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VATICAN LETTER Nov-24-2004 (770 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Changes, challenges: African church blueprint is work in progress

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- It seems like only yesterday that Pope John Paul II convened a series of continentwide synods of bishops to prepare for Holy Year 2000.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when the pope announced in mid-November that he was calling a second African synod, to deal with new pastoral and social challenges on the continent.

"Again?" was the perplexed refrain heard in more than one Vatican office after the pope's announcement.

At first glance, it might appear that the pope was indulging in the Vatican's "call-a-meeting" approach to almost any issue or problem.

But a closer look reveals some deeper reasons behind the synod decision, many of them tied to the fast pace of change -- for good and bad -- that has visited the African continent since the last synod ended in 1994.

Consider these church developments:

-- Of Africa's 426 active bishops, nearly half were named in the period 1995-2004, so never experienced the synod.

-- The continent's Catholic population has increased over the same period by an estimated 30 percent.

-- The number of parishes has increased more than 20 percent, the number of priests and seminarians around 30 percent and the number of women religious about 18 percent.

All these factors help explain why Africans on the synod's follow-up council began floating the idea of a second synod a few years ago.

The changes in Africa's social situation over the last decade have been no less dramatic:

-- Ethnic and political conflicts have raged in places like Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia and Ivory Coast, with estimates of up to 4 million people killed. Some 4 million more have been made refugees, and more than 10 million have been internally displaced.

-- More than 20 million Africans have been infected with AIDS/HIV since 1994. In sub-Saharan Africa today, about 7.5 percent of all adults aged 15-49 are HIV-positive.

-- While Africa still lags behind the rest of the world in communications technology, use of the Internet in Africa has soared in recent years. About 13 million Africans are now online.

-- Urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa jumped by more than 15 percent, taxing city social services and creating a whole new urban landscape of poverty.

Vatican sources said the decision to hold a second African synod came only after African bishops were quietly polled in recent months. Not everyone wanted a synod, which traditionally is held in Rome and controlled by Rome. But many African church leaders think there will be plenty of opportunity for grass-roots participation before the synod actually takes place.

"For the people in Africa, the preparatory period is as important as the synod. And in this case, we are probably looking at several years of preparation," said one Vatican official.

African church leaders can point to some successes after the 1994 synod, which resulted in 76 final recommendations and a 149-page papal document outlining a pastoral plan of action for Africa.

One focus of the synod was Catholic education, and over the last decade -- despite a shortage of resources -- the number of church-run schools in Africa has grown more than 10 percent, and the number of students nearly 40 percent.

Another big change has been the higher number of African priests and laity studying abroad and even working outside Africa.

Some Catholics in Africa feel there also have been some missed opportunities since the first synod. Earlier this year, the Kenyan Catholic magazine New People signaled three challenges that remain:

-- Permanent deacons. Despite encouragement from the 1994 synod, the permanent diaconate has not caught on in local African communities. There are fewer than 350 deacons in all of Africa. Part of the reason may be economics: permanent deacons, like catechists, are often married and supporting families, so need a commensurate salary.

-- Women. The pope's post-synodal letter recommended that bishops' conferences set up commissions to study women's problems in the church and in society -- an idea that has not been fully implemented.

-- Interreligious dialogue. With many people now speaking of a global clash between Christianity and Islam -- and with interreligious anxiety growing in places like Nigeria -- it is important for Africans of both faiths to deepen efforts at real dialogue and cooperation.

Perhaps more than anything, the pope's call for a second African synod recognizes that the church is undergoing dynamic development on the continent. For that reason, the pastoral blueprint for Africa's third millennium must be seen as a work in progress.


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