SELF-RELIANCE OF CHURCHES

by

Rev. George Ehusani

 

 

PREAMBLE

 

I am asked to address this Synod on “Self‑Reliance in the African Church.” I want to quickly point out that in theological circles, self‑reliance is usually approached in terms of self‑ministration, self‑propagation, and self-support. These three dimensions are so closely inter‑related that they should be treated together rather than in isolation one from the others.

 

 

PHENOMENAL GROWTH OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH

 

I shall begin by asserting that in spite of all odds modern Catholicism in Africa has after barely one hundred years in may parts of the continent, made tremendous progress towards eventual maturity, as expressed in the steady growth of Catholic population, the rise in vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and the amount of resources now generated locally for evangelisation and maintenance of ecclesiastical structures.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of missionaries, the number of converts to Catholicism has multiplied phenomenally, from only 3 million people in 1927 to as much as 90 million people in 1994. The growth in the number of personnel available for Church work is even more remarkable. We now have 384 Catholic bishops of African origin, 11,903 priests, 17,169 Reverend Sisters, 6,073 Reverend Brothers, and 246,114 Catechists. There are nearly 12,000 African Seminarians preparing to serve the church in various dioceses and religious institutes. (See Report of Archbishop Schotte in L’Osservatore Romano, April 8, 1994, p.7). New Seminaries are springing up as the structures and facilities of older ones are becoming overstretched. Indications are that the total number of converts and vocations to the priesthood and religious life will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

 

 

POOR FINANCIAL STANDING

 

In terms of financial resources however, the local contribution of the African Church does not seem to have kept pace with the growth in population and structures. To this day, the African Church still looks up to Propaganda Fide and to many agencies of the Western Church for heavy financial inputs towards the building of churches, seminaries, convents, youth centres, and schools, and towards the ongoing formation of priests, sisters, catechists, and other agents of evangelisation. But with the rapid growth of the church in Africa and the other parts of the developing world, there is an accompanying escalation in the demands of these churches from the funding agencies, whose resources are now overstretched. There is therefore the demand from various angles for the Church of Africa to look inwards and demonstrate its growth and maturity in Catholicism by sourcing the funds needed for its projects from within the continent.

There is no doubt a lot of wisdom in this call; for a church which lacks the resources to build its houses of worship, a church which lacks the funds to train its ministers, finance its programmes, or maintain its structures, is not solidly founded, and has a precarious future ahead of it. Until we are able to build our churches, train our priests and run our evangelisation and development programmes with funds sourced largely from within, we do not yet have a mature African Church.

Yet the issue of the financial dependence of the African Church cannot be considered in isolation from the overall question of the political instability in the continent, the crushing debt burden, and the global economic superstructure which puts Africa in a permanent state of disadvantage. The African Church is a component part of the contemporary African experience. It shares the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of Africa. The Church of Africa is made up largely of the same poor, hungry, starving, oppressed and deprived people, whose broken frames and battered bodies are often featured on Western television screens. It would have been utterly scandalous if a financially buoyant church existed in such an economically depressed and dependent continent as Africa.

 

 

A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE GLOBAL ECONOMIC SYSTEM

 

This is not meant to encourage an attitude of ineptitude and complacency on the part of the leaders of the African Church. It is rather to encourage this audience and all those concerned about the lingering dependence syndrome in the African Church to use the opportunity of this Synod to take a critical look at the injustice in the global economic system which has made African nations unequal partners in international relations. This Synod will do well to reflect seriously on the economic system which has laid a crushing debt burden on African nations, making them objects of all forms of aid.

Africans generally know that it is more gracious to give than to receive. So we would have liked to be the givers, and not receivers of material aid. But our peculiar situation has compelled African bishops, priests, and religious superiors to travel back and forth between Europe and African (with cap in hand) in search of financial support for their programmes and projects.

It should be noted however that the Catholic Church shares this experience of dependence on foreign aid with other Missionary Churches, as well as other religious groups in Africa. And as the scramble for the soul of the impoverished African gets more intense among competing Christian missions, and between Christians and Muslims, financial aid has become An even more crucial factor to the success of each group. We are aware of the billions of dollars committed to the spread of Islam in Africa by the rich Arab states of Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The truth of the matter is that in spite of the enormous wealth unjustly accumulated by corrupt leaders of various African countries, in spite of the huge resources that are senselessly destroyed or wasted daily in ethnic strife and civil war, the percentage of global wealth that accrues to Africa is scandalously low, when we look at the standard of living of the average African compared to his or her counterpart in modem Europe or America. And yet the world is fast becoming a global village, rendering it impossible for people in one section to be oblivious of what happens in the other.

The Synod on Africa should address this grave imbalance in the economic fortunes, prospects and opportunities between the peoples that inhabit the northern and southern hemisphere. The Synod should address the chronic state of disadvantage of Africans in global economics, as part of its commitment to a mature Christian Church in Africa, for as the 1971 Synod of Bishops asserted, action on behalf of justice is “a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel...” (De Justitia in Mundo, 6).

 

 

THE NEED TO RE‑EXAM1NE OUR STRUCTURES

 

Yet we know that a church that depends excessively on foreign aid is in a precarious state. And this ca us to the delicate issue of alien forms and structures that seem to perpetuate the dependence syndrome in the African Church. The missionaries did a good work of evangelising the African continent. They set up structures patterned along the Western European model which they were used to. The emerging leaders of the African Church have, accepted this model, which involves a network of impressive but expensive structures that we can maintain only through foreign aid. The form, organisation, and structure of seminaries, convents, parishes, and the paraphernalia of diocesan chanceries, are essentially European and often superfluous. They not only make an elite group out of our clergy and religious, often alienating them from the concrete socio‑economic conditions of their people, but they also  need continued financial input from foreign agencies.

This is not a healthy situation for the Church. If the African Church is going to stand on its feet, and support itself to a reasonable degree, this Synod shall need to re‑assess the forms and structures along which we are presently operating. Considering the socio‑economic exigencies of contemporary Africa, do we really need to maintain the Western model for the formation of priests and religious, whose structures often require heavy financial inputs? Has the time not come for us to design alternative models for seminaries, convents, parishes and diocesan administration that are more in agreement with our particular context? Can the institutions of the African Church not be structured differently and yet remain faithful to the Catholic faith?

I believe that African Christians will support their church to the extent that the forms and structures of the church are inculturated and contextualized. I believe that the Catholic faithful in Africa will tax themselves and demonstrate their generosity in commitment towards the church, to the extent that the organisational and administrative forms and structures of the church adequately reflect their socio‑cultural circumstances. But as long as we continue to maintain alien forms and structures, so long shall we put up with this vexatious dependence syndrome.

 

 

“MUTUAL SUPPORT” NOT “SELF‑RELIANCE”

 

I now want to draw attention to the notion of “self‑reliance” in a church, which I consider theologically inappropriate. I believe that we should be emphasising mutual support, interdependence, “communio”, fraternity, and solidarity, instead of self‑reliance. From New Testament times, no local church has ever been absolutely self‑reliant. Nor is it even desirable that a Christian church be self‑sufficient in all its needs. Rather, mutual support is part of the  very essence of an ecclesial communion. Believers in the early Church shared all they had in common (Acts 2:42). St. Paul collected material aid for the needy Jerusalem church (2 Co 9:1‑15), in the same way as he got a call for help  (in terms of personnel) from Macedonia (Acts 16:9). Individual Christians and local churches through the ages benefited from the resources and talents of one another, realising that the Lord's is the earth and the fullness thereof.

Christians have always reminded themselves that they are one body in Christ, having different parts endowed with varied gifts and talents, which all must contribute for the promotion and well‑being of the entire body of Christ. Thus through the ages, local churches have enriched one another, not only with material goods and personnel, but also with language, music, and the spiritual and cultural values to be found among different people in different lands.

 

 

THE IMMENSE CONTRIBUTION OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH

 

If the political and economic circumstances of contemporary Africa have made the church materially poor, and in regular need of material aid, the African Church is nevertheless not just a receiver, but also a giver. The African Church is supporting the other local churches and contributing generously to the richness of the Universal Church in many ways which this Synod will do well to acknowledge and highlight.

Today there are 90 million Catholics in Africa with ever increasing vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Basic Christian Communities and Schools of Evangelisation for the training of clergy and laity in the task of evangelisation are springing up everywhere. Indigenous Missionary Institutes have been established in some countries, and some have even started sending African missionaries to Europe and America. The young African Church has adorned the Universal Church of God with martyrs, saints and scholars. Yes, African Christians in their millions are a blessing to the Universal Church at a time when secularism appears to be sweeping through and destroying the faith of many in the older churches. These Christians have brought colour, newness, and enthusiasm to the church at a very crucial time in its history.

African Christians have brought to the Universal Church their rich spiritual and cultural heritage, which includes a profound sense of the sacred, a deep awareness of spiritual realities, a high valuation for the human person, the human family and the human community. African Christians have brought to the Universal Church the spirit of joy and celebration in the midst of poverty and disease. They continue to enrich the Church with the spirit of hope and perseverance in the midst of suffering, oppression, violence and war. On the whole, African Christians have enabled the Universal Church to discover new ways of experiencing God in Christ.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

As the Church in Africa seeks to support itself more and more from local resources, this Synod should challenge the local churches in a particular region to support one another with the resources of that region before seeking outside aid. We should encourage the sharing of gifts, talents and resources among the members of every Catholic congregation, and between the parishes of every diocese. Local churches in each region should learn to share the little they have with their brethren who are less endowed than themselves. The African Church should champion what in political circles is called South‑South cooperation ‑ for charity begins at home.

Finally, this Synod should challenge the Universal Church to acknowledge the immense contribution of African converts to the Christian faith. Together we should respond positively to the challenge of solidarity which was so powerfully enunciated in the last two Social Encyclicals of His Holiness Pope John Paul II. (See Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 38‑39, and Centesimus Annus, 52).

What the world needs today to counteract an increasingly individualistic culture is not an association of self reliant local churches, but a communion of local churches with a deep sense of interdependence, mutual support, fraternity and solidarity.

May the Church of Africa which today lacks silver and gold discover its priceless talents and contribute these generously for the well‑being and promotion of the entire body of Christ. And may the Universal Church look beyond the weakness of the moment to appreciate and benefit more fully from the new ways of experiencing Christ that have emerged with African Christianity.

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