Veronica Openibo, SHCJ
ECCLESIA IN AFRICA
Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II -
AN AFRICAN WOMAN'S VIEW
Part I
This text was first posted on the website of SEDOS, a documentation and studies service organization based in Rome. To view the current papers online at SEDOS, click on their logo
SEDOS Graphic



  Background of the African Synod

  On the solemnity of the Epiphany, 6 January 1989 during the Angelus, the Holy Father John Paul II, made the announcement of the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, "in order to promote an organic pastoral solidarity within the entire African territory and nearby islands". The topic chosen by the Holy Father was: after many consultations, "The Church in Africa and her Evangelising Mission Towards the Year 2000: 'You shall be my witnesses' (Acts 1:8)".

  The central theme for this Synod, Evangelisation, was further divided into five topics; Proclamation of the Good News of Salvation; Inculturation; Dialogue; Justice and Peace; and Means of Social Communication. The Lineamenta was prepared and presented at the Ninth Plenary Session of SECAM in Lom,, Togo, on 25 July 1990. And, in Uganda, on 9 February 1993, the Holy Father announced the date and venue of the African Synod and unveiled the two phases: a working session in Rome and a celebration session in Africa. To show you the extent and thoroughness of the preparations: it took five years and three months from the date of the announcement to the actual Synod proceedings.

  Well-prepared after five years of reflection, discussion and planning, the representatives of the various Regional Episcopal Conferences, the Continental Episcopal Conference (SECAM), priests, religious women and men, lay men and women packed their bags and moved to Rome for one month to participate in the Special Assembly from 10 April to 8 May 1994. As we can all recall, the Synod was opened with a festive Eucharistic celebration by the Holy Father on 10 April 1994. St Peter's Basilica resounded with African musical instruments, gestures, and songs in different languages at various points during the opening, Beatification and closing liturgical celebrations.

  We remember the two sad events that occurred during the Synod: one was the outbreak of genocide in Rwanda and the other, the Pope's accident which prevented him from actively participating till the end of the Synod and from celebrating the closing liturgy. This was done by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.

  At the close of the Synod, there was a feeling of great jubilation. The Synod was a success, many felt, because it was an expression of the maturity of the Catholic Church in Africa and a call to proclaim the Gospel with ever greater fervour. Yes, the Synod was indeed authentically and unequivocally African, and was celebrated in full communion here in Rome with the universal Church, in a way that made the Synod Fathers feel that universality "is not uniformity but rather communion in diversity compatible with the Gospel" ("Message of the Synod", L'Osservatore Romano, 11 May 1994).

  It was a Synod of "resurrection and hope" as the Synod Fathers joyfully and enthusiastically declared in the opening words of their "Message" to the People of God at the end of the Synod, "Like Mary Magdalene on the morning of the Resurrection, like the Disciples at Emmaus with burning hearts and enlightened minds,... Christ our hope is risen. He has met us, has walked along with us... We want to say a word of hope and encouragement to you, the family of God in Africa, to you the family of God all over the world: Christ our hope is alive; we shall live" ("Message of the Synod", L'Osservatore Romano, 11 May 1994). One can see and feel the hope and encouragement of the Synod Fathers in this statement. In reading the "Message" and the Exhortation, as an African woman, my heart too burns with joy. I feel enlightened and affirmed. I experience the hope and encouragement given, and feel the urge to do something about the challenges posed!

  The Church as Family

  One strong image that has stayed with me from the Synod, is of "the Church as the Family of God" ("Message of the Synod", L'Osservatore Romano, 11 May 1994). In the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, we have the image of the Church as the "People of God" which puts emphasis on the human and communal side of the Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 9). The Synod Fathers' choice of this image of the Church as Family further clearly enunciates the Second Vatican Council's image of the Church as a community - pastors, as well as the faithful, for the assimilation of the African man and woman, who of course value the concept of the family (L'Osservatore Romano, 27 September 1995, p. 8). Indeed, the Pope values this too, for he said at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya: "Why does the Pope visit Africa so often?... Africa is the continent of the family". We all know that for Evangelisation to be fully effective the members of the family must be committed to their faith in God, to the knowledge of the Person of Jesus in their life, to the knowledge of the family as Church and the Church as Family.

  As an African woman, I identify with this image very much, knowing the role each member of the family plays in the development and growth of the family at every stage, especially the place of the mother in the initial formation of the child. I see this as very important for true, deeply rooted evangelisation to take place in Africa. In my language, Yoruba, we say: "Mother is gold, father is mirror; the mother is the one who contemplates and deliberates with the child all through life". I shall return to this issue of the family later. We know the family creates, nurtures with love, tolerates and protects.

  The Holy Father with the assistance of the Council of twelve African Bishops transformed the "Message", the sixty-four "Propositions" and the two reports of the General Secretary, after prayerfully studying and modifying them, into the Final Document presented to the Church in Africa, the post-Synodal Exhortation: Ecclesia in Africa. This brings to a conclusion the first phase of the Synod and marks the beginning of the second phase.

  Then the Pope started the celebration of the next phase of the Synod on African soil from 14 to 20 September 1995. He visited three capitals of three different nations: he signed the document at Yaound, in Cameroon - Cameroon was chosen for the countries of West and Central Africa; then he went on the Johannesburg in South Africa for the Southern part of Africa including Madagascar and the islands; and lastly he went to Nairobi in Kenya for East Africa.

  All the way, it was a three-in-one celebration: Three arrivals and departures; three Eucharistic celebrations, characterised by colour, melodious music, song and dance; and three mini-Synodal sessions. At the end of each Eucharistic celebration, the Pope handed over the post-Synodal Exhortation, which he constantly referred to as the fruit of the work not only of the Bishops but also of all the members of the Family of God on the continent, to representatives of Bishops, priests, religious men and women, catechists, lay men and women and the family.

  Each time, he accompanied the symbolic gesture with the following words: "I hand over to you the Apostolic Exhortation, gift of the Synod for Africa...Meditate on it; live it in your homes, in your grasslands, in your villages, on your farms, in your cities, in your streets, in your workplaces. Pass it on to your children, to your children's children and to all generations to come" (SECAM Newsletter, December 1995). This indeed is my hope for the Church in Africa as she plans the implementation of the Exhortation for the Third Millennium.

  Ecclesia in Africa

  Here is a quick summary of the Exhortation. This "pastoral plan of action" is elaborated in 150 pages with an introduction, seven chapters and a conclusion. It is significant to note that in the Old Testament, there are 150 psalms and in the Book of Revelation the number "seven" embodies fullness.

  Briefly the Exhortation includes the following: In Chapter I, the Holy Father enunciates why the Synod is "an historic Ecclesial event". It is a moment of grace, lived by the Synod Fathers fully conscious of being Catholic and African.

  Chapter II gives a brief history of evangelisation in Africa, beginning from the first Christian centuries to the present era. Here it pays glowing tributes to the missionaries of various eras and nationalities who gave their lives for the spread of the Church in Africa. It calls on the Church to be evangelised herself in order to evangelise.

  The third Chapter deals with the major tasks of evangelisation in terms of the five main topics of the Synod: proclamation, inculturation, dialogue, justice and peace and the means of social communication. In Chapter IV the Pope examines the challenges faced by the Church in Africa in the light of the third Christian millennium.

  The fifth Chapter goes on to review some strategies for confronting the challenges identified in the previous chapters.

  In Chapter VI the Pope analyses the prophetic role of the Church in building God's kingdom of justice, peace and love within the realities facing Africa today.

  Chapter VII dwells on the all-important issue of mission not only to ourselves in Africa but also to the whole world.

  In the concluding section, the Holy Father assures us that God has not abandoned Africa and that the Gospel of Christ is Good News also for our continent.

  Thus, in the Exhortation and visit of the Holy Father, the Synod has finally come home to Africa. In the words of the Pope: "The document... is only an instrument and a beginning. What counts is the effective renewal of the Church's members and their ever more generous ministry and service". Again, as an African women, I find the Exhortation very affirming of the African Church, its cultural values and contributions to the universal Church; as well as challenging us to further growth by making the Gospel message our own as we move towards the year 2000.

  My View as an African Woman Religious

  As a woman reading this text, I ask myself what does it say to me about being African and a woman? What does it say to other Africans - women, men, youth and children? What does it say to all those ministering in Africa? I agree with the Synod Fathers in this statement: "The main question facing the Church in Africa consists in delineating as clearly as possible what it is (identity) and what it must fully carry out (Mission), in order that its message may be relevant and credible" (L'Osservatore Romano, 13 April 1994, p. 5).

  The statement, too, is particularly striking: "The most important (resource) after the grace of Christ is the people. The whole community needs to be trained, motivated and empowered for evangelisation, each according to his or her specific role within the Church" (n. 53). It is in the light of these quotations that I express my views. I must add that I appreciate the emphasis on integral evangelisation which includes concern for the promotion of justice and peace, as well as the denunciation of abuse.

  Let me quickly say here that I have much greater admiration for the Pope since his Letter to Women. These words still ring in my ears, "Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic" (Letter to Women, n. 2, 25 May 1995). In this Letter he set out his reflection on the advancement of women and the relationship between the sexes today. He followed up the acknowledgement of women's gifts by appointing very eminent women to represent the Vatican at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, (the head of the Vatican Delegation being Mary Ann Glendon). We know the Delegation's challenging contributions made a difference there. Again, that spirit of affirmation of woman is evident in the Exhortation (as well as in the African Synod's "Message" and the "Propositions"). One would hope that the gifts of women would be used to their full potential at every level of the Church's planning and implementation of the Exhortation; that the three Rs of Recognition, Respect and Responsibility will be mutually shared with all the members of the Church as Family, especially with the women.

  The Exhortation generally used the African language of inclusivity. Each group was recognised, acclaimed and encouraged: children, youth, men and women. I found myself affirming in most places the use of the words like people, men, women, youth and children. This is the language of most African people. I believe each group can easily identify with it. And I feel when it is translated into African languages for people at the grass roots level to read and understand, there would be a lot of jubilation. As an expression of my excitement for the Church in Africa in this post-Synodal era I envisage the implementation of the Exhortation in the image of a family celebration of every man, woman, youth and child dancing, (even the baby on the mother's back dances) to the rhythm of the African evangelisation/inculturation music.

  Hopes and Expectations

  In order of preference I will share the areas I would love to see given immediate attention. In Chapter II, where emphasis is placed on the strength of witness of life, the essential role of marriage and vocation, and the need for adequate formation for all agents of evangelisation, I feel energised, as an African woman, and I am sure many Africans do, to take up this challenge. I hope that the criteria for the theological discernment on inculturation will be given emphasis in the Church as Family of God especially in the area of liturgy, Eucharistic celebrations and in the administering of some of the Sacraments - Baptism and Matrimony. I believe the most important challenge for the Church in Africa is to know its unique identity and its mission as we move towards the year 2000. I found it interesting to note that the "dignity of the African Woman" appeared under the heading of "some worrisome problems" in Chapter VI. As an African women, what sign do I see in this layout? It is that our Elder recognises our plight and empowers and encourages us to "Arise" (like Jesus in Lk 8:40-56 - the curing of the woman with the haemorrhage). The affirmation and hope expressed in this section of the Exhortation stir up many other specific hopes in me, not just for African women but also men and for the whole Church. To me, it means that all the worrisome problems of Africa can be overcome if women move to the forefront side by side with men and utilise their qualities of good human relations, affectivity, nurturing, caring, loving, showing understanding and sharing their deep insights for a better Africa as we move into the 21st Century.

  Again I emphasise, for all men and women, that there needs to be promotion of mutual respect, shared responsibility and affirmation of each other's uniqueness, interdependence and connectedness. I hope that the theological formation of the members of the family of God will not be exclusive to the chosen few, but shared with women, and of course, men and youth. I hope that in the appointment and training of agents of evangelisation, women will be considered and given financial support when needed, especially in the training of catechists.

  The Pope encourages the Church, "through special commissions (headed by women) to study women's problems in co-operation with interested Government agencies" (n. 21). I hope that the Church will encourage and champion the advancement of women in society and promote their involvement when it comes to political, religious and other social and/or conflictual situations. Has the Church in Africa sufficiently formed "the lay faithful, enabling them to assume competently their civic responsibilities and to consider social or political problems in the light of the Gospel and of faith in God?" (n. 54). Not yet! I hope that we may be humble enough to admit that "the members of our family as Church - the laity at most levels - still lack deep grounding in the Catholic doctrine, in their understanding of the Bible, and in speaking confidently about their faith" (n. 54). We need to map our family-oriented programme of training our people to be custodians of the faith and to lead a fully integrated life.

  Women/Girl Issues: "The Liberation of Women and Children" Issues related to women/girls specifically are of great concern to the Church as Family. The Pope says: "The Church deplores and condemns...all customs and practices which deprive women of their rights and respect due to them" (n. 121), for example, widowhood rites, bride price, teenage pregnancies, single mothers, injustice in marriage especially in regard to women caught in the web of polygamy, and adequate remuneration for work. The plight of the girl-child is still terrible: genital mutilation is most prevalent in Somalia and Djibouti - 98 per cent of girls there are affected; in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Eritrea 90 per cent; in Sudan 89 per cent, Mali 75 per cent and Burkina Faso 70 per cent (New Internationalist, June 1995, p. 14). Ninety million girls altogether are still deprived of formal schooling. About 75 per cent of girls in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Mali and Niger are affected, and over 50 per cent in Guinea, Morocco and Senegal. I hope that women's groups themselves, with proper integral formation, education and with encouragement from other groups - pastors, men and youth - will find ways to address this issue. The Pope stressed: "Women should be properly trained so that they can participate at appropriate levels in the Church's apostolic activities" (n. 121).

  "The Problems of Refugees and Displaced Persons" - "Fratricidal Wars"

  As an African women, I cannot but grieve at the terrible situations facing that continent. One major one is the problem of refugees because of wars and ethnic strife. In Zaire, more than 800,000 people have been displaced; up to 50,000 killed in Burundi in 1993, Rwanda lost an estimated 200-500,000 at the time of the genocide; fifteen million people, mostly women and children, many from African countries (Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan) seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The Church's response to all these situations has been marvellous in terms of creating refugee camps, providing health care, education and other facilities. But I believe the greatest need is to conscientise our people to find non-violent ways of resolving differences instead of taking up arms.

  The Pope challenged us as a Family during his visit to Yaound,: "Do not let the differences and distances between you crystallise into divisive barriers but rather... share the extraordinary riches of Christ's heart... Be witnesses of Christ; tirelessly forgive" (L'Osservatore Romano, 27 September 1995, pp. 2-3). Like a truly African Family, we as Church will need to seek ways to appreciate, promote, nourish and cherish that "variegated mosaic of races (ethnic groups)" in order to relish our unity in diversity. These plans will also counteract the negative sides of the family life of today and some of the African cultures.

  Hunger Problems: "Increasing Poverty, Malnutrition caused by Widespread Deterioration in the Standard of Living" (n. 114)

 End of Part I.