The future of Africa is, in large part, the future of the Church. When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Africa March 17-23, he will be visiting the home of the world’s oldest Christian communities — and its largest new field of converts.

Christ himself visited the African continent with Mary and Joseph during the flight to Egypt. Early Christianity flourished there. It gave the Church some of its leading early lights: Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, leaders of the Alexandrian school, Tertullian, St. Cyprian and, most importantly, St. Augustine.

Sacramental Christianity never left Africa through two millennia. The continent produced African popes — St. Victor I, St. Melchiades and St. Gelasius I — and Orthodox churches: the Greek Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Coptic Church of Egypt and the Church of Ethiopia.

All the same, the Church is new to vast stretches of the continent.

The rise of Islam and the deep tribalisms on the continent have kept the faith from spreading far and wide. It was only in relatively recent years that missionaries sparked new growth in the Church. “Relatively recent” in Church time, in this case, means the 19th century.

But by the middle of this century, more than half the world’s Christians will live there.

Consider the progress made in Africa even in the last 15 years: More than half of the country’s bishops were named in that time period. The continent’s Catholic population has increased by nearly a third. The number of parishes has increased more than 20%, the number of priests and seminarians has risen nearly a third and the number of women religious nearly 20%. The last 15 years is a significant period of time in Africa — it’s the time since the last Synod of Bishops for Africa.

Pope John Paul II loved Africa. He visited 10 countries in his extensive travels there. In 1995, he presented the results of the 1994 synod to African bishops in Cameroon. On March 17 Pope Benedict XVI will also come to Cameroon, this time to present a preview of a new African synod to the body of bishops now in place in Africa.

Pope John Paul II’s 1995 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa (The Church in Africa) listed challenges facing the continent. The new synod will no doubt look at that list and reassess:

“Restoring hope to youth.”

Said Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia in Africa (No. 115): “The economic situation of poverty has a particularly negative impact on the young. They embark on adult life with very little enthusiasm for a present riddled with frustrations, and they look with still less hope to a future, which to them seems sad and somber.” As John Thavis at Catholic News Service pointed out, poverty hasn’t seen much relief since then. Urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa spiked more than 15%, draining city social services and creating “a whole new urban landscape of poverty.” But there are signs of hope, too: The number of Church-run schools in Africa has grown more than 10% and the number of students is up nearly 40%. Pope Benedict will rally the youth of Africa in an event planned especially for them.

“The scourge of AIDS.”

More than 20 million Africans have been infected with AIDS/HIV since 1994. In sub-Saharan Africa today, about 7.5% of all adults aged 15-49 are HIV-positive. The last African synod targeted irresponsible sexual behavior as the heart of the AIDS crisis and said: “The companionship, joy, happiness and peace which Christian marriage and fidelity provide, and the safeguard which chastity gives, must be continuously presented to the faithful, particularly the young” (No. 223). The Register recently spotlighted Catholic anti-AIDS efforts in Africa that emphasize abstinence: They happen to be the only ones producing real results. Expect Benedict to encourage them.

“‘Beat your swords into ploughshares’,” wrote John Paul, citing Isaiah. “No more wars!”

The wars of Africa are still being fought, and still being decried from Rome and by bishops, as the Register’s World page attests. Though Catholics there insist that great strides have been made against tribalism, ethnic conflicts and turf battles have raged in Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia and Ivory Coast since 1994, killing millions. Expect Pope Benedict to point out the absurdity of the killing.

“Refugees and displaced persons.”

Another problem cited by Pope John Paul II continues to plague African nations. Some 4 million people have been made refugees, and more than 10 million have been “internally displaced.” Often, it has been Christians fleeing oppressive regimes who have been hardest hit. Pope Benedict XVI has taken several occasions to call upon Africans to welcome refugees from other African nations.

“The burden of the international debt.”

In part because of the synod, Jubilee Year 2000 efforts did a great deal to lessen the debt burden on African nations. Pope John Paul II was a leader of a successful international effort. A major obstacle was removed. But going forward, as Gulu, Uganda, Archbishop John Baptist Odama pointed out recently in Washington: “Despite so much aid flowing into Africa, it has had little tangible impact.” He described in detail how assistance is waylaid and never reaches the people most in need.

“Dignity of the African woman.”

This will be one focus of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip. His trip will end with his meeting with Catholic movements for the promotion of women at Santo Antonio Parish of Luanda.

Pope Benedict has made calls for a “new Pentecost” a theme of recent apostolic journeys to America and Australia. That prayer is particularly apt in Africa.

The sheer number of languages the new synod will have to handle is testimony to the varied African population: Swahili, Arabic, French, Portugeuse, and Dutch, for starters.

But the continent of Africa has been blessed by strong witnesses to the faith. The relatively young Church on much of the continent has been marked by courage amid persecution and real, sustained commitment to the poor and suffering.

John Paul II called for a new Pentecost in his Ecclesia in Africa. The demographics make it inevitable: The strength of the faith in Africa will determine the strength of the Church in the 21st century.