I Saw a Great Crowd Beyond Counting

By Fr. Stan Chu Ilo
Photo Credit: Thomas Mukoya, Reuters and Al Jazeera

Flying back to Rome after his five days ‘pilgrimage of peace and apostle of hope’ to Africa in 2015, Pope Francis, in answer to a question about the most memorable part of his trip, said: “For me, Africa was a surprise. God always surprises us, but Africa surprises us too. I remember many moments, but above all, I remember the crowds. They felt visited. They are incredibly welcoming and I saw this in all the nations.”  

Pope Francis has joined the line of all past pontiffs, beginning with Pope Paul VI, who have extolled the beauty and depth of African culture and spirituality in African Catholicism. Most students, faculty members, staff, and some volunteers who visit Africa with me always express similar sentiments as Pope Francis. They tell me that the most interesting part of their visit is the hospitality of Africans and the joyful celebration of religious worship in churches.  

In a 2015 report, the Centre for Applied Research on the Apostolate (CARA), using data from the official statistical document of the Catholic Church, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, from 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2012, concluded that “Overall, the global Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980. However, this growth differs by region, with Europe’s Catholic population growing by just 6 percent while the number of Catholics in Africa grew by 238 percent.” If current trends continue, there will be about 460.4 million Catholics in Africa by 2040, and African Catholicism will have more than 20% of the global Catholic population.

What these statistics point to is a shift in the center of gravity in World Christianity from the West to the Global South. African Catholicism, like all local Catholic Churches throughout the world, is flourishing. This is because African Christians have been inspired by Vatican II. African Catholics are mining their local and cultural resources, developing their own narratives of faith and life, while embracing the positive heritage of Catholic and Christian history and traditions in order to meet the challenges of a changing social context. Religion forms the bedrock of their lives and the lens through which they see reality. Africans did not become deeply religious because of Christianity. Christianity and Catholicism offered Africans a new narrative and a new language for expressing their deep religiosity. This religiosity has an intrinsic logic in the firm belief among Africans that the whole of life is sacred and is held together by a bond of life in a network of relationship which works together in a spiritual chain to bring about human and cosmic flourishing.

Pope Francis’ visit was filled with symbolism, and he showed signs of respect and fraternity when he visited the Bangui mosque and sat on the same sofa with the chief Iman of the besieged Koudoukou Mosque. Pope Francis called Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, “the spiritual capital of the world.”  Pope Francis highlighted that the life of the universal church and the hope for the future of Catholicism are to be found also in how the church recovers the beauty of faith amidst the storms and conflicts of the world, which characterize the daily lives of the least of the brethren. In showing respect to African Muslims, Pope Francis highlighted the need for the African adherents of these two major religions to live together and fight all forms of religious intolerance and persecution which are sometimes present in some African countries.

From the slums of  Kengami in Nairobi to the only refugee and hospice in Bangui for the care of children, Francis had a clear message to all that “Africa is a martyr of exploitation” and  “a victim of other powers.” For Pope Francis, Africa is “perhaps the world’s richest continent” and “a land of hope.” However, the challenge is this: How can the Christian faith in Africa become an instrument for social transformation in Africa? How can Africans use the vast human and cultural resources to improve the quality of lives of all Africans? How can Africa translate the strong faith and the large population of her Christians into creating strong spiritual, traditional, practices of hope, and well-functioning societies?

In Uganda, Pope Francis encouraged people to African spirituality to help solve Africa’s problems. He first appealed to the African spiritual tradition of Sankofa, which states that we cannot progress into the future without going back to our roots. Hence the need to be open always to learn from history. And he appealed to the spirituality of ubuntu that we are held together in a spiritual bond of life and that the pain and sorrow of our neighbors and our family members affect every one of us because authentic development leads to human and cosmic flourishing.

In his press conference on the way back to Rome, he called on the world not to forget Africa. He also prayed that the gift of the Christian faith in Africa should enrich both Africa and the world. Perhaps, one of the greatest gifts which Africa can offer to the world today is the resilience which comes from religious faith. Most Africans show resilience in the face of some of the most challenging conditions of life facing them.