Hearing that Pope Francis has requested prayers for Africa could evoke that hoary concept of Africa as the world’s basket case, with images of powerless and desperate victims, anonymised by their suffering, stumbling from catastrophe to catastrophe while they wait for benevolent missionaries and aid workers from the developed countries of Europe and North America to come to their rescue.
If it does, we should beware.
There’s something profoundly unchristian about that way of seeing things. It’s disrespectful of the human dignity of others, and it impoverishes our own spiritual understanding.
It’s the kind of mentality that underpins all those well-meaning efforts to provide a lasting solution to the perceived misery of Africa by doing everything possible to prevent future Africans being born.
What the Pope is asking us, during May this year, to pray about is
“That Christians in Africa, in imitation of the Merciful Jesus, may give prophetic witness to reconciliation, justice, and peace.”
We are asked to support with our prayers the efforts being made by Africans, inspired by their Christian faith, to tackle the very heavy problems with which their countries and their continent are struggling.
The international media rarely bothers to print good news either about Africa or about the Catholic Church, but surely we can’t be completely unaware of the prophetic witness for peace being given by Catholic Bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or by Archbishop Kaigama of Jos, President of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference? That’s the kind of thing we’re being asked to support by our prayers.
We might ask why God allows African Christians to face trials and challenges that we can hardly imagine, but we might not like the answer.
Perhaps it’s that he knows we’d not be able to cope? Perhaps the faith of our African brothers and sisters is stronger than ours? Perhaps this is his way of calling us to share material resources with them, to back up our prayers with practical support?
Certainly they need, and deserve, our practical support. Through CAFOD, SCIAF or Trócaire we can share some of what God has entrusted to us with their African Church partners who are responding valiantly to the present terrible crisis in Ethiopia and Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia.
It’s been taken for granted for decades that the Catholic faith in Europe is inexorably on its way out – that the Church here is dying, and nothing can save it. We mustn’t go along with that: on the contrary, we should treat it as a wake-up call. But if we want to know whereabouts in the world the Church is growing, and growing faster than anywhere else, the answer is: Africa. Already we are seeing Africans coming here to re-evangelise us. Let us pray for them, and welcome their prayers for us.
Jean Olwen Maynard is CTS author of the titles:
Josephine Bakhita: A Survivor of Human Trafficking