The Catholic Explosion

Missionary of Africa Priest Speaks of Challenges and Promise in 7,000% Growth

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ROME, NOV. 11, (Zenit.org).- In just a century (from 1900 to 2000), the Catholic population of Africa went from 2 million to 140 million.

Such enormous growth implies a tremendous richness for the Church, but it also means a host of pastoral challenges. Benedict XVI begins his second trip to Africa in one week from today, where he will deliver the apostolic exhortation that draws from the 2009 special synod on Africa.

The television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, sought out a perspective on the challenges and promise for the Church in Africa. Mark Riedemann spoke with the former superior-general of the Missionaries of Africa, French Father Gérard Chabanon.

Father Chabanon was a missionary in Tanzania until 1996. From 2004 to 2010, he was the superior-general of the Missionaries of Africa and Vice Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome. 

Q: Father, you were a missionary in Tanzania for more than 20 years. What first drew you to the missionary life? 

Father Chabanon: What drew me to the missionary life was, first, the call of God to be a priest, since I was very young. 

Q: How old were you when you decided to become a priest, or became interested in this path?

Father Chabanon: I think since I was 11 or 12 years old, I had this calling within me. Then I met -- by chance because they were living in my town -- the Jesuits, who had their own theological seminary, and then later on the Missionaries of Africa, the White Fathers. This helped me focus on Africa and on a missionary life. 

Q: What kind of faith groups are we talking about in Africa and what group would you identify as being the majority in Africa? 

Father Chabanon: Well, Christians are surely the biggest group in most of the countries in Africa, if you, of course take out the northern part, which is 100% Muslim. Islam is the next biggest group. They exist in most of the countries from the east to the west and in southern Africa. Then there is also the African traditional religion, to which we haven't paid enough attention. This traditional religion is very important and is somehow gaining adherence and having an impact on the daily lives of many Africans whether they are Christians, Muslims or not belonging to any established religion.

Q: If I understand correctly, there is a growth in Christianity, Islam and also in the traditional African religions. Does this mean that some Africans have two identities: Christians, while keeping some of their traditional religious practices? 

Father Chabanon: There is a bit of that but it is not that simplistic. It is true that the African traditional religion is part and parcel of the culture of Africa. 

Q: African Catholicism has seen an explosion of growth. To what would you attribute this growth? 

Father Chabanon: There are diverse factors, which have been very important in the development of Catholicism. There is education. The first missionaries very quickly established schools and through the schools taught the Catholic faith. There was also a concern for social development: about heath care, education and the development of agriculture and other projects, which helped the Africans. The African saw that it was not just a colonial conquest. It is sometimes said: "Missionaries came and gave us the Bible and then took our land." In most countries in Africa, the missionaries had in mind, foremost, the welfare of the local people. The local people saw this. 

Q: … a desire for the personal good of the individual? 

Father Chabanon: That's it. So I think these are the factors, which helped the growth of Catholicism in Africa. 

Q: The growth of faith in Africa is quite extraordinary. Would you say it is one of the greatest untold missionary stories? 

Father Chabanon: That is true. It may not be well enough known but it is true that in, more or less 150 years, there has been a very important growth and surely the missionaries and catechists who worked with them should be thanked. 

Q: By the year 2050, three nations in Africa will number among the top 10 largest Catholic countries in the world: Congo, Uganda and Nigeria. Has the Catholic Church paid enough attention to the potential growth that is coming in Africa? 

Father Chabanon: Africa is very grateful to Pope John Paul II and his many journeys there because he brought a spotlight on Africa. He came. He visited. He stayed with people. He talked with them. He tried to speak to them in their own language. He was very greatly appreciated for that and I think that has given a very good picture to Africans, that they are really part and parcel of the Catholic Church at large and this is important. 

Q: The question is then whether the rest of the Church pays enough attention to Africa? 

Father Chabanon: I would say that there is a bit of problem because of the impression of the Europeans when Africans come to Europe. We see here especially, sometimes confrontations, misunderstanding and some political parties are coming down hard on migrants from Africa. This gives a false picture of what is happening. The second thing is the media. The majority of the media only speak about Africa when there is a problem: AIDS, ethnic violence, religious conflict, poverty and so on and this gives a very distorted picture of Africa and we feel as missionaries today that we have the responsibility to give a positive picture of Africa, what is happening there and the solidarity which exists -- the strong desire of Africans to resist all these evils and violence. 

Q: Islam is a challenge for the Catholic Church. One out of every three African considers him or herself Muslim. How does the Catholic Church respond to this question of Islam? 

Father Chabanon: This is a big challenge. Islam is surely growing, not as much as some media might say, but it is growing. It is supported by rich countries from the Middle East, whether it's Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, which assist in development and finance religious-based projects. From our point of view as missionaries -- and missionaries born in Algeria which is a Muslim country -- dialogue is a very important key that has to be developed to help Muslim and Christians coexist peacefully. I have seen, for example in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, families of three or four, of which one or two are Muslim and the other Christian, living together in the same house. They share the same kitchen, the same bathroom; this is something that has to be developed, a peaceful coexistence. 

Q: The "dialogue of life"? 

Father Chabanon: There is the "dialogue of life," which is important but we should not only focus on the dialogue of life; there should also be religious dialogue. Conflicts in Africa, like in many parts of the world, often have a religious dimension and are sometimes fueled by religious feelings. So Christians and Muslims have to be able to dialogue and understand each other better. Of course we are affected by the violence, terrorism, but these are perpetuated by small groups of Muslims and even Christians. Nigeria is a very good case. I was in Nigeria not so long ago and I met bishops and people who said: "We might have all these problems but we still can sit down, have a dialogue and address some of these issues."

Q: You touch on the question of conflicts. In recent decades we have seen, unfortunately, conflicts between Christians and Muslims. Is this a growing trend? Is this a problem that we're going to increasingly see in the future as these different religious groups expand and mission? 

Father Chabanon: I do not believe that in Africa this is the trend. Firstly, whether it is Islam or Christianity, as I mentioned before, there is this background of "Africanity," as I would call it, which is very strong and in this there is a very strong sense of tolerance, to accept the others who are different. This is part of African life and that is a very great quality, which means that the Africans are able to live with people who are different. The question of conflicts, I think, comes with the question of power. 

Q: We've been speaking about different faith streams in Africa. There are also movements within these faith streams, one of them that comes to mind in particular is the rapid growth of the Pentecostal churches in Africa. Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Tanzania mentioned the word "exodus," that there was almost an exodus of young Catholics moving to the Pentecostal churches. Do you see the same challenge? And if so, what is the Catholic Church not doing? 

Father Chabanon: This is a real issue and surely a difficult one because we are now talking within the Christian community; the Pentecostals, which call themselves Christian churches. It is true that in many countries we can see a number of people moving toward those churches. What is the Catholic Church not doing that attracts those Catholics toward the Pentecostal churches? I believe there is the question of poverty. The Pentecostal churches attract other Christians by giving them hopes that they will become rich, they will be cured, they will get a job and that their life in the homestead will be fine. 

Q: It is the gospel of prosperity?

Father Chabanon: The gospel of prosperity, of miracles and that it will happen quickly. When you are poor, when you are sick, when you don't have the money to go to the dispensary or to the hospital and buy medicine, then why not? It becomes very attractive. That's one aspect of attraction. There is also the way the Pentecostals are organized in small communities, very often the result of a very charismatic leader -- somebody who can speak very well. So you see here the question of culture: One who speaks the language very well, has learned about the Bible, can quote the Bible, this touches the hearts and the problems of the people. 

Q: … and the word of God is very highly respected in Africa. 

Father Chabanon: Sure, but in this case it is unfortunately very often manipulated. They come to communities, which are very warm, very fraternal, and they sing in their own language, they dance in their own culture and the enculturation, with which the Catholic Church is still struggling, the Pentecostals have done, and this makes them attractive to Catholics. I remember in Nairobi after meeting the secretary-general of All Protestant Churches, and we talked about this issue and he said that we are not to worry in one sense, because people tend to go "window shopping" for churches because the Pentecostals have no structure. Their structure is very flexible. 

Q: ... it is based around a person? 

Father Chabanon: It's based around a person and when there is a conflict someone starts another church, so there are repeated divisions. So, he said, I see people often coming back to the mainline churches. But it is a real issue because dialogue is not easy in the sense that …

Q: … who do you dialogue with? 

Father Chabanon: Exactly. There is no structure. There is no organized theology. It is difficult and surely for many pastors and bishops it is an important issue and a worrisome one. 

Q: How would you say your missionary work has changed over the years in Africa? 

Father Chabanon: If you start from the very beginning the context has changed dramatically. I would say that from 1868 to the end of the 19th century to now, we have undergone a transition from colonial times to globalization in a very short time frame. The changes are very dramatic, especially among the young Africans. For us missionaries we have to adjust to this ever-changing situation. Globalization today brings a lot of possibilities, but at the same time, African globalization has brought some negative impacts; somehow the worst aspects of our Western civilization and culture has been transferred to Africa without explanation or historical background as to understand why this has come about. It is simply imposed, particularly through the media.

Q: The White Fathers are growing and you have many local vocations in Africa. How is the growth for your community developing in Africa? 

Father Chabanon: 80% to 85% of our candidates come from Africa. We now have more or less 200 African brothers. Most of our formation houses are in Africa. I feel that this is a very important development for our own society, which was predominantly European and Canadian from the very beginning, to become really African. We can see that slowly young Africans are taking most of the responsibilities and are becoming leaders in our society, and this is thanks to the formation, because that is one of the biggest challenges in Africa for the Church today, to provide real formation for the priests. You've mentioned that seminaries are full, but I can hear many bishops crying for "formators" -- people who can accompany the spiritual development of the young seminarians, and for us we try to keep our seminaries small because we believe that it is important to know the seminarians, to help them discern their vocation and to give them the best formation so that when they go back, in Africa, where they are appointed, they can give the best of themselves. 

Q: Do you foresee a time when African priests will be missionaries to the West, in view of the decline in vocations in Western Europe and the US? 

Father Chabanon: Well, they are already in Europe, at least, a great number of African priests and religious are working and helping. I don't think that African priests or religious are the answer to the problems of Europe or America, but I believe that it is very important to have this collaboration and sharing of experiences.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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For more information:

Where God Weeps: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org