican II.
The Benedictine Pierre-Maurice Bogaert, professor of biblical studies at Louvain, was certain of it: “When the need to began to be felt, certainly from the middle of the second century in Roman Africa the Bible was translated from Greek to Latin. Until there is evidence to the contrary, I am for the African origin of the translations, rather than Roman or Italian.”
And then Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo thanks to whom, as Bishop Teissier again says, “the Latin West gained its theological independence and with this also its distinctive Christian personality." Some, he added, "might disapprove of this evolution, and prefer the interpretation of Christianity proposed by the Greek fathers. But all must recognize that the Latin West owes above all to Augustine its interpretation of the biblical message."
And in the final analysis monasticism also finds its first sedimentation in Africa. It is again Augustine who is seen as organizing the first places of monastic life, in Tagaste, after discovering in Athanasius’s biography of the abbot Saint Anthony the way of life of various anchorites who had converted to the ascetic life.
The ideal setting is the Egyptian desert,”the region populated by those who first put into action the definitive rejection of worldly life,” as the archeologist Francesca Severini has written: “Here more than anywhere else the pilgrim could enter into contact with that authentic faith which had called Paul of Thebes, Anthony the Great, Pachomius, and many others to withdraw in solitude into the desert, genuine models of ascetic life aiming at the transcendence of the earthly dimension through the study of the Sacred Scriptures, prayer, fasting, and penance."
Many of these installations are still standing, including the monastery of Saint Catherine, built in the 6th century by Justinian in southern Sinai, which a retired Egyptian general would like to raze to the ground because “it threatens national security” on account of the presence of “twenty-five Orthodox monks” within its walls.
That way of life, initially the only hope for saving oneself from the anti-Christian persecutions, later became a model. “Over the course of the fourth century, leading personalities of the Christian East went to the West and spread the models of Egyptian monasticism though the spoken and written word, encouraging their imitation,” Severini adds. “It is therefore no wonder that the models imprinted upon rigorous Eastern asceticism were received and assimilated to such an extent as to modify and forge the monastic aspirations in the West.”
A lively and fecund Christianity, that of the origins. At the time of the Council of Carthage, around the year 200, there were seventy bishops in Roman Africa. In Italy, three. At the second Council of Carthage, there were ninety African bishops, while in Rome, at the synod convened by Pope Cornelius, only sixty of them were present. Before this, in 189, the significance of African Christianity had been clarified by the election as pontiff of Victor, who was probably a Berber.
The features taken on by the serpent that would destroy this sort of Eden, of lively and fecund Christianity, are easily explainable, the most prominent historians say: dogmatic disputes, battles with scarcely Christian connotations, over which the new Muslim juggernaut would easily impose itself. At the end of the 7th century, the Umayyad would carry out the great conquest of all of northern Africa: Islam triumphant over the Christianity of the northern African Churches, divided by suspicions, internecine squabbles, and reciprocal accusations of heresy. The aftermath is then a story of constant struggles for survival, of pariahs, of dhimmi tolerated within the grand ummah revealed by the prophet Muhammad.
A situation almost on tenterhooks: “Our Churches are modest and fragile; the departure of some religious communities long present in the Maghreb and the ever more rapid mobility of parish members oblige us to rely more and more on the solidarity of the other Churches, above all in terms of priests ‘fidei donum’ or of congregations, in particular African,” the bishops of the episcopal conference of the northern African region wrote in 2012. The fact is, as Teissier noted, “we don't have the numbers. We are a sign. A sign of God’s universal love for all men.”
And as a sign and vital presence, they must remain there. This is perfectly clear to the bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli, who came there just after the revolution that brought Muammar Gaddafi into power, doesn't even want to hear about fleeing from the inferno of the Libyan capital, even if he is now the last Italian remaining: "I'm staying, I have to stay. One must have courage. Right now I'm not afraid, but I know that the moment will come."
Perhaps the bishop who has remained in the Libyan capital with three hundred Filipino laborers remembers what happened in 1908 to the Franciscan priest Giustino Pacini, the superior of the mission of Derna. He was stabbed to death after a long conflict with the local Muslim community over his missionary activity. If necessary, taking his defense all the way to the sultan of Istanbul.
The Nigerian cardinal Anthony Okogie, the seventy-eight-year-old archbishop emeritus of Lagos, had spoken words similar to those of Bishop Martinelli shortly after the first massacres of Boko Haram: “We will not run away. We will defend our churches and our homes. If necessary we will sacrifice our lives, we will do it.”
A sad refrain that has been sung from one end of the continent to the other, for decades. Algeria, with its long civil war, represents the most striking example of this: in that conflict it lost ten percent of the religious who had remained there. In 1996 the archbishop of Oran, Pierre-Lucien Claverie, died when a bomb was set off at the chancery a few months after the slaughter of the seven Trappist monks of Tibhirine: abducted, they ended up under the headsman’s axe.
“We must live this as something very beautiful, very great. We must be worthy of it. And the Mass that we will celebrate for them will not be in black. It will be in red," said Frère Jean-Pierre, one of the two survivors of that massacre, when a confrere came in tears to tell him that their companions were all dead. “We immediately saw them as martyrs. The martyrdom was the fulfillment of all that we had long prepared in our lives. We were ready, all of us," he said a few years ago in an interview given to Jean-Marie Guénois for "Le Figaro".
It is the continent’s cross, which it has carried since the first centuries after the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence, the local bishops recall, that the most ancient texts on Christian martyrs, the "Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum,” are African. These are a Latin transcription of the trial and sentencing of members belonging to a Christian community in a town known for nothing else, which took place in the year 180. They are the most ancient documents of this kind in of the history of Christian literature.
It was Bishop Claverie himself, almost presenting the tragic fulfillment of his earthly existence, who explained the meaning of the little Christian flame in hostile lands: “The Church fulfills its location and its mission when it is present in the divisions that crucify humanity in its flesh and in its unity. Jesus died divided between heaven and earth, with his arms extended to reunite the children of God dispersed by the sin that separates them, isolates them, and pits them against one another and against God himself.”
A minority Church and persecuted, but alive. Not even a year ago, the Annuario Pontificio certified the exponential growth of the Catholic presence on the continent of hope. Two hundred million faithful, a rhythm inversely proportional to the slow and unstoppable decline of Christian Europe, but also higher than the eternal Asian challenge, the mission of Pope Francis and the Holy See’s old raw nerve.
A young Church, that of Africa, as the archbishop of Rabat and president of the northern African episcopal conferences said on March 2 during his “ad limina” visit to Rome: “Yes, we are mostly foreigners, often on the move, but our churches are very young. In Morocco [our] population numbers thirty thousand persons, but the average age of the faithful is thirty-five.”
Already halfway through the last decade, the vivacity of the African church had hit the Vatican like a tornado. Ten years ago, it was noted how in twenty-six years the number of faithful had tripled, the number of priests had risen by 85 percent, the number of seminarians had quadrupled, the number of bishops had increased by 45 percent. So much so that there was talk of exporting clergy to a Europe that is ever more secularized and with vocations at the breaking point, almost a work of re-evangelization of the continent.
It was no accident that a great cardinal like the former dean of the college of cardinals, Bernardin Gantin, the first African called to high-level positions in the curia (it would be Paul VI who would entrust him with the secretariat of the evangelization of peoples, before promoting him to the presidency of Justice and Peace and of “Cor Unum.” John Paul II afterward appointed him as prefect of the congregation for bishops), spoke of “priests and religious as ‘fidei donum’ in the other direction! It’s the confirmation of the goodness of the Church in Africa! The mission is a universal duty,” he said in an interview with the magazine “30 Days” two years before his death, which took place in 2008. He who - as Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze revealed some time age - when in 2002 he decided to leave the Urbe bound for his native Benin, said that he was going back “as a Roman missionary.”
Gantin, a prophet who had experienced himself the dramas of colonialism and of the delicate task of decolonization, suggested that the young people and priests from African seminaries should not distance themselves too much from their motherland: “Then, if their bishop consents, they can return again to the West. What must be avoided is that African priests, without the consent of their own bishops, roam the dioceses of the Western world more in search of their own material comfort than out of genuine pastoral zeal.” Moreover, he cautioned that “the European religious congregations on their last legs or threatened with extinction should not go seeking cheap reinvigoration among the young Churches in Asia or Africa.”
Of course, there is the problem of the liturgies, often overrun by the festive and joyful spirit of so many sub-Saharan dynamics. But the first to raise the barricades are they themselves, the African bishops, who unlike many priests in Western parishes - accustomed to handling the liturgies like entertainers in a summer tourism spot - care about the worship of the mystery. Gantin said: “One must never move away from the Magisterium of the Universal Church. And our masses must not be too particular. They must not be understood only by us Africans. Any Catholic who participates in a religious function of ours must be able to recognize it, must be able to feel at home. Catholicism is not Protestantism.”
Next to the young and dynamic Church, in Africa there is also the very ancient one that sets its roots down in the period immediately after Christ. There are the millions of Egyptian Copts who for centuries have lived as a more or less tolerated minority in the most populous Arab country in the world, custodians of the church founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist, who laid the foundation for his preaching in Alexandria before he was martyred with a rope wrapped around his neck.
Hundreds of kilometers to the south, in the Ethiopia spared from the Islamic invasion, ancient monasteries still nestle here and there among the plains. “My Church is the most ancient in the world, and its foundation dates back directly to the time of Jesus, around the year 35, immediately after his death and resurrection,” Abuna Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who passed away three years ago, said to the magazine “Jesus.” A Church ancient but alive: “We have more than fifty thousand churches all over the country. Our young people come to Mass regularly, with attendance at around seventy percent. All in all, considering the constancy with which the adult and elderly segments go to worship, we get up to eighty percent of the people at Mass each Sunday.”
As for Egypt, so also in Ethiopia a fundamental presence is that of monasteries and hermitages that have stood the test of time: “More and more young men are asking to become monks. We have one thousand two hundred monasteries in the whole country, and about five hundred thousand religious. We have forty-five million faithful, if the many Ethiopian Christians living abroad are counted.”
Last month, Pope Francis wanted to recognize the value of the local Catholic Church which, although small and in the minority, represents one of those “signs” of which Bishop Teissier spoke. The archbishop of Addis Abeba, Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, was made a cardinal. The second in the history of Ethiopia, after Paulos Tzadua. And it was the new cardinal himself who explained his country’s profound faith to Vatican Radio: “The people take the faith seriously: faith is a gift from God. And that is how they live it. They face things seeing that if God wills, things can change. They do not lose hope. This is why they love life, from conception to death. And this is important.”
Africa is the continent of hope, the reservoir of faith for the future that will see Europe increasingly grow arid and its churches remain ever more empty. “Africa is often described in a belittling and humiliating way as the continent of infinite and insoluble wars and problems. On the contrary, the Africa which today accepts the Good News is the continent of hope for the Church. For us, for you, Africa is the continent of the future,” Benedict XVI said in a speech to members of the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel, received in audience in February of 2012.
It is no accident that the African bishops feel themselves to be the bulwark against all that which could debase or blur the Christian message as handed down over the centuries. This was on display at the recent extraordinary synod on the family, where they were in the front of the ranks pitted against the “Zeitgeist,” the spirit of the times that is all the rage thousands of kilometers to the north, where the churches have brimful coffers and empty naves.
“Africa proposes to the West its values on the family, hospitality, respect for life. The recent popes have had great trust in the church of Africa, and this is an invitation to do our part,” Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline of the sacraments, recently wrote in the book “Dieu ou Rien” published in France by Fayard. “I solemnly affirm,” the cardinal continues, “that the church of Africa will firmly oppose any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and of the magisterium.”
A Church plagued with persecutions but in no way brought to its knees, as Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, recalled just a few weeks ago in the cathedral of Milan. He, who every day counts those dead at the hands of Boko Haram, gave a message of trust to that West which spends its days taking down Nativity scenes and silencing church bells because they disturb consciences and violate the hallowed rational secularism: “I have been in the basilica of Saint Ambrose, on the tomb of the great bishop who baptized the African Augustine: sign of a heritage that dates back to the first followers of Jesus. It is not possible that a Church with this foundation should not live.”
The newspaper from which the article by Matteo Matzuzzi was taken:
> Il Foglio
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.