The numerical growth of the Church in Africa is a reality of great importance not only for the changes it could mean for the countries in which the growth is taking place, but also for the life of the Church as a whole. Yet, when speaking of a spiritual reality like the “people of God,” who is the Church, the significance of high numbers must be put in proper perspective. A major danger is to think that numbers can give a simple automatic answer to the shape that the future will hold.
A study on the growth of Christianity in the world – The Next Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins, published in 2002 – proves, using statistics available at that time, that membership of the Christian Churches experiences a fast growth in Africa and Asia, and that most of new believers tend toward a pentecostal, charismatic and, ultimately, fundamentalist Christianity. Using statistical projections, Jenkins foresees, for the year 2050, a worldwide strong fundamentalist Christianity more ready to enter in confrontation rather that into dialogue with other faiths. The growth, in fact, will happen not so much in the great traditional Churches, like the Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican, but in the constellation of new, free, fast-changing, Christ-centered and socially-conservative or socially non-committed Churches.
It is true that the statistical analysis of social phenomena is important to understand where we are and where we go in the immediate future. Yet, it is highly questionable that, in social and cultural developments, we can project the present trends over such a long period, like Jenkins does. There are changes in society that defy any statistics. For instance, the Arab Spring, with all its ambiguities, was not foreseen by anybody. The transformations it will bring about are not yet clear or may become clear in a generation time, but anybody who had built up a picture of how the Arab world will be in 2050, supposing that the trends of 2010 would continue for long, has done a useless exercise. Similarly, what do we know of the cultural and political movements that will grow in Africa in the near future? Nothing. Will a new perception of human rights change the self-understanding of the African world? Or will the growing influence of the Western materialistic culture cause the collapse of the traditional worldview where God and religion hold an important place, and the Churches will lose a powerful background support? Which trends will become stronger in the future? The elements in the playing field are too many and too unpredictable; nobody should dare to give an answer as to how Africa will be thirty or more years from now. To read the signs of the time is not an easy exercise.
If numbers cannot be the only factor in a foolproof prediction, they are also not very useful in measuring the spiritual strength of a community. When Europe plunged into the horror of the Nazi era and of World War II, it was statistically composed of a Christian majority. But how many Christians stood up against it? A certain number of people belonging to different Churches did; but, we have to admit, they were very few. In the same way, when Rwanda, a country with a Catholic majority, was swept by the genocidal fury of 1994, how many stood against it in the name of their faith? Some did, somehow in a heroic way, but it was a small percentage. They were able to save other people’s lives, and many sacrificed their own, but they were not enough to be a significant obstacle to the wave of the genocide.
Some people justify the Rwanda case saying that Christianity had not yet gained deep roots. But how about what happened in Europe, where Christianity had been present for at least two thousand years? Was it a sign of the decline of the European Christianity? The least we can say is that, in both cases, numbers were not a good indicator of the maturity and strength of that particular Church to resist evil.
Again, just speaking of “age” or “maturity” of a Church because it has big numbers is controversial. How do you assess maturity? Often, a “young” Church produces people who are ready to die to show their faithfulness to Christ. We have the example of the Uganda Martyrs. Rightly enough, some Africans get upset when their Churches are referred to as “young” because it can give the idea of immaturity and dependency. Or, even when taken in the positive sense of vitality and strength, it can become an empty platitude, just referring to dancing and ululation during liturgical ceremonies.
Recently, I heard a missionary carefully comparing African Church leaders with someone who is learning to drive a car. When on the road, he concentrates more on handling the commands – how to change gear, how to turn the wheel, how much force to use in pressing the brakes – than looking at the road ahead. With the comparison, the old missionary wanted to justify, in a kind way, the lack of pastoral planning by his local African bishop. But some African friends were quite annoyed by the comparison.
Heated debates also come up when evaluating if the numerical importance of the African Church is properly taken into account at the high level of the Catholic hierarchy. Before the last consistory, held on February 18, 2012, an African website posted a very bitter comment on the fact that no new African cardinals were appointed. Surely, in the opinion of the writer, there is no lack of Africans deserving the red hat. The writer expressed also his disappointment that, in the last conclave, the African Cardinal Francis Arinze, allegedly narrowly missed the papacy… The assumption of the writer was: “We deserve important positions in Rome, because we are many! It is now our turn!” Are these cases of unrealistic expectations? Were there no African cardinals because the available positions were very limited or because the African episcopacy is not able to show forth leaders of a higher caliber? All these questions are pointless. If we think that to have an African pope is a right, or we look with pride at the number of African cardinals working at the Vatican and we think their number should increase, we enter in a logic of power which does not befit the Church.
In The Coming of the Third Church, published in 1976, Walter Bühlmann, an unassuming Swiss Capuchin who taught in Rome in the effervescent years after the Vatican Council II, put together his reflections on the growing importance of what then was still mostly referred to as “mission Church.” For the first time, an eminent Western scholar has put, in a theological framework, the scattered aspiration and demands that had already started to emerge from the “Third World” Church and pointedly used the term “Third Church.” “Third World” was already in common use and did not have the negative connotation that took later on, and certainly Bühlmann used “Third Church” in a positive way. His was a text full of hope, welcoming the Third Church, and opened to the changes that the emerging Christian communities were expected to bring to the universal Church.
Bühlmann was right; his approach is still valid. Numbers should not be seen as power, but the African Church must see them as a sign – that it has a responsibility to discover and to fulfill its call inside the universal Church (to become what Saint Daniel Comboni called “the Black Pearl”?) and to strengthen its determination to follow the Gospel of Jesus. For the whole Catholic Church, the growing number of the African Church is a source of joy and an incentive to make room for it, in a spirit of brotherhood and in recognition of the diversity in which Christians can express their common faith. The African Church has its right place in the universal Church not by force of the numbers, but by force of its faithfulness to Christ. We believe that the Spirit of God is always inspiring and creating new things in our midst and we must always be open to the new and unforeseen ways He shows us.
The African Church must take stock of her achievements – most of them done in the post-independence era under the guidance of African pastors, thank God for them – and move on, building her own identity. Inculturation, social justice, participation of the laity in the life of the Church are just some of the lines of identity that have emerged during the two African Synods, in 1994 and 2009. These are some of the special gifts the African Church can contribute to the Catholic community worldwide.
Numbers are not a big issue. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). The real issue is faithfulness to the Gospel.
Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana