“In the West we have money,” an Italian Comboni missionary once told me. “In Africa they have life.”

It was the 1990s and I was in London, having just returned from spending nearly two years teaching in a German Benedictine mission in Tanzania.

The missionary’s words strongly resonated with me. Depressed to be back in a deeply secular, soulless metropolis, I used to say that one felt more alone in a heaving Western city where communal bonds had been severed than in a remote bush area in Tanzania where community and sharing were an essential part of life.

What I was really missing, though, was a deep sense of the transcendent — a society where everyone believed in the supernatural and were conscious of the reality of God’s existence, even if some had not fully embraced or come to know Christ. The experience I had was both life-giving and life-changing. Effectively evangelized through Tanzanian Catholics, I was received into the Church a few years later.  

I’ve been reminded of this reality having had the privilege this week of traveling with Pope Francis to southern Africa. Generalizing about Africa as a single entity should be avoided, as the continent is enormously diverse, but one characteristic does seem unique to it: a natural transmission of life among the people and a joy that’s contagious. I’m always struck by it every time I come back here, and on this occasion, it’s not just related to jubilation at seeing the Pope.

Much of this comes through suffering, as any citizen of the continent will tell you. Poverty, but also life and death, are in close proximity, so much so that one is constantly reminded of the transitory nature of life.

But ironically, those are liberating, life-giving factors: When confronted daily with the specter of death rather than having it hidden away as a fearful taboo, the true nature of life is put into perspective — including its daily problems, challenges and realities.

With a natural sense of the sacred, a love of life and family, and a respect for the social order, sharing and tradition, it’s not hard to see why the faith is growing so fast in Africa, with churches that are so alive with the faith. They have retained what we in the West have lost.

While in Maputo this week, a colleague was marveling at the joyful spirit and faith he had witnessed among Mozambican Catholics and asked a local boy where it came from.

“In the West many of you no longer believe,” the youth simply observed. “We believe.”