The 1994 African Synod: five years later
by Laurenti Magesa

Five years after the Synod what is the situation in Africa? Catechism continues to be a memorising experience rather an understanding one, political and economic problems are the order of the day if not at a higher level and inculturation of the gospel has yet to begin.

Vatican II (1962-1965) revolutionised the Church throughout the world to a remarkable degree and, for almost every Catholic at that time, to an unexpected degree. Priest-sociologist Andrew M. Greeley says in Commonwealth (September 11, 1998) that there are those who see the Council as "a momentous event, indeed one of the most dramatic and important events in the history of Catholicism, a structure-shattering event which one could almost call a revolution."

Compared to the Council, the general, extraordinary, and regional synods following it and initially intended by Pope Paul VI to continue the Council's work all pale into insignificance in terms of influence. This is most likely because, progressively, post-Conciliar synods have become restraining exercises, attempts to "restore" in Fr Greeley's expression, the situation prior to the Council. In Africa, some have called this a drill in "managing the Spirit."

The African Synod is an example. Announced on the feast of the Epiphany 1989, it took place in Rome, at the Vatican, from April to May 1994. It had as its agenda the discussion of five crucial themes for the African Church: namely, evangelisation, inculturation, justice and peace, ecumenism, and means of mass communication. How have the Synod's conclusions influenced or shaped the face and nature of the African Church since then?

To the question whether the Synod's venue at the Vatican was part of the strategy to manage the Spirit, many Africans tend to answer positively. But the more important issue concerns the direction of the Church's life here and whether it shows any relation to the Synod's stated purpose and aim.

The African Church continues to grow numerically, but this may be in spite of, and not necessarily because of, the Synod. New ways of evangelising are not much in evidence. Catechesis still consists in memorising rather than understanding on the part of catechumens. In this connection, the catechism, rather than the Gospels, are at center stage.

What might have shaped the quality of Catholicism in Africa would have been the depth of inculturation - the identification and promotion of gospel values in African religiosity. This has, however, hardly begun. What is evident since the Synod in this respect is still the pre-Conciliar attitude of trying to bend African religiosity to fit Western Christian perceptions, something that has never worked very well in the history of Christianity in Africa.

Africa's social, economic and political problems appear daunting. The continent remains a field where huge tragedies are played out, where violations of human rights and blatant disregard for life and the environment increasingly seem to be the order of the day. In this situation, the Synod wanted the African Church to be an agent of radical change, beginning, of course, with its own house. Yet, apart from the occasional Episcopal pastoral letter or statement condemning a specific atrocity or evil, it is difficult to assert that the African Church has determined justice and peace to be unambiguously and systemically among its primary pastoral priorities.

Ecumenism is definitely on the back burner of the African Church. Recently in a diocese in Tanzania, the rector of the cathedral parish was elected to liaise with non-Catholic denominations in the diocese in view of some joint event during the Holy Year. Before the bishop, he agreed, but privately he vowed he would not involve himself with "such stuff."

Finally, the poverty of the African Church in financial terms, and its lack of trained personnel in the area of mass media, makes its full use of the means of mass communication to preach the Gospel a long-range goal. The African Church remains vibrant, by and large. It's the nature of the people, always sustained by trust and hope that things will be better. However, at the undesirable risk of being counted among the ranks of the Afro-pessimists, one might be justified in talking at present about "the failure of the African Synod."


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