What we learned from the annual African bishops' summit

An annual conference featuring senior Catholic leaders from Africa was again an opportunity for the Catholic church to take a look at what it is doing across the continent and examine the challenges it faces in this part of the world.

The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, also known as SECAM, coincided with the body’s 50th anniversary. Started during St. Pope Paul VI’s visit to Uganda in 1969 following the Second Vatican Council, SECAM brings together 40 national and regional bodies of Catholic bishops in Africa. The pope’s trip 50 years ago marked the first-ever papal visit to Africa.

SECAM, which is based in Accra, Ghana, held the nine-day conference in Kampala, Uganda. This year’s theme was “Church-Family of God in Africa, Celebrate Your Jubilee! Proclaim Jesus Christ Your Savior!”

The number of Catholics worldwide has risen fastest in Africa. In 2017, the Vatican announced that the number of Roman Catholics in Africa rose by 19% — from 186 million to 222 million — over just three years. Compare that to the rest of the world, where it grew by just 1% over the same span of time.

The conference, which drew hundreds of participants, focused on the role the church has in Africa and what more needs to be done. The nine-day conference culminates this week with the release of the “Kampala Document,” which will detail the church’s priorities in Africa over the next 50 years.

Here are three takeaways from this year’s conference and what it means for the future growth of Catholicism in Africa.

Working to grow church attendance and vocations

There can’t be talk and debate about the future without a focus on youth. One proposal called for the creation of a special office aimed at getting young people to join the church. Under the plan, one bishop would be given the task of overseeing youth outreach and missionary work on a continental level.

Africa’s 1.2 billion people are predominantly young. For example, 41% of Africans are under the age of 15, making it the youngest continent on the planet. As a result, there is real potential for the church to grow its following — something the church has been very aware of the past two decades. At the same time, Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

At a press conference at the end of the conference’s second day, Archbishop Luke Thomas Msusa of Blantyre, Malawi, told reporters: “If we ignore the call of our young people today and continue with business as usual without recognizing them, without empowering them, it means that the SECAM of tomorrow will not be very powerful.”

At the same media briefing, Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle of Cape Coast, Ghana, added that “we should focus our attention” on young people, saying, “For me, I consider the youth as not the tomorrow of the church but today. I call them a present, a gift.”


Helping stem the refugee and human trafficking crisis

Many of the people fleeing war-torn parts of the continent for Europe have created a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea from parts of north Africa much in the same way Central Americans have at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The archbishop of Ouagadougou in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba Ouedraogo, who was elected SECAM president on Monday, said Catholic social teaching would be used when it comes to matters of human dignity and common good in society. Although he did not provide specifics, the cardinal outlined that through various charities, including through the work of Catholic organizations such as Caritas, SECAM would help in the care of refugees and those victimized by human trafficking.

The move came a day after the pope’s Sunday address, where he prayed for the migrants who drowned after a boat carrying them sank off the coast of Libya. Indeed, the message is consistent with Pope Francis’ position and at odds with various populist governments that have popped up across Europe — including Italy, Poland and Hungary — the last few years.

Ouedraogo’s election should come as no shock since he’s a Francis loyalist. The pope elevated Ouedraogo to cardinal in February 2014 and has held various high-profile Vatican position such as bering appointed as a member of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

Focus on ‘realistic’ solutions to societal problems

The church in Africa is predominantly about hope and this year’s conference really focused on that point. It was during the homily at Mass on Monday that Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Umtata Mthatha, South Africa, focused his comments on the future, saying “there must be new beginnings in our lives that demonstrate that we are truly pilgrims making a journey toward God, growing in holiness.”

“Afro-pessimism, where everything bad is associated with Africa” and the notion of "Afro-optimism, which tends to romanticize Africa as paradise" should be replaced by realism, Sipuka added.

The 50th anniversary of SECAM also allowed the organization to look back to its past, the challenges they have been able to address and the many hurdles that remain for Christians across Africa. While the church knows that Africa remains very important to its future growth (for example, vocations remain high), it has to also figure out how to help resolve socio-economic issues that have plagued parts of the continent for decades. This conference, if anything, confirmed that a cohesive message and African nations working together can help find solutions.

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.