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Ghanan Cardinal Peter Turkson is one of the leading voices in the Church in Africa.
BY Greg Watts
Cardinal Peter Turkson, archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, is
one of the leading voices of the Church in Africa.
There are now nearly 150 million Catholics in Africa, 14% of
the global Church population. The 59-year-old Scripture scholar, who speaks
eight languages, is the first cardinal from Ghana.
Register correspondent Greg Watts met him during his recent
visit to London.
How do you see the difference between the Church in the West
and the Church in Africa?
The system of being a Church in the West is different to our
system of being a Church. Parishes have a different meaning in Africa. We have
two priests who live at a central residential station and who serve sometimes
20 or 30 villages or outstations.
What is the place of
the Church in African society?
When Christianity arrived, it often came in a close
relationship with the various colonial powers. Therefore, right from the
beginning, the kind of evangelization that emerged was linked to development:
education, health, sanitation and all of that. These were the means through
which a number of churches were established. They built schools and hospitals
and used them as means of evangelization.
In Ghana, for example, there are places where people will
tell you, “For us, our government is the Church.” They see the Church as the
provider of all the basic needs of life. The government recognizes this role
the Church plays in education and health and so on.
How closely does the
Church work with the government in Ghana?
In Ghana, the best schools are Christian — either Catholic,
Anglican or Presbyterian. The last census revealed that eight of the top 10
secondary schools were Catholic. The Catholic Church provides 38% of all health
facilities in Ghana. This makes us a big partner with the government.
Some regimes have considered our influence in schools to be
too strong, and they have tried to curtail it. At present, we have a system
that recognizes our place in education, but the admission procedures are
How important is
education in the Church’s mission?
The Church exists for human development, over and above
proclaiming the Gospel. In the past, the popes have said that evangelization
and human development go hand-in-hand. The Church seeks to help people live
Is there a danger that
Africa could follow Europe in becoming a secular society?
I think that our traditional way of making people Catholic
needs to be reconsidered. We need to look at the evangelicals and see what they
do. When we do that, we may discover that there is something we can learn from
In these churches, the declaration that Jesus is Lord is
meant to be an expression of a person’s commitment. It’s like somebody being
offered knowledge of a person and consciously accepting to enter into a
relationship with that person and establish personal ties.
This is what holds people in these evangelical churches. I
think we should not just label it emotionalism and so discard it. Religion must
be about relationship.
So what must the
Catholic Church do?
The danger facing the Catholic Church in Africa is that we
just feed people with a few notions: Who is God? What is the Trinity? What is a
These definitions can be learned by heart and just repeated
to anybody who asks questions. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens in parts
When I go on pastoral visits and the parish priest or the
catechist says he has prepared some candidates for me to confirm, I like to
meet them. So the night before I do a confirmation I do some teaching with the
kids. I take them through a more personal explanation of faith.
We need to rediscover a basis which is essentially about
How many seminarians
does Ghana have?
We have 258 seminarians in Ghana at the moment and only a
staff of 15. The ratio is big and the tendency is therefore for staff just to
teach. The extra effort to get to know the students is sometimes difficult.
Why do you invite
students in their diaconate year to live with you?
I started this 10 years ago. I get to know them and they get
to size me up. I have the bursar come in to introduce them to the financial
system of the diocese, the canonist leads them through tribunal practices, and
the archivist explains how to gather data. The students are also taught to
drive. Initially, they were apprehensive, and didn’t know why I was inviting
How has this system
There have been a few occasions when I have picked up
signals from students that have been useful to me later in dealing with them as
priests. If I pick up signals that are really serious, I call them in for a
chat. I also ask them their spirituality and prayer life.
I tell them it’s not enough to pray the breviary. They are
encouraged to develop a personal prayer life and deepen their spirituality.
It’s important that Christianity goes beyond the theology
and terms that we have learned to something more relational.
How adequate was your
I did my theology in the United States, in the seminary of
the Conventual Franciscans. Studying with religious, and the spirituality of
St. Francis, challenged me and changed the way I look at things.
In what way?
During my year as a deacon, I lived in an inner-city parish
in Albany, N.Y. The neighborhood had once been populated by Italians and Irish,
but when I was there in the late 1970s it was mainly poor blacks and Hispanic,
who were not particularly Catholic.
Part of my task was to interest people in the life of the
Church. To do this, I went stoop-to-stoop and door-to-door. I had to think
about what you did with an empty church and a population that does not respond
to the Church.
So what did you do?
Like with all evangelization, you have to pray and witness a
lot. Gradually, this prayer and witnessing began to pay off. When I went to
some black churches, they wanted me to join as a minister.
What can Catholics
learn from Pentecostal churches?
At the last meeting I attended of the Council for Christian
Unity, we discussed the threat of Pentecostals in Latin America. I said that we
need to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit more: prophecy, healing,
intercessory prayer and all of that. This is one of the things the Pentecostals
I think there is only one formula for being a Church, only
one formula for being Christians. And that formula is the one we read about in
the Acts of the Apostles: a group of people living in the power of the Holy
Spirit and the strength of the Word.
In some places we need to see how we can activate the gifts
of the Holy Spirit.
How do you think this
should be done?
These churches set up ministries for intercession,
ministries of prophecy and so on. These gifts are bestowed on members of the
Church and they need to be exercised. Priests must take the lead here.
How are relations in
Ghana between Catholics and other Christians?
Initially, the Pentecostals and evangelicals in Ghana were
suspicious of the Catholic Church. But we now have a group called Conference of
Religions for Peace, made up of Catholics, mainstream Protestant churches and
I was the chairman of it until last year. I have also spoken
at prayer breakfasts of the Full Gospel, which consists of businessmen, some of
What are your hopes
for next year’s Synod on the Bible?
We priests and bishops need to recognize that many of us are
products of notional Christianity. Quite a sizable number entered seminary,
received formation and got ordained, but might not have experienced any
personal conversion. When that is the case, we are missing something that is
very basic for the life of a Christian.
The Bible was produced by religious people and meant to
inspire other religious people. It was produced by people of faith. So we
should endeavor to make the Bible serve its purpose and inspire faith. This is
what I hope the synod can achieve.
And what are your
hopes for the special synod for Africa in 2009?
After the last synod for Africa in 1994, many diocesan
synods were held. And, at least in Ghana, they all contained the word
evangelization. But, at the end of the day, how many really did evangelize?
It can be talked about in an academic way and not really
considered something that has to be lived. The Word of God must produce
conversions, and conversions lead to witness.
At the second synod for Africa, we must look at how we are a
Church in Africa. Rwanda was supposed to 99% Catholic. How could it end up with
We need to realize that notional Christianity has probably
been too strong. Instead, we need a radical conversion that will make the
presence of God real and personal for each one of us.