African Synod – From theory to action

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During a trip in Africa in November 2011, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated his summary of the Synod’s deliberations in Benin in his Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus, where he highlights and confirms the major points presented to him as Propositions. About one thing the Exhortation is clear: the fundamental objective of the entire process of the Synod was to bridge the gap between the teaching of the Gospel and the life of the Church, or between theology and pastoral practice. In other words, the intention of the Synod was to “maintain a living connection between memorized catechism and lived catechesis which leads to a profound and permanent conversion of life” (32). The Second African Synod cannot be understood apart from this central concern.

syn2As part of the process of “permanent conversion of life” in the Church, we in Africa need to examine the Exhortation Africae Munus carefully in order to see how the Pope, helped by the Propositions of the Synod, articulates and expresses the suffering of the people of the continent as well as their hopes for justice, dignity and peace. It is important to note in the Exhortation some directions that are needed for human dignity to be realized. The Exhortation spares no words of praise for the Synod delegates for their realism, sincerity, and courage in analyzing the truth about Africa (4). What now remains to be seen is how much courage, clarity and foresight the African Church in general, and its local communities in particular, will show in making concrete the translation and transition from the theology of the Synod to pastoral action so as to “mold communities” of living faith by bringing “Gospel values to bear in society and culture” (14).
Upon examination, we must note that there are places in the Apostolic Exhortation where its articulation of the needed transition seems hesitant and rather evasive in the face of practical requirements. The Church of Africa and Madagascar must have the courage to point these demands out in their complete consequences in the interests of interpreting and actualizing realistically the spirit of the Synod. Guided by this spirit, the African Church must be very proactive, forthright and assertive in its appropriation of the Synod event for its life of faith.
syn3One area that the Exhortation mentions and that needs proper discernment at the local level concerns the Church’s relationship with the civic authorities. Here frankness is necessary. It is hard to see how the African Church can accomplish her “mission of truth” in the interests of justice, peace and human dignity if she abstains from involving herself “in any way in the politics of states” (22). Obviously, it is a delicate balance between proclaiming Christ’s truth of reconciliation and justice and avoiding involvement in “politics.” Indeed, it may not be possible for the local Church to achieve this balance perfectly short of the danger of remaining on the level of theology alone, which the Exhortation decries. The synodal process urges the African Church to stop turning the word of God into a blunt instrument without effect or, in the Exhortation’s expression, to cease using the name of Christ merely as an adornment of theological “theories” (32).
The universally acknowledged contribution of the First African Synod was the appreciation of the Church as God’s family. Though, of course, its various members play different roles, the Church as family includes all of them, “pastors and the lay faithful” together (23). When the local Church forms Justice and Peace Commissions composed of the laity in the service of reconciliation and human rights, and when the Church’s pastors enable these commissions to be effective through ongoing catechesis on the Social Teaching of the Church, is it not the Church as a whole that is active in working for these goals? We must have the courage to accept the fact that a prophetic local Church cannot avoid being politically engaged.
That the prophets of the Holy Scriptures confronted kings with the truth of the word of God is not new information. Jesus himself, the summit of the prophetic tradition, called and met Zacchaeus face to face (25), a concrete “revolution of love” on the part of the Lord (26). African civic leaders who are corrupt, dishonest and “concerned only with their rights” (82) know and fear this kind of “revolutionary” Church. And, of course, they will murmur about mixing religion in politics when the Church speaks out with zeal for the dehumanized, though they are fully aware that this is not the case. These false leaders are not particular about making fine distinctions between what is and is not “political.” At any rate, in issues of justice, the Church “must not fear hostility or unpopularity … and must refuse any compromise or ambiguity.” It must speak out in defense of life, equally of the living and the unborn (71).
On the international scene, “the Church musyn4st speak out against the unjust order that prevents the peoples of Africa from consolidating their economies and ‘from developing according to their cultural characteristics’” (79). Once again, it impossible to see how the Church can be this prophetic without soiling her hands with what may be considered by some political or economic issues. In terms of international justice, the distinction between proclaiming the Gospel prophetically and being involved in “political” and “economic” matters is again often purely academic. And here, it cannot be laypeople alone speaking against the degradation and economic rape of Africa in isolation from their pastors. Rather, the entire Church has to raise its voice as an institution if it is to be effective. The institutional voice of the Church in defense of justice needs to be heard much more in Africa today because the situation demands it.
The movement suggested in the Exhortation from theology to pastoral practice constitutes a “new evangelization,” “a new presentation of Gospel, ‘new in its ardour, methods and expression’” (165). The new evangelization implies and demands that “Catechesis must integrate its theoretical dimension, which deals with concepts to be learned by heart, and its practical dimension, which is experienced at the liturgical, spiritual, ecclesial, cultural and charitable levels, in order that the seed of God’s word, once fallen on fertile ground, can sink deep roots and grow to maturity” (165). This is the task facing the African Church and its local communities in implementing the spirit of the Second African Synod and the Apostolic Exhortation Africa Munus.

Laurenti Magesa


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