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December 1, 2011

New apostolic exhortation for Africa connects reconciliation of Christians with God and each other to mission of reconciliation in a divided world

"The church remembers that Africa offered a place of refuge for the Holy Family when they were fleeing the murderous political power of Herod in search of a land that could offer them security and peace. The church will continue to make her voice heard and to campaign for the defense of all people." (Pope Benedict XVI, "The Commitment of Africa," No. 85)

In this edition:
1. The church in Africa today.
2. Inculturation: Africa's gifts for larger church.
3. Women in Africa (and Men Too).
4. Quotes from the apostolic exhortation:
a) an economy for Africa;
b) Islam in Africa;
c) illiteracy's toll.
5. Document's theology of reconciliation.
6. Connecting reconciliation with justice.
7. Dynamics of a spirituality of communion.
8. More quotes from the apostolic exhortation:
a) protect the environment;
b) plight of migrants;
c) traditional African religions.

1. The Church in Africa Today

Catholics in Africa need to serve their often troubled continent as models and agents of reconciliation, bringing a spirit of Christian communion into their surrounding world, Pope Benedict XVI urges in the apostolic exhortation he signed Nov. 19 during a three-day visit to Benin in western Africa.

Titled "The Commitment of Africa" ("Africae Munus"), the apostolic exhortation reflects upon the recommendations of the October 2009 Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. The first special synod assembly for Africa took place in 1994.

Pope Benedict visited the coastal city of Ouidah, a former slave trading post, for the signing of this document, which cautions against forms of prejudice and exploitation that harm and marginalize Africa in contemporary times.

"Africa's memory is painfully scarred as a result of fratricidal conflicts between ethnic groups, the slave trade and colonization. Today too, the continent has to cope with rivalries and with new forms of enslavement and colonization," Pope Benedict writes.

"Like the rest of the world," he observes, "Africa is experiencing a culture shock which strikes at the age-old foundations of social life and sometimes makes it hard to come to terms with modernity."

The pope believes that "paths of hope will be discovered" in Africa "by fostering dialogue among the members of its constituent religious, social, political, economic, cultural and scientific communities."

Moreover, he says, "Africa will have to rediscover and promote a concept of the person and his or her relationship with reality that is the fruit of a profound spiritual renewal."

At the same time, Pope Benedict considers Africa's people "a precious treasure" for the larger world. In Africa, he perceives a "spiritual lung" for "a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope."

This strength of Africa is due to "the extraordinary human and spiritual riches of [Africa's] children, its variegated cultures, its soil and subsoil of abundant resources," he writes. The pope adds, however, that if Africa "is to stand erect with dignity," it "needs to hear the voice of Christ, who today proclaims love of neighbor, love even of one's enemies, to the point of laying down one's life."

The continent needs to hear "the voice of Christ, who prays today for the unity and communion of all people in God," says the pope.

This document makes clear that the riches of Christian life are not reserved to Christians, but are meant to be shared with others in reconciling ways that overcome harmful divisions, foster valuable forms of cooperation and that evangelize too.

I should note in this context that the apostolic exhortation's subtitle - identical with the theme of the 2009 synod itself - is, "The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace." Appended to the subtitle are these words of Scripture:

"You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world" (Mt. 5: 13-14).

2. Inculturation: Africa's Gifts to Entire Church

It frequently is said that to glimpse the church's future today, it is important to view the church in Africa and to recognize its strengths and youthful vigor. Whatever of that, Pope Benedict makes clear in "The Commitment of Africa" that to ignore the unique gifts of the church in Africa would be unwise.

Through an authentic inculturation of the faith, "the Pentecost-event continues in history," Pope Benedict writes. And through inculturation of the faith in nations everywhere, the unity of the one faith is enriched by a diversity of languages and cultures.

The pope suggests that the future of the church emerges from the unity formed of this diversity. One might conclude from the apostolic exhortation's discussion of inculturation that the church should not think it can afford to ignore the genuine gifts of Africa.

By appropriately discerning the aspects of a culture that pose an obstacle to an "incarnation of Gospel values, as well as those which promote them," the church remains true to itself, while also adopting "the face of the countless cultures and peoples among whom it has found a welcome and taken root," the pope explains.

He points out that Africa "has a contribution of her own to make" to the entire church. He calls it "imperative" that a commitment be made to transmitting "the values that the Creator has instilled in the hearts of Africans since the dawn of time."

It is essential to evangelize "the world of contemporary African culture," while welcoming the positive elements in African societies. These positive elements "need to be emphasized, lit up from within, so that Christians may truly receive the message of Christ and in this way God's light may shine before the eyes of all," Pope Benedict writes.

He insists that "the Holy Spirit enables the Gospel to permeate all cultures, without becoming subservient to any."

3. Women in Africa (and Men Too)

Women in Africa, along with women around the world, may be heartened by the apostolic exhortation's defense of their equal dignity with men.

In a section of the document where he speaks directly and separately to men and women, the pope delivers the message that the "equal dignity of man and woman" must be affirmed and defended. "They are both persons, utterly unique among all the living beings found in the world," he says.

But the pope considers it unfortunate that "the evolution of ways of thinking in this area is much too slow" in Africa.

In acknowledging the progress made in certain African nations toward advancing "women and their education," Pope Benedict expresses concern that "overall, women's dignity and rights, as well as their essential contribution to the family and to society, have not been fully acknowledged or appreciated."

His comments relate to women's roles in marriage, the family, the church and the larger society, which were concerns for the 2009 synod itself.

The synod condemned "all acts of violence against women," such as "the battering of wives, the disinheritance of daughters, the oppression of widows in the name of tradition, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, trafficking in women" and "other abuses such as sex slavery and sex tourism."

In "The Commitment of Africa," Pope Benedict asks Christians to speak out and condemn "all acts of violence against women." In this regard, he says that Catholics "ought to be a model for society as a whole."

The synod also recommended that women's contributions -- "not only in the home as wife and mother, but also in the social sphere" -- be more broadly "acknowledged and promoted."

And the synod urged Catholic men to fulfill their "important roles as responsible fathers and good and faithful husbands."

Pope Benedict makes plain in "The Commitment of Africa" that "the church and society need women to take their full place in the world." He is concerned that women and girls in Africa "are often afforded fewer opportunities than men and boys," and that "there are still too many practices that debase and degrade women in the name of ancestral tradition."

It is a duty on the church's part "to contribute to the recognition and liberation of women, following the example of Christ's own esteem for them," the pope writes.

He says that "giving women opportunities to make their voice heard and to express their talents through initiatives that reinforce their worth, their self-esteem and their uniqueness would enable them to occupy a place in society equal to that of men -- without confusing or conflating the specific character of each."

In addition, the pope acknowledges and praises women for so often serving as "a kind of backbone" for the life and apostolate of their local churches.

When he speaks in the apostolic exhortation directly to men, Pope Benedict asks them to recognize that their witness to the "dignity of every human person will serve as an effective antidote to traditional practices that are contrary to the Gospel and oppressive to women in particular."

And the pope challenges husbands in Africa not to be afraid "to demonstrate tangibly that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for those one loves, that is to say, first and foremost, for one's wife and children." Husbands are meant to both love and respect their wives, the pope insists.

His concerns in the section of the document addressed directly to men and women are summed up at another point when he directly addresses permanent deacons. He asks permanent deacons in Africa to help their society "at every level to encourage responsibility on the part of men who are husbands and fathers, respect for women who are equal to men in dignity and concern for children left to fend for themselves without education."

4. Quotes From "The Commitment of Africa"

An Economy for Africa: "I ask all the members of the church to work and speak out in favor of an economy that cares for the poor and is resolutely opposed to an unjust order which, under the pretext of reducing poverty, has often helped to aggravate it. God has given Africa important natural resources. Given the chronic poverty of its people, who suffer the effects of exploitation and embezzlement of funds both locally and abroad, the opulence of certain groups shocks the human conscience. Organized for the creation of wealth in their homelands, and not infrequently with the complicity of those in power in Africa, these groups too often ensure their own prosperity at the expense of the well-being of the local population." (No. 79)

Islam in Africa: "In some countries good relations exist between Christians and Muslims; in others the local Christians are merely second-class citizens, and Catholics from abroad, religious and lay, have difficulty obtaining visas and residence permits; in some there is insufficient distinction between the religious and political spheres, while in others, finally, there is a climate of hostility. I call upon the church, in every situation, to persist in esteem for Muslims, who 'worship God who is one, living and subsistent; merciful and almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to humanity.' If all of us who believe in God desire to promote reconciliation, justice and peace, we must work together to banish every form of discrimination, intolerance and religious fundamentalism." (No. 94)

Illiteracy's Toll: "Illiteracy represents one of the principal obstacles to development. It is a scourge on a par with that of the pandemics. True, it does not kill directly, but it contributes actively to the marginalization of the person -- which is a form of social death -- and it blocks access to knowledge. Teaching people to read and write makes them full members of the 'res publica' and enables them to play their part in building it up; for Christians it provides access to the inestimable treasure of the sacred Scriptures that nourish their life of faith." (No. 76)

5. Document's Theology of Reconciliation

Just before he signed the apostolic exhortation in Benin, Pope Benedict commented in a brief talk that "a church reconciled within herself and among all her members can become a prophetic sign of reconciliation in society" and can help guide the struggle against "every form of slavery" in the modern world.

A definite connection is drawn again and again in this document between:

-- The reconciliation of Christians with God.

-- The reconciliation of Christians with each other.

-- A mission of reconciliation to the larger world.

In the pope's vision, reconciliation for Christians reflects both a "way of life and a mission." He says that the church needs "witnesses who are profoundly rooted in Christ," witnesses who help to build "communion among God's family" and who can communicate "to the world -- if necessary even to the point of martyrdom -- the spirit of reconciliation, justice and peace, after the example of Christ."

Pope Benedict advises the Catholics of Africa "to be reconciled to God" and in this way to "become agents of reconciliation within the ecclesial and social communities" in which they "live and work."

Introducing the theme of "reconciliation" early in his text, Pope Benedict points toward his underlying theology, stating:

"To see the church as a family and a fraternity is to recover one aspect of her heritage. In this community where Jesus Christ, 'the firstborn among many brethren' (Rom 8:29), reconciled all people with God the Father (cf. Eph 2:14-18) and bestowed the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:22), the church for her part becomes the bearer of the good news that every human person is a child of God. She is called to transmit this message to all humanity by proclaiming the salvation won for us by Christ, by celebrating our communion with God and by living in fraternal solidarity."

So, while a spirit of reconciliation fosters fraternal solidarity with people who are not necessarily Christians, the new evangelization goes hand in hand with it. "Evangelization today takes the name of reconciliation," the pope says.

He explains in the apostolic exhortation that the new evangelization "presumes that Christians are reconciled with God and with one another." It also "demands that we be reconciled with our neighbors and that we overcome every kind of barrier, including those arising from language, culture and race."

He adds, "All of us are children of one God and Father."

6. Connecting Reconciliation With Justice

The apostolic exhortation views the promotion of reconciliation in the church and society as a vital step toward establishing societies of peace and justice. Pope Benedict says that "a charity that fails to respect justice and the rights of all is false." He therefore encourages "Christians to become exemplary in the area of justice and charity" - in other words, exemplary in justice that is transformed by charity.

A follower of Christ "must help to create a just society where all will be able to participate actively, using their particular talents, in social and economic life," Pope Benedict says. But he notes that what Christ proposes is not "a revolution of a social or political kind, but a revolution of love."

The pope reiterates something he has said previously, namely, that "the building of a just social order is part of the competence of the political sphere." He adds in the apostolic exhortation, however, that a task "of the church in Africa consists in forming upright consciences receptive to the demands of justice so as to produce men and women willing and able to build this just social order by their responsible conduct."

The document advises Catholics in Africa that "in the spirit of the Beatitudes, preferential attention is to be given to the poor, the hungry, the sick (for example, those with AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria), to the stranger, the disadvantaged, the prisoner, the immigrant who is looked down upon, the refugee or displaced person." It says that "the response to these people's needs in justice and charity depends on everyone."

The "grave injustices" found within "our world as a whole and within Africa in particular" pose a challenge to human consciences, Pope Benedict writes. He comments, for example, that "the plundering of the goods of the earth by a minority to the detriment of entire peoples is unacceptable because it is immoral."

An issue in need of attention is that of "rendering justice to whole peoples," the pope suggests. He insists that "Africa is capable of providing every individual and every nation of the continent with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development." Then Africans will be able "to place their God-given talents and riches at the service of their land and their brothers and sisters."

The Eucharist is basic in the theology of reconciliation and mission presented by the pope. Scripture testifies, he notes, that "the blood which Christ shed for us becomes, through baptism, the principle and bond of a new fraternity." For the church community this "is the very antithesis of division, tribalism, racism and ethnocentrism."

Pope Benedict refers to the Eucharist as "the force which brings together the scattered children of God and maintains them in communion." The table of the Lord "gathers together men and women of different origins, cultures, races, languages and ethnic groups. Thanks to the body and blood of Christ, they become truly one," the pope states.

And a commitment to service follows from this. Pope Benedict says that those who "receive Jesus in the Eucharist and in the Scriptures" are then "sent out into the world to proclaim Christ by placing [themselves] at the service of others."

7. Dynamics of a Spirituality of Communion

With reconciliation as a theme, the new apostolic exhortation calls upon Catholics to practice a "spirituality of communion" among themselves, suggesting that this spirituality not only expresses their own unity and care for each other, but can influence their relations with others.

Within the church, a spirituality of communion flows from a genuine spirit of reconciliation, the pope suggests.

Perhaps you remember Pope John Paul II's presentation of the dynamics of a spirituality of communion. Those dynamics help to explain how Christians, shaped in their own relationships by such a spirituality, might see it as their duty to foster reconciliation in other arenas of society.

Christians themselves are diverse in many ways, after all. Yet a unity is forged among them.

It is as if to say that a spirituality of communion among Christians themselves is something of a training ground, a preparation for relating in constructive, caring ways to others who are different - ways that do not overlook what is good about others and that welcome the opportunity to communicate the Gospel in ways that are possible.

It seems noteworthy that Pope Benedict's analysis of the spirituality of communion appears in the context of his mention of paths "to help Africa be freed from the forces that are paralyzing her."

Pope Benedict explains that within the Christian community a spirituality of communion recognizes the desires and needs of others, while offering genuine friendship to them. He says that a spirituality of communion entails an ability to see God in "the faces of brothers and sisters around us, to be attentive to our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the mystical body, and therefore as those who are a part of me."

A spirituality of communion, he says, leads to the ability to welcome "all that is positive in the other so as to welcome it and prize it as a gift that God gives me through that person."

Finally, this spirituality is able "to make room for our brothers and sisters, bearing each other's burdens and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy."

It is a way of life that begins at home in the Christian community, so to speak, and a way of life that bears benefits in the surrounding world.

8. More Quotes From the Apostolic Exhortation

Protect the Environment: "Some businessmen and women, governments and financial groups are involved in programs of exploitation that pollute the environment and cause unprecedented desertification. Serious damage is done to nature, to the forests, to flora and fauna, and countless species risk extinction. All of this threatens the entire ecosystem and consequently the survival of humanity. I call upon the church in Africa to encourage political leaders to protect such fundamental goods as land and water for the human life of present and future generations and for peace between peoples." (No. 80)

Migrants in Africa: "Millions of migrants, displaced persons and refugees are searching for a homeland and a peaceful country in Africa or elsewhere. Thousands of people have tried and continue trying to cross deserts and seas, searching for an oasis of peace and prosperity, better education and greater freedom. Unfortunately, many refugees and displaced persons encounter all kinds of violence and exploitation, even prison, and all too often death. Some states have responded to this dramatic situation with repressive legislation. The precarious situation of these poor people should awaken everyone's compassion and generous solidarity; yet it often gives rise to fear and anxiety." (No. 84)

Traditional African Religions: "Witchcraft, which is based on the traditional religions, is currently experiencing a certain revival. Old fears are resurfacing and creating paralyzing bonds of subjection. Anxiety over health, well-being, children, the climate and protection from evil spirits at times leads people to have recourse to practices of traditional African religions that are incompatible with Christian teaching. The problem of 'dual affiliation' -- to Christianity and to the traditional African religions -- remains a challenge." (No. 93)