Four new Central African bishops were consecrated in Bangui in July; an important event for any local Church, even more for the Central African Republic (CAR) for the new bishops make up half of the episcopate. In the past few fears the Church in this nation has been going through heavy turbulence. With these new appointments the Vatican expects to close one of the most worrying crises in the African Church’s recent history.
During the last decades tensions between missionaries and the local clergy have been running high in the CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries devastated by a string of coups, mutinies and a host of rebel groups. The worst moment came in May 2009, when the Vatican invited the country’s two most senior prelates to resign. They were François Xavier Yombanje, bishop of Bossangoa and chairman of the Episcopal Conference, and Paulin Pomodino, archbishop of Bangui. In both cases, the reason put forward was “grave fault”. Clearly, when a bishop leads a double life or follows questionable paths, the whole diocese suffers.
A good number of Central African priests reacted against the dismissal of both bishops calling a strike of all pastoral activities. In a press release published on 26th May 2009, the priests protested against “the hidden hand of some expatriate missionaries who have grabbed all posts of responsibility in the Central African Church and prevent donors from giving funds to the local clergy”. They also showed its discontent about the appointment of Dieudonné Nzapalainga as apostolic administration of the archdiocese of Bangui saying that “he was not up to the job”. The laity of the capital did not welcome the priests’ reaction, since they always held father Nzapalainga – then Parish Priest of Dame d’Afrique – in high esteem.
Although the “rebel priests” (as they were widely known) called off the strike at the last moment, since 2009 they kept blaming the Apostolic Nuncio, monsignor Judes Thaddeus Okolo, for what they perceived as a situation in which white missionaries had the upper hand in Church affairs. The situation was quite bizarre, since Okolo is a Nigerian and the protesting priests showed their contempt by nicknaming him “le nègre” (the nigger). One of the most contested measures taken up by the Nuncio was to close down the national seminary. All major seminarians were sent to Cameroon to finish their studies. The intention may have been to keep them off a polluted environment, but many of them lived this situation with uneasiness. “In the seminary of Douala we were branded as “rebel seminarians”, and yet we landed there because of a situation none of us had created”, says a young deacon who ended his studies of theology last year. The CAR seminary was re-opened last year.
Since 2009, only one of the nine Central African dioceses (Bambari) has been run by an indigenous bishop: Edouard Mathos. The remaining prelates have all been European missionaries.
The new bishops are all African. They are relatively young, as the four of them are in their early forties, and three of them belong to religious congregations. Bangui’s new archbishop, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, is a Holy Ghost Father and during the last three years he was apostolic administrator of the archdiocese. Cyr Nestor Yapaupa is a diocesan Central African priest and he replaces Peter Marzinkowski – a Polish – as bishop of Alindao. There are also two members from the Society of African Missions: Nestor Desiré Aziagbia, now bishop of Bossangoa, and Dennis Kofi Agbenyadzi, a Ghanaian, who at the moment of his appointment was provincial superior of his congregation in CAR and who has been installed as bishop of Berberati.
Church tensions in CAR are deep seated and can partly be explained by history. The first missionaries arrived here just over a century ago, and the first Apostolic Prefecture was established in 1909. The first Central African priest was Barthélemy Boganda. He left the priesthood to plunge into politics. Considered as the father of the nation, he died in 1958, two years before independence, in a mysterious aviation accident. In 1960, when other African countries already had indigenous bishops and cardinals, in CAR there were only three local priests. The first seminary opened in 1983 (when the country had 25 diocesan priests). Since then, vocations to priestly and religious life have been steadily increasing, as did the underground conflict between local and expatriate clergy. The situation got out of hand with the 2009 crisis.
Despite these circumstances, the Church in the Central African Republic is held in high esteem by the population. Its bishops have published meaningful pastoral letters during hard times in recent years and all dioceses boast health and education facilities that make up for the lack of public services of a State that is often non-existent.
Carlos Rodríguez Soto