After nearly three weeks of deliberations centered on the theme of justice, peace and reconciliation, the 17th General Congregation of the Synod for Africa has come to a close.
But what has the meeting achieved, and how much might the synod’s discussions also benefit the worldwide Church?
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the archbishop of Durban in South Africa, discussed the synod and its implications in an interview Oct. 21. He also discussed how Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution for Anglicans might be received in Africa — and whether an African pope could be a real possibility in the future.
What has been achieved at this synod, and what have been its highlights, from your point of view?
The highlights have been to have the 244 bishops from Africa, and also those from the other continents and the various departments from the Vatican, coming together and having the focus clearly on the situation in Africa, and the Church’s place in situations in the various parts of Africa. [They came] from the north, where the things are very precarious for the Church and the Arab-Muslim areas, where the Church is very much a foreign presence rather than being made up of any locally indigenous Catholics. They also came from right down to the south, where the Church is very vibrant — in South Africa where a largely local population is carrying it on and giving Catholicism its own brand.
So that would be one of the first impressions of the synod — just being together.
Then the honesty with which bishops have spoken about the situation in their own countries and how the Church has failed to make any real impression, even though numerically the majority in some areas would be Catholic.
For instance, in Rwanda and Burundi, 70% or more are Catholic, and yet we had a dreadful genocide there not that many years ago. Things like that really capture one’s imagination.
The third thing, and this is probably the real good news story to come out of the synod, is the ways in which people have both initiated reconciliation and experienced reconciliation from that very tragic situation in Rwanda. We have heard some really touching stories about how people who, themselves victims of the genocide, had their parents or families wiped out and yet go and be introduced to the persons responsible, and coming to a reconciliation with them.
Did you see the synod as offering some inspiration for the West on how to become more fervent in the faith?
Yes, and what one must keep in mind is that human beings are strange. When things are going well, we tend to forget there’s a place — the divine, the spiritual in us — to enter into communion and communication with that divine.
But when you’re really going through difficult times, that’s when the Scriptures mean so much more to you. It’s the word of God, and you feel it’s talking directly to you.
Secondly, a person like Jesus who says, “I am your peace and I am your light,” when you’re in a dark situation as people in Africa very often find themselves, that’s why they find Jesus to be a real person and a person who has a real meaning in their life.
That’s what gives our Church in Africa a vibrancy and a realness about it. That’s not to say everyone is at that high level of awareness. But our Catholic faith is really about putting ourselves into a personal communication, a personal friendship with Jesus. We still have a lot to do in that area. That’s one of the things that I keep on hearing coming through — we’ve got to get our people to understand the Catholic faith as something that puts them into real contact with the divine, through Jesus with the divine Father.
From personal experience of living in Africa, what I found particularly striking and life-giving was that everyone seems to believe in God; they were conscious of the transcendent, and that generally the people of Africa were full of joy.
That’s right, the spirit world is a reality in Africa, and I think one of the greatest dangers we face at the moment is that globalization is bringing a “counter-values system” which removes the divine, which removes the spiritual and concentrates merely on the material. And not just on the material — it sucks us in to concentrating on ourselves, and we become the reference point rather than someone or something else.
Another positive characteristic in Africa is that many people see Christ as a great healer.
Yes, in fact, in South Africa at present that is something we’re looking very closely at as a Church.
The first aspect is that of evangelization, meaning bringing people into a personal encounter with Christ like the disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, like Peter after the Resurrection. It’s kind of an experience where you say: “I know that Christ is here — I may not see him, I may not feel him, but I know he’s here and I’m sure I’m in his hands.” That’s the one aspect of it. The other is about bringing people to understand that there’s also a healing that comes from the spiritual, and that is what Christ is offering them.
That’s why this sacrament of reconciliation — confession — is important. It brings people to a healing from inside. It can also manifest itself not only in the psychological, but also in the physical realm.
If people believe they are in a better condition, they will feel better and be better. So we’re doing a lot in that area.
Our primary task is to bring that inner healing first. When you know your spirit is in good shape, then your psyche is going to feel good and physically you’ll start feeling good, as well. That’s one of the challenges we’re seeing now in our South African Church.
The issue of governance was often raised. Did you see the synod as offering suggestions on how governments should improve the way they govern, or is this less a problem than it seems in the media?
No, it’s very much a reality because quite a number of the synod fathers and bishops brought up the issue of good governance within the Church itself and that if we were going to start talking to governments about good governance, good practices, accountability and transparency and so on, then we need to start doing it ourselves. That came out very strongly, and came out in one of the resolutions at the end. If we’re going to really bring about better conditions, especially on the justice issue, paying just wages, or calling on people to give just wages, we have to look to ourselves and start with ourselves.
Lastly, do you have any view on the possibility of the next pope being African?
When I experienced the conclave, I’d say the furthest thing from our minds was where the pope should come from. I think much more in our minds was what kind of person is there within this College of Cardinals who is well aware of the Church’s situation in the world and who’s likely to have a clear vision of what the Church’s response to the world situation needs to be.
That’s what I would look for, and I would vote for someone who fulfills those criteria rather than his place of origin.
And would most in the College of Cardinals vote that way, do you think?
I would say so, yes. I would say they would look at the person: What do they know about this person? How does this person like to respond to the world situation and lead the Church in the world situation?
Would you say the possibility of an African pope is still a real possibility?
It depends — if there are cardinals in Africa who have those qualities, I hope people would look in their direction. That’s what I would expect anyway.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.