Pope Francis emphases on his first visit to Africa in November 2015 are significant for World Christianity discourse on in at least two ways. The first is that it signals the importance of the next generation in the future growth of the church. Secondly it brings to the front burner the question of inter religious dialogue in the context of an increasingly religiously diverse global stage.
In his visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African republic, Pope Francis made it a point to meet with and address young catholics and their leaders, both lay and clergy.i This was, in some ways, an acknowledgement that the future of the Catholic church depends on these young people. Some recent statistics support this. For instance, according to the “Catholic Church statistics” document, the number of catholics grew in Africa by 7 million in 2013.ii This constituted about 30% of total growth of catholics in the world in that year. This growth emerges from a continent that has, as its majority, young people.iii
Given this kind of growth of Catholicism in the world, and in Africa in particular, could we conclude that there is a catholic renewal underway on the continent? Before we answer this we make an observation from the statistics document. The number of catholics per priest reduced by 506 in Africa.iv Here we see that for the growth of the catholic church reflected in Africa, there has been a matching increase in the number of priests to cater for this growth, and even reduce the ratio. In this way, the Catholic movement is both growing in terms of its numbers, and in its leadership.
This document does not explain the reason for this growth in the numbers of catholics and their leaders. We would have to look elsewhere for clues to offer explanations for this. One possibility may be the Evangelical Renewal Movements [ERM] theory.v This theory proposes that religious renewal emerges out of an effort to resolve a problem with a new paradigm. The renewal movement develops mechanisms of transferring power to a new constituency of leaders who, through the new paradigms, carry the movement forward.vi ERM theory could be one framework that may explain the growth of numbers of Catholic priests in Africa.
The growth of Catholicism in Africa has spurred on the increase in priests to whom the leadership role is transferred. While this not necessarily be the only explanation, it may well account for the improvement in the congregation to priest ratio, if we take Catholicism to be in renewal mode in Africa. Pope Francis’ emphasis on the youth is an acknowledgement of their role in the growth of the church. It is also a step towards securing the future of the church especially if it inspires engagement of the youth in lay and clergy leadership. The catholic church’s approach as a single focussed entity carries the advantage of galvanising the development and communication of a sustained agenda to remain relevant to the youth.
Pope Francis engaged in inter-religious dialogue in all the three countries he visited. His call was for peace and hope for the continent. The reality of religious pluralism in Africa has seen multiple flash-points of violence and societal upheaval in different parts of the continent. The Central African Republic recently experienced bloodshed and political unrest with a populace divided along religious lines. The Pope’s visit and his reception tangibly demonstrated the commitment of the Catholic church to inter-religious dialogue for the sake of peace and hope for the continent. His visit to a Mosque in CAR, for example, and the ensuing dialogue was a bold step in a new direction setting aside religious and theological differences to be present and available for dialogue.
Africa’s relationship with both Christianity and Islam is long and complex dating back to the very inception of both faiths. Anyone wishing to understand the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Africa must take into account historical, political, economic and cultural elements at play in different ways, in different parts of the continent. The more recent economic and political partitioning of Africa 150 years ago only served to increase these complexities. The relationship between South Sudan and Sudan, for instance, is not simply political or religious, it has interesting nuances of both. The now famous Boko Haram presence in Northern Nigeria and the surrounding region has religious, political and economic implications. Central African Republic’s unrest has both political and religious overtones. The war against Al Shabaab in Somalia involving Kenya and the horn of Africa region isn’t just religious, but also about political and cultural control. The Pope’s visit did not delve into the complexities but seemed to have been aimed at providing an avenue for dialogue through which these complexities can be addressed and hope for the continent reawakened.
Christianity in Africa is currently experiencing growth and renewal. While growth is being experienced in the Catholic church, researchers record and anticipate even more growth in the Newer Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches (NPCCs).vii The Pope’s emphasis on youth and inter-religious dialogue carries important points of reflection for these renewal movements.
Newer Pentecostal and Charismatic churches find their greatest growth potential in their appeal to the youth.viii In Africa, which is a young continent, a visit to any growing church will reveal a vibrant youth constituency who are highly engaged and motivated. NPCCs are often independent with loose affiliations, if any, with other similar churches. Can a coordinated, sustained agenda for youth be developed to safeguard the future of church in general? Is the independence and entrepreneurial nature of the NPCC an advantage in enabling the movement to remain relevant to the youth or is it a threat to the future? The Pope’s emphasis provides a unique place to continue dialogue and reflection on this.
The Catholic church’s ability to develop and deploy leaders for the movement is commendable. Data is not available on the rate of development and deployment of leaders in NPCCs. What we do know is that the theological institutions as centers for the recruitment, training and deployment of clergy among NPCCs are not multiplying leaders commensurate to the growth of these churches, if NPCC renewal is to be sustained over the long haul. There isn’t much evidence of significant resources set aside for this process. In this regard there is much to learn from the Catholic church.
Much of the inter-religious dialogue within the evangelical circles has revolved around witness to the non-Christians.ix Peace building initiatives abound within the movements but by and large the formal discourse has centred around how the Gospel is incarnated within the context of relationship with a view to conversion.x Pope Francis visit highlighted the role of Christian active presence and the value of the Gospel for the pan-human values of peace and hope. While witness and evangelism are important, it seems like the Vatican’s emphasis had a broader agenda.xi
The fissile character of NPCCs may militate against a unified approach to inter-religious dialogue. What is required is a rediscovery of the power of a unified approach which, while affirming the centrality of evangelism, appreciates the need to address inter-religious conflict and its impact on Africa today. In this regard national, regional and continental associations that bring together NPCCs can begin to play an even more significant role in education and mobilization of such initiatives.
- “Francis in Uganda: Truth, Justice Reconciliation,” Official Vatican Network, November 2015, http://www.news.va/en/news/francis-in-uganda-despite-our-different-beliefs-we; “Pope Francis’ Image Positive in Much of World,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, November 2015, http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/12/11/pope-francis-image-positive-in-much-of-world/.
- “Catholic Church Statistics” (Agenzia Fides, October 18, 2015), http://www.fides.org/eng/attachments/view/file/STATISTICHE_2015_englok.doc. This document was issued in October 2015, on the occasion of the annual World Mission Day celebrated on October 18, 2015.
- Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Ibrahim Forum 2013: Africa Ahead: The Next 50 Years (Addis Ababa: Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2013); “UN World Youth Report,” United Nations World Youth Report, 2011, http://unworldyouthreport.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=10:conclusions&Itemid=131; “New Report Outlines Priorities to Address Africa’s Youth Employment Challenge,” Text/HTML, World Bank, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/publication/new-report- outlines-priorities-to-address-africa-s-youth-employment-challenge; “Africa’s Youth: A ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ or an Opportunity?,” Africa Renewal Online: UN, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/may-2013/africa%E2%80%99s-youth-%E2%80%9Cticking- time-bomb%E2%80%9D-or-opportunity.
- “Catholic Church Statistics.”
- Mark Shaw, Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010), 17–28.
- Shaw, Global Awakening, 17–28.
- Todd Johnson, “The Global Demographics of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal,” Symposium: Global Perspectives on Pentecostalism 46, no. 6 (November 2009): 479–83, doi:10.1007/s12115-009- 9255-0; Todd Johnson and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2013: Renewalists and Faith and Migration,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 1 (2013): 32–33.
- J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “‘Born of Water and Spirit’: Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in Africa,” in African Christianity: An African Story, ed. Ogbu Kalu (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2005), 401; Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 119ff; J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “Of Faith and Visual Alertness: The Message of ‘Mediatized’ Religion in an African Pentecostal Context,” Material Religion 1, no. 3 (November 2005): 336–56.
- “LOP 13 – Christian Witness to Muslims,” Lausanne Movement, accessed December 7, 2015, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-13; “LOP 14 – Christian Witness to Hindus,” Lausanne Movement, accessed December 7, 2015, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-14; “LOP 15 – Christian Witness to Buddhists,” Lausanne Movement, accessed December 7, 2015, https://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-15.
- “LOP 31 The Uniqueness of Christ in a Postmodern World and the Challenge of World Religions,” Lausanne Movement, 2004, http://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-31.
- “Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue,”accessed December7,2015, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/index.htm.