Pope Francis’ six-day mission to the people of the African countries of Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique bears witness to the fact the Church looks to Africa as a beacon of hope for the Catholic faith in the 21st century.
Pope Francis is in the midst of his six-day visit to the trio of southern African countries under the three official themes of “Hope, Peace and Reconciliation” in Mozambique, “Sower of Peace and Hope” in Madagascar, and “Pope Francis, Pilgrim of Peace” in Mauritius. Within that thematic umbrella, the Pope has set as priorities safeguarding creation, promoting peace and reconciliation, combating corruption and helping the poor and the sick.
If the agenda itself — with some shifts in priority and emphasis — seems familiar, it should. It echoes closely the concerns of all the modern popes as they have visited or written about the African continent.
Africa certainly faces a host of problems, from endemic poverty and disease, to political corruption and civil wars to economic instability, to the imposition of ideological colonialism, to the crises of globalization and exploitation of human and natural resources and the bloody march of Islamists such as ISIS and Boko Haram.
Given those challenges it is easy to think of Africa as a place where hope does not exist. Yet, in fact, the continent is filled with the promise of a vibrant, young and dedicated Catholic Church that continues to grow exponentially — even as African Catholics are already helping to re-evangelize the West in the face of secularism, the culture of death and an amnesia regarding the primacy of God and the centrality of the family.
Indisputably, Christianity and especially Catholicism is on the rise in Africa. At the start of the 20th century, there were barely 2 million Catholics on the continent, and most were Europeans who belonged to colonial powers that controlled almost all of Africa. Today, there are more than 230 million Catholics, almost all of them native Africans.
According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, since 1980, the Catholic population has risen by 238%, the largest growth anywhere in the world.
All of the recent popes have been deeply concerned with Africa. Pope Pius XII promoted native clergy, Pope St. John XXIII in 1960 named Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa the first native African cardinal, and Pope St. Paul VI became the first modern pope to visit Africa when he traveled to Uganda in 1969.
Pope St. John Paul II made a dozen trips to Africa, and Benedict XVI went there twice. These two popes also convoked special synods of bishops to discuss the challenges and the immense promise of Africa, and they both issued memorable reflections on the work of the synods via the apostolic exhortations Ecclesia in Africa in 1995 and Africae Munus in 2010, respectively.
For his part, Pope Francis is making his fourth visit to Africa and his second to sub-Saharan Africa.
These recent popes have offered a testament to the growing role of Africa in showing a global civilization and a global Church the importance of African values.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia in Africa, “Africans have a profound religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the Creator and of a spiritual world. The reality of sin in its individual and social forms is very much present in the consciousness of these peoples, as is also the need for rites of purification and expiation.”
Equally, John Paul celebrated the pro-life reality there: “The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this life. They reject the idea that it can be destroyed, even when the so-called ‘progressive civilizations’ would like to lead them in this direction. And practices hostile to life are imposed on them by means of economic systems which serve the selfishness of the rich.”
Indeed, Africa is under threat from Western countries that tie aid and development to liberalizing abortion laws, promoting same-sex relationships and rejecting marriage between one man and one woman in favor of same-sex unions. But the bishops of Africa have stood firm in the face of calls both inside and outside of the Church to abandon our teachings on the family, gender and the sacraments.
This is the evil of ideological colonialism that Pope Francis has warned against in his own writings and teachings. In November 2017, in a homily at his daily Mass in the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican, he called such imposition of other values a “blasphemy against the Creator God” because it wants to change God’s creation. He added that, in confronting it, there is only one medicine: “the witness, that is, martyrdom.”
When he visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015, Francis spoke to young Ugandans about the witness of the Ugandan Martyrs who were role models for “going against the grain in a society which puts increasing pressure on us to embrace models of gratification and consumption alien to the deepest values of African culture.”
Catholics everywhere can learn from the courageous stand of African leaders and the faithful against the tide of secularism and materialism that has unleashed a demographic and spiritual winter upon the West.
And where the West is dying, the population of Africa is incredibly young. The average age is 18, and 40% of Africans are 14 years old or younger. As the importance of family and children remain so crucial to African culture, the Church is only going to continue growing — one-fourth of all of the world’s baptisms are celebrated in Africa.
That vibrant and young Catholic population also has meant a bountiful harvest of priests and religious. In 1960, there were barely 2,000 seminarians. Today, they number more than 30,000 of the world’s 116,000 seminarians. There are more than 45,000 priests in Africa, more than 10% of the world’s priests.
This has allowed African dioceses to send their priests, men and women religious and faithful laypeople to be part of the “mission in reverse,” as they help re-evangelize Europe and North America.
In his visit to Uganda in 2015, the Holy Father very appropriately highlighted the continent’s potential.
“My visit,” he said to leaders in Uganda, “is also meant to draw attention to Africa as a whole, its promise, its hopes, its struggles and its achievements. The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope.”
Pray for Pope Francis in Africa. And pray for Africa and for the Church of optimism that is blossoming there.