Learning From Africa

Interview With Leader of European Bishops

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By Viktoria Somogyi

ROME, NOV. 2, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The Church in Europe has a lot to learn from its southern neighbor -- and discussions last month at the synod on Africa highlighted some of those lessons, according to the leader of the European bishops.

Cardinal Peter Erdö participated in the Oct. 4-25 Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops in his capacity as the president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE).

ZENIT spoke with the cardinal, who is the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, about what he called his privileged opportunity to address the synod, and what should be learned from Africa.

ZENIT: The synod for Africa has ended. Though it went virtually unnoticed by the international media, how would you summarize those three weeks of work?
 
Cardinal Erdö: The results are already, in part, in the Final Message, which is a summary of the work, interventions and concerns of the synod. Of course the results are also included in the propositions that the synod has transmitted to the Holy Father, with the hope that within a few years we will also have a postsynodal apostolic exhortation. The results are, and will certainly be, not only directed to Africa but to the universal Church.
 
It is no accident that every continent, all the Catholics of every continent, were represented at the synod, because the problems treated there always have a universal aspect or, if you prefer, a global aspect. To give an example: The economic-financial system and the market for raw materials link the rich world with Africa and China, etc. But also emigration is a phenomenon that, on one hand, affects the African countries, from where so many intellectuals, poor and persecuted people leave -- and all of this is not independent from the brutal effects of international politics and the global economy -- but on the other hand, raises the humanitarian question regarding the immigrants that are in Western countries.
 
Of course, there is also an inter-ecclesial aspect to all this, as already indicated by the theme of the synod. In fact, the Church considers, as part of her own mission, the promotion of reconciliation, justice and peace, and not just in Africa -- because today, the justice of one region cannot be separated from right conduct in as many other countries.
 
The pastoral aspect also belongs to the elements that link the synod with the world, because certainly in countries where there are immigrants from Africa, many among them Catholics, it is also right and necessary that priests come to support them as pastors. Then, of course, we are also united on the question of vocations, as also on pastoral and cultural projects.

Therefore, among the results of the synod we also find clear indications of certain tasks that require a special effort on the part of the Churches of the rich world, the Western world, not only of the Church in Africa.
 
ZENIT: Fifteen years after the first special synod for Africa, how has the situation changed for that continent?
 
Cardinal Erdö: First of all, the situation of security, of democracy, of the economy has not improved; on the contrary, in many areas it has worsened. Not a few have attested to the degradation of public education and health in different parts of the continent. A threat also in some countries is profound corruption, violence which is not only political but rooted in the economy, at times incited from abroad, which makes the life of these poor people very difficult, if not impossible.
 
And yet, there are positive developments. Some of the African countries have been able to resolve the problem of food for their own populations, which is a very significant step forward, whereas others, unfortunately, have been unable to resolve this issue. In regard to the number of dioceses, bishops, priests and religious communities, over the past 15 years the Church in Africa has grown markedly. This is a sign of divine grace.
 
We can also say that the Church in Africa is a missionary Church, a Church full of energy. Of course, in this young Church there are old pastoral problems that have accompanied the history of the Church in other continents, such as, for example, witchcraft, the problem of superstitions, the problem of the clear transmission of the faith. But there are also popular, tribal traditions that are very appreciated, and also are recognized within the ecclesial realm because they furnish models that can be baptized in the light of the Gospel and also acquire greater meaning -- for example, the ceremonies of reconciliation between various groups.
 
On the other hand, however, there are customs and traditions that must be superseded or enlightened with the faith. There are aspects of the social conditions of women in the framework of polygamy or of tribal traditions that cannot be maintained -- neither from a Christian point of view nor from the point of view of the equal dignity of human persons. Also on this matter there is great diversity among the countries of the continent.
 
A traditional value that must absolutely be baptized and that is a key topic of African theology is the family. The African family and the family as model also of the theology of the Church, model of ecclesiology, the Church as family of God, was a key topic in the first African synod and it arose also in this synod. Because of this it is important that ideologies imported from other regions of the world not destroy the family, that they not introduce in legislation changes that are contrary to the family.
 
ZENIT: From the point of view of the CCEE, in what areas can there be collaboration between the two continents?
 
Cardinal Erdö: There has been for many years an institutional collaboration with SECAM (Symposium of the Bishops' Conferences of Africa and Madagascar). We have a mixed commission that organizes work jointly; the culmination of these efforts are the conferences that are repeated almost every year. Lately an alternation was effected in the venues of the meetings: one time in Africa and one time in Europe. For example, we have discussed the topics of slavery, of emigration -- which evidently is a common problem -- and of the fidei donum priests, who are sent from one diocese to another to work in the pastoral area.
 
Many African priests live in Europe, but not all have a regulated contract or situation between the two dioceses that on one hand guarantees the insertion, the integration of the priest in the life of the diocese of the destination, and on the other also guarantees juridical security, health care, etc. Of course, it is true that there are many priests who have fled from their homeland for political reasons, but there are also priests who stay in Europe for reason of study or medical care, so that it is necessary that the bishops take into consideration the condition of all these priests and that they support them.

Then, it is also important, for example, that novices, namely, those who are preparing for a religious vocation, not leave their homeland too soon, before finishing their formation, because during formation in another cultural environment many either lose their vocation or discover that they do not have a vocation or even, in the judgment of the religious order, that they are not suited to that type of life. So they are sent away from the religious institute and find themselves in a society that is very cold and does not accept them but, at the same time, they do not return home. Therefore, these situations should certainly be avoided. Our African brothers propose that the first part of formation be done necessarily in Africa.
 
There is additional collaboration in the realm of science, of theology and of education. Numerous research and formation centers, and numerous Catholic universities have been born in Africa. Hence, also in this field we see a very positive development.
 
ZENIT: What is the importance of this synod for European bishops?
 
Cardinal Erdö: Above all, we see that this synod is addressed also to us. It helps us to understand the function of the Western world in the life of humanity. It makes us see our responsibility and our weakness better: our responsibility in face of politicians, in face of those who make decisions in the realm of economic life so that we can proceed responsibly abroad -- regarding, for example, the natural goods from the forests and raw materials that are extracted and exported from Africa. Also the development of agriculture is a great challenge because in Africa there are very many poor and hungry people who live practically below the subsistence level.

Necessary, therefore, is greater responsibility and greater realism. Ideological action is not enough, including on our part. Of course we cannot impose our aid but must always proceed in communion with the local Church, and not disregard it or create projects that have nothing to do with the life of the Christians of that Church.
 
ZENIT: What can the Church in Europe learn from the Church in Africa?
 
Cardinal Erdö: A lot. On one hand, it can learn a great elasticity and energy, an intensity in religious life, also at times in the liturgy. It can learn the great capacity to work in difficult circumstances. It can also learn humility and fidelity from all those who are persecuted because of their Christian faith.

It can learn a Christian vision enlightened by the faith because, precisely in the case of ethnic, national and racial conflicts, there are witnesses of the Gospel who have the courage to say to the soldiers who kill: you too are Christians. And the soldiers answer: yes, we are Christians, but before being Christians we belong to a tribe. And there are Christians who say this is not right.

We must also reflect on our attitudes in Europe, where at times, for many Christians, human possessions seem to take first place. Therefore, yes to cultural identity but no to idolatry of race and nation because we are brothers and sisters, children of the same God. This family attitude is also very well expressed in African theology.
 
[Translation by ZENIT]