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More than 500 people attend daily Mass at Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi, Kenya. (CNS photo by Barb Fraze)

AFRICA-GROWTH Jun-24-2004 (840 words) With photos. xxxi

Small Christian communities
contribute to growth of church in Africa

By Barb Fraze
Catholic News Service

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (CNS) -- When Cardinal Polycarp Pengo became archbishop of Dar es Salaam in 1992, the archdiocese had 600,000 Catholics in 20 parishes.

Today, the archdiocese has grown to more than a million Catholics in 48 parishes.

When the Rome-based lay Community of Sant'Egidio met for the first time in Dar es Salaam in 1998, six people got together under a tree. Today in Tanzania, Sant'Egidio has more than 500 people in 12 different communities.

In downtown Nairobi, Kenya, a 1:15 p.m. weekday Mass at Holy Family Basilica consistently draws more than 500 people. The second of the two daily morning Masses also is especially well-attended, said Nairobi archdiocesan officials.

The Catholic Church is growing by leaps and bounds in Kenya and Tanzania, as it is throughout the continent of Africa. Since Pope John Paul II became pope in 1978, the number of Catholics in Africa has increased by nearly 150 percent to 137.5 million.

Some church leaders attribute the growth to development of the concept of small Christian communities, parish-based groups that meet to pray, study Scripture and help others. In 1997, the bishops of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa decided that the model of the small Christian community should be used in every diocese.

"With the small Christian communities, nobody feels alone," Cardinal Pengo told a group of foreign visitors in June.

Irish Jesuit Father Gerry Whelan, pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in a Nairobi slum, said many people who migrate from rural areas to the slums leave the Catholic Church.

"They get very lost; they lose their bearings," and it is easy for them to fall prey to drugs and alcohol, he said.

However, Cardinal Pengo said, "in a small Christian community, people are introduced right away and know the people with whom they are praying."

Samuel Mwanzia, head of the pastoral council at St. Joseph the Worker, said the parish has 16 small Christian communities of 450-500 people each. Each of the communities has six lay ministers, including a catechist, a justice and peace minister, and a community health minister who helps identify people with problems.

Father Whelan said the people are grouped geographically, although church leaders are careful not to group members of just one ethnic group in the same community.

He said the communities' social aid, combined with their spiritual formation, helps undo the notion that Africans must rely on the Catholic Church for help.

Father Whelan said when he and his team of ministers arrived at the parish four years ago, "we walked into unconverted people ... talking the talk of the small Christian communities," but often "their eye was on the money." Now parish leaders work on income-generating schemes -- a furniture factory, carpentry school, savings project -- so they do not have to always rely on help from abroad.

At St. Joseph, he said, parish leaders are trying to emphasize "real lay responsibility and small Christian communities." He said weekend retreats for lay leaders have helped put problems in perspective. For instance, this year's retreat will focus on prevention of AIDS and alcoholism, two prevalent problems.

At a recent Sunday Mass organized by the parish women's group, dozens of women brought forward food and clothing for parishioners identified by community ministers within the small Christian communities. During the second collection, held once a month, children and adults came forward to drop coins into the baskets; the money will be used for the local poor.

More than 1,100 people attended that Mass, and the back walls of the church were opened to accommodate parishioners who sat in a covered amphitheater-type setting so they could participate. Such attendance is typical for the parish's three Sunday Masses and for many parishes in Nairobi, Father Whelan said.

Yet the church also has experienced growing pains.

Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana'a Nzeki of Nairobi said Kenya has major seminaries in four dioceses, and all are overcrowded. In western Kenya, one seminary built for 100 students currently has 300 students, he said.

Cardinal Pengo said that in Tanzania the number of Catholics is increasing faster than the number of vocations.

"The vocations are coming up, but not as fast as we would want them to," he said.

Part of the problem is that the country's six seminaries can only accept about 60 percent of the applicants; there is not enough space and there are not enough teachers, he said.

He also told of the need for more universities -- Catholic or non-Catholic.

"We are so short of personnel" at St. Augustine Catholic University of Tanzania in Mwanza that the school only offers three or four courses of study, he said.

U.S. Jesuit Father Ed Brady, who has lived in Africa since 1985, said the biggest long-term challenge to the church on the continent is "the formation of our pastoral workers." Africa has a large number of seminarians, catechists, priests and nuns, but how to support them also is a challenge, he said.


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