Africa has a right to intervene in the debate towards a new evangelization, and offer a vision, apostolic methodology and plan of action. Today, Christianity in Africa is growing like nowhere else. The religiosity of this continent is deep, and it has reached far in space and time. Think of the voodoo in Latin America or the Spirituals in North America. In the past, this cultural and religious sharing came about through slavery, today many Africans run away from their homes because of poverty and political repression, or because of what they can offer to the West. How many African athletes and scientists live now in Europe and the USA? Whenever they go, Africans bring with them the vital force that rejuvenates societies sterilized by technology.
Human relations have a place in Africa. Doctrine and technology are considered secondary and instrumental to relationship. Here, evangelization is first of all relationship, a natural continuation of the relationship uniting the Trinity. Africans still treasure the sense of Mystery. Not what one cannot know, but the realization that our understanding of God, of the Universe, of Life cannot grasp the immensity of reality. This Mystery is positive, in so far as it regards God’s presence, the action of the spirits, and the relation with the ancestors. It also has a negative side: the evils unleashed against the human being who needs liberation.
The Church in Africa today is the result of the evangelization effort started in the XIX century, when the Church developed its Social Doctrine. One of the great apostles of the time was Saint Daniel Comboni, a disciple of Father Nicola Mazza, a priest from Verona who served in the local government for 15 years in charge of the agriculture and social issue desk. The evangelization of Africa was influenced by this new vision of integral liberation, much more than in Latin America. Even though this happened during colonization, the Church was still able to prepare people capable of stirring the continent out of it. It is enough to think of Nyerere in Tanzania, Senghor in Senegal, Luthuli in South Africa, Mondale in Mozambique, Kaunda in Zambia, among many other leaders who received the faith and lived it in an African way. There is still much to do to evangelize politics and the economy, to unite faith and policy making. Yet, Africa has done and it is doing a journey in the right direction.
Paul VI was the first Pope to visit Africa, in 1969. It was the occasion to strengthen the Church in the continent as a local and incarnate community; a collegial society respectful of local identities. That was the time when the Church expressed its originality and African soul with international groupings like the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar. John Paul II limited the scope of this growth, preferring to highlight the centrality of the Church and of the Pope’s ministry.
Facing with the challenge of a new evangelization, the Church will have to revisit this centralization, favouring once again a collegial approach to issues of faith and governance. Local Churches need the freedom to develop their own theology and approach to sacramental life. To believe that Western sensibility is the only one capable of addressing issues is misleading. The Latin/Germanic theology of Europe has much to offer, but also to receive from Africa. Besides, the process of globalization is challenging us to develop theologies incarnated in the daily experience of people. Dogmatism is not the best answer to the social changes we are witnessing.
In reading the preparatory documents to the Synod of Bishops discussing this New Evangelization the impression one has is that we are speaking not of a new reality, but of a ‘refurbished’ continuation of the past. The Church finds it always difficult to change. Continuity is often preferred to novelty. In a way, this is right, since we live life as a continuation, a development. There could not be a new evangelization completely detached from the older experience. However, there is also need to cut with the past, when this has proved to be inconsistent and lacking prophecy. The saga of Lefevre should teach us something. Perhaps we shall be able to formulate a real new evangelization only with a new ecumenical council. One that could build up from where the Vatican II ended, continuing that phenomenal openness to the work of the Holy Spirit.