Learning Lessons From the Church in Africa With EWTN
New Shows Seek to Highlight Continent’s Catholic Experience
BY Peter Jesserer Smith
Dec. 15-28, 2013 Issue | Posted 12/12/13 at 2:32 PM
IRONDALE, Ala. — Considered by many as the "Cradle of Mankind," the continent of Africa today is now the cradle of the Church’s evangelization. A new package of programs from EWTN aims to go right to the heart of Africa in order to bring forth the spiritual lessons of a local Church still in its infancy in many areas — and fresh with the lively hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Father Maurice Emelu, a Nigerian priest and host of EWTN’s The Faith With Father Maurice, is filming, on location in Nigeria and Cameroon, three new EWTN programs that seek to provide Catholic viewers with firsthand spiritual lessons learned from the Church in Africa.
The first part of this new package of EWTN programs is Word for a Wounded World, a 26-part series of 30-minute episodes. Each episode is framed by a word, such as "forgive," "reconcile" and "love," that uses the African experience as its point of departure in its message of healing and reconciliation. The second program presents teachers, individual priests, bishops, religious and laity in Africa "sharing aspects of their faith from different points of view" in 40 mini episodes, each between two and three minutes long. A third program, titled Called, is modeled after a similar EWTN program, The Call, and shows bishops, priests and male and female religious in Africa, all sharing their journeys of faith and vocation and giving their advice for young people discerning their own vocations.
Just before he left for Africa in early December, the African priest told the Register that he also intends to begin filming a major EWTN documentary on the Church in Africa. He shared with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith what he hopes to accomplish with these new programs.
Father Maurice, can you tell us more about this documentary, The Church in Africa, that you are making for EWTN?
The documentary, The Church in Africa, is a big project. It is going to be a 10-part, one-hour each, documentary covering the history, liturgical life, practices, as well as spirituality, of the Church in Africa.
What do you hope to cover?
The goal is to go to at least 37 countries, while not ignoring or neglecting the remaining parts of Africa — Africa is about 53 countries and two islands. We will try as much as possible to get raw primary footage of some historic, iconic places, liturgical life and experiences from the churches in Africa. Then we will build a story line that will reflect their history, their liturgical life with its cultural background, their spiritual background, and use it as a tool of catechesis.
Which countries will you be covering on this trip?
Because this year I’m going to shoot Word for a Wounded World, it will be impossible for me to cover more than two countries, because of the enormity of the other work. But I thought, "Since I’m going to Nigeria and Cameroon this year, I will use the opportunity to get some footage for the documentary."
What are some aspects of African spirituality that you think the rest of the Church can learn and benefit from? What are some of the things you want to highlight in your programs for EWTN?
I will say right away that, coming from Africa, and having also lived in the West, there is a discernible spiritual heritage that the Church in Africa can bring to the universal Church. Take, for instance, our notion of the family. For an African, the family isn’t just my dad, my mom and me — but my dad, my mom, me, my brothers and sisters, my dad’s brothers and sisters, my mom’s brothers and sisters. It is, in that sense, our family.
Now, the concept of "the family of God" is so readily acceptable in Africa because it is closer to what their whole view of the family is.
That strong root in the family system also makes it more difficult for some challenging moral issues that we face in the world today, such as abortion. You can’t commit an abortion in a family where everybody knows about it, everybody is interested in the baby. Even if you cannot take care of your child, your own sister can decide to take care of your child, because the child in African cosmology does not belong to the mom or the dad, but to the entire clan.
It also makes catechesis easier, done in the family setting.
What about the African understanding of prayer?
Prayer for a typical African is an experience that is not different from his way of life. Therefore, if he sings and jumps up and down, that is the way he expresses himself in the community. Because an average African is expressive: They shout a lot, wave their hands when they are talking. They like a lot of drums and beats and all that they like — [it’s] thunderous. And it reflects in their liturgy, too.
When you go to a typical Mass in any African church, it sounds different to a Westerner. It is not solemn, like with everybody folding their hands. We do fold our hands. But you see, for instance, in bringing the offering, they are dancing [while] bringing the offering. That is their culture. But the Church in Africa is still more traditional than Churches in the West.
Because, in spite of the fact that they are bringing their culture to the liturgy, they know the essential elements of liturgical worship.
Why did you think it was important to give viewers an up-close look at the Church in Africa?
I told EWTN that if they want to bring a truly African perspective, I need to be on the spot. Otherwise, I am just one man talking. I need to be in the field talking to those Africans. Their reactions will bring that cultural reaction to the front, because it is spontaneous. I can’t control it. So that’s why we’re going to Africa rather than doing it in the studio in Alabama.
What does the New Evangelization mean to Africa?
The New Evangelization in Africa should not be understood exactly in the way it is meant in the West. The Church in Africa is still not fully evangelized. We have not yet gotten our full cycle of the first evangelization.
What are some differences?
People in Africa love reading the Bible. It is unlike here, where people on a Sunday don’t expect you to quote the Bible: You can just summarize the Church’s teaching and give them the content of Scripture and living Tradition. But in Africa, they expect you to show them where it is in the Bible and in the Catechism. So I have to make sure that every topic has a good dose of Bible quotation.
Thank you so much, Father Maurice. Any final thoughts or comments?
Evangelization is ongoing in Africa, but they have deep faith, deep zeal, deep enthusiasm from the people. They have less of quality theology. You can understand that. After the Crusades and all that, we had almost 1,000 years of low evangelization in the rest of Africa. Most churches in Africa you hear about now were founded 150 years ago, 100 years ago, 40 years ago. They’re not deeply rooted in the faith yet, but we’re going to reach there by the grace of God.
That’s part of what we are doing by reaching out to Africa, and that is what EWTN is doing by making sure we have enough programming that will reach the African audience.
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