Interview with Cardinal Arinze
Aug 28, 2016
The state of the Church in Africa.
August 15, 2016
By DON FIER
(Editor’s Note: His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, recently traveled to the United States to speak at The Church Teaches forum in Louisville, Ky.
(At the forum, he delivered an outstanding presentation on the role of the Sacred Liturgy in developing a Catholic conscience. His Eminence graciously agreed to grant an interview to The Wanderer in which he shared his insights on reasons for the remarkable growth of the Church in his native continent of Africa [which includes 54 independent countries], the historical background of Catholic Christianity in Africa, the challenges and future hopes for Catholicism in Africa, and the continent’s expanding role in missionary activity throughout the world.
(Because of the length of the interview, we are presenting it in two parts. The first part appeared in last week’s issue.)
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Q. Are members of the African clergy serving as missionaries in other parts of the world? If so, do you think their numbers will increase in the coming years?
A. Yes, thanks to God, the priests of Africa are helping to evangelize other parts of their own continent and are also being called to countries in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. And the numbers are increasing. Granted, it is not in apocalyptic proportions but the action is there.
Some bishops, even from the United States, have become friends with African bishops and ask, “Can you send me two or three of your priests?” Perhaps it is to look after African-Americans in their diocese or simply to contribute to the African dimension of their diocese.
There are two big religious congregations in Africa that are missionary in nature. One is in Nairobi and is called Apostles of Jesus; the other, located in Nigeria, is called the Society of St. Paul. The Society of St. Paul was set up by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Nigeria in 1976, at which time I was a member. It has grown to just less than 200 priests at present. Many of them are in the United States.
A bishop I recently spoke to told me some of them are in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, and I know African missionaries are also in Cleveland. They were in Boston and are in other parts of the country, as long as the diocesan bishop agrees he wants them for one reason or the other. So the missionary action of priests from Africa is increasing.
There are also a number of diocesan priests from Africa (not belonging to a religious congregation) whose bishop sends them, with an understanding with a bishop from France or Germany or Austria. It is usually for a period of about five years, after which they can either renew or return to Africa.
The bishops make such arrangements both with other parts of Africa and with outside countries. And it is not because we have more priests in Africa, but rather because the Church is catholic and sharing within the Church is healthy and it has been her tradition.
Also, de facto, some dioceses in Africa have been blessed with many priests. My own archdiocese in Nigeria has about 20 priests ordained every year. So the diocesan bishop is forming more parishes and has more priests to assign within existing parishes each year.
We thank God for many priests and seminarians, including many boys between 11 and 18 in junior seminaries. Most of them have been Mass servers for their parishes. The cathedral parish in my own archdiocese sends about 20 boys from the ranks of Mass servers into the junior seminary each year. If the parish priest looks after them well and they serve well at the altar, many of them will have open hearts toward becoming a priest. After completing their studies at the junior seminary, many choose to go on to the major seminary for philosophy and theology.
It is not only the priests who do missionary work. The sisters, sometimes forgotten, also are missionaries to other countries. I discovered that in Italy there are at least 25 convents of sisters from Nigeria that are working in parishes. I am not talking here about student sisters, of whom there may be about 100 in Rome, but sisters that are invited by Italian dioceses. For example, they are invited to look after homes for the elderly citizens of Italy, and they respond. It is an understanding formed between the dioceses and the religious congregations.
Religious also come to the United States. I offered a Mass in Nashville three days ago attended by some sisters having made the long journey from Chicago. Among them were Nigerian sisters — one of them was the regional superior of all the Nigerian Immaculate Heart Sisters’ convents in the United States and Canada. This tells me the response is positive, for which we also thank God.
Finally, why this growth in missionary activity from Africa? Again, I would say, only God knows in His Divine Providence. As St. Paul says, we must not divide ourselves into factions, some for Cephas, some for Apollos, some for Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12), for Paul plants and Apollos waters, but only God gives the increase (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5). Only God knows how the faith grows. At one moment there may be more personnel in one continent or country; in another moment of history, more in another area.
A Successor Of St. Peter
Q. What does Your Eminence see as the main challenges facing the Church in Africa, and what are your hopes for the future of the Church in Africa? In your estimation, might we see a Pope from Africa in the future?
A. One challenge is that of formation of personnel. There must be good formation for those who aspire to become priests, sisters, brothers, and lay leaders. When the seminarians come in big numbers, it becomes more difficult to look after them. If you have a major seminary where there are 400 seminarians, it is more difficult to look after them than where there are 50. Top-notch quality of formation, therefore, is a real challenge — although we like quantity, quality is also very necessary.
If you have large quantities, but poor quality, you are going to have problems. The same holds true for religious sisters. The religious brothers are fewer in number, but they also need solid formation.
Earlier in our discussion, I touched upon the lay apostolate. It must not be presumed that the lay people do not need any formation — all of us need formation. Whether lay people are in economics or in government or in politics or in civil service or are traders in the market or are simply fathers and mothers in a family, they need formation.
Part of that formation has to be theological — that means the faith, knowing more about the faith. Part of it needs to be sacramental — they share in the Mass, Confession, prayer, and their practiced Christian life. And part of that formation is not in the hands of the Church, but needs to be professional for the work in which they are employed. Nevertheless, we also need religious formation for them.
It should not be presumed that all lay people in political life know what to do. There should be a chaplain who can rally people in public life — not to support one political party but to lead discussions on how to live our faith in the political arena. Similarly, the same is true for those working in commerce, large industry, and other areas. And, of course, there must be formation for the parents of families. That, then, is one challenge for the Church in Africa.
Another challenge which I think bears mentioning is self-maintenance. Gradually, the Church in Africa must learn to maintain itself and not to depend on financial help from Europe or America. It is not a bad thing that a growing Church needs financial help, but it is better for a person “to learn how to fish rather than beg for fish from others.” This is already in progress, but continues to be an ongoing challenge.
There is also the challenge of religion and public life. While we do not want to mix religion and politics, our religious convictions should influence our public life — our principles, our motives, the ideals that shape our life.
The Christian virtues of solidarity, togetherness, and subsidiarity (where the higher-level body does not take over what a lower-level body, like the family, can do for itself) must be developed. Then, we must learn to share. Some areas will be richer than others and they must learn to share, both within their country and outside.
There is also the whole area of service. Authority is service; it is not domination. Those in positions of authority should not see it as an opportunity to assert their ego, but as an opportunity to serve. Of course, this is easy to say but difficult to do.
Only God knows if one day the Church might have a Pope from Africa — God did not make me a member of His advisory council and I don’t know the future. In the final analysis, it does not matter from what continent or country he comes but only that the Pope delivers the goods and that he is a good Successor of St. Peter.
That is what is most important. When we gaze back at the last 40 years, look at the various countries from which God has chosen the Pope. Who could have foreseen all that has transpired? And God has not yet finished with His surprises.
Q. How does Your Eminence think that the religious background of the African Traditional Religion has influenced the evangelization of Africa?
A. Before Christianity came to Africa, and even before Islam came to many parts of Africa, there has been the “normal religion” prevalent among most African peoples, more pronounced during some periods than others. It is called African Traditional Religion. The early missionaries did not know what to call it, so some called it animism [the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena].
They thought that Africans put anima into everything, that they put a soul into the trees, the forests, the rivers, and the hills. Others who did not know any better called it fetishism [the worship of, or emotional attachment, to inanimate objects], the worship of idols. Still others called it paganism, a very harsh term which is not a true representation.
The experts today usually use the term “African Traditional Religion.” Generally speaking, it means that the people believe in one God. They also believe in spirits — good spirits and bad spirits. Some of the good spirits are always spirits and some of them are spirits of ancestors, fathers and mothers who were good and have died. Those who are related, and have died before those still on earth, give them a type of cult, a type of honor.
It is a religion that is composed of a worship of God, of the spirits (good and bad), and of their ancestors. Their worship of the bad spirits is simply to offer them some type of victim and tell them, “Please, leave us alone. We don’t want to have anything to do with you.” Their worship of God was most solemn, but rare because they did not know what to offer to Him: “He is so high up and so supreme — what can we give Him?”
Their worship of the spirits was happier because the spirits were thought to be nearer to them. In some places they had a spirit for the family that gives children, another that causes the farm and crops to flourish, another that gives good seasons at the proper time.
African Traditional Religion was a religion that knew sacrifice and prayer, and especially had a sense of the sacred, that the human being is not everything. They believed there are other beings superior to the human being — the other spirits, and higher still, God. The human being must offer, must recognize a Supreme Being by prayer, and especially by sacrifice. That is the desire of the human soul: looking for God.
When Christianity arrived, especially Catholicism with sacrifice, it was welcomed. Some brands of Christianity do not include sacrifice — they have prayer, singing, and preaching, but not really sacrifice. The Catholic Church has sacrifice as central. We could not think of the Catholic Church without the Holy Eucharist: sacrifice and sacrament. Indeed, it fulfills the human soul much more than we may realize.
When I was writing my thesis in theology in 1960 in Rome, I wrote on sacrifice in the traditional religion of the Igbos in Nigeria (as an introduction to Christian sacrifice). That background was not secular — it was religious. It helped the people to embrace Christianity. Christianity was like sunshine coming at midday to people who were looking for the light at four o’clock in the morning.
In that sense, it is clear that African Traditional Religion as a religious background was providential in their acceptance of Christianity and its subsequent growth in Africa. Indeed, many universities have departments in which this religion is given attention.
When I was in Rome in the central office for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which is responsible for the approach of dialogue with other religions, we wrote a circular letter to the bishops of Africa on pastoral attention to African Traditional Religion, recognizing that it is the religious background from which most Christians in Africa come.
So, as is evident from just these few words, the African Traditional Religion has contributed positively and significantly to the remarkable growth of the Catholic Church in Africa.