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Monday, 17 November 2014 22:03

Challenges and opportunities for Christianity in Africa

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Fr Erasmus Norviewu-Mortty svdChristianity in Africa is growing fast, but this growth, together with unique cultural factors, presents both challenges and opportunities if the African people are to transform a ‘Sunday Christianity’ into an ongoing personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a Mission Day gathering of Divine Word Missionaries has heard.

Missionary, academic and educator, Fr Erasmus Norviewu-Mortty svd, who was born and raised in Ghana, and continues to be deeply involved in mission and education there, delivered the keynote address to the Mission Day celebration hosted by Dorish Maru College in the Study Centre of the Yarra Theological Union, Box Hill, on October 4.

He said that apart from the waves of Christianity in North Africa in the first millennium of our common era, it was only in the 16th century that the Portuguese Catholics, through their colonial governments and trade missions successfully established a flourishing Roman Catholicism in the Congo.

Similarly, other European missions later developed and promoted the Catholic faith in Kenya and the Eastern coasts of Africa. The history of Catholicism in Africa continued to rise and fall over the centuries in line with political and ecclesiastical developments.

“Christianity was brought to West Africa and to most parts of sub-Saharan African by European and other Western Christian missionaries that knew little about our traditional African values and ways of life,” Fr Erasmus said.

“Many of these early missionaries did not pay much attention to learning the traditions, culture and language of the local African people, as that was not a factor in baptising and saving souls from damnation.”

The result, according to Fr Erasmus, was that Christianity in Africa became a matter of weekend observance of rituals. Christians would zealously attend Mass every Sunday, but what the converted African Christian did during the week seemed not to matter much.

“This dichotomy between what happened at the weekend in the Church, and what happened during the rest of the week, created a huge confusion and dilemma for many early African Christians,” he said.

“They and their great grandparents and their folks, were used to practising a religion that is omnipresent. Their African traditional norms, practices, and lifestyle, were all rooted and harmonised by deep religiousness, expressed in the respect and veneration of their Ancestors and the Spirits that abounded all around them. Religion was ubiquitous. Religion was a matter of 24 hour constant communion with the ancestors and the gods.

“So, to remain a ‘good’ Christian, many African Christian converts took to pleasing their missionaries by going to Church on Sundays, yet hiding under the cover of darkness to visit their local traditional healers and priests for any remedy.”

Mission-Day-dinner-2014-Dorish-MaruFr Erasmus said the Second Vatican Council helped address the problem, when the Church began permitting the translations of the Bible and other liturgical texts into the local vernacular.

“Further, the new ecclesiology presents the Church as ‘People of God’, and all, irrespective of our cultural bias and differences, are part and parcel of the people of God,” he said.

“The Vatican II Church is a Church on a journey, a pilgrim Church that desires to take on board local customs and norms that do not intrinsically contradict the Gospel message, and this gave birth to inculturation and its many derivatives, including cross-cultural studies.

“Thus, there is evidence that some Africans now live their Christian faith both with their minds and their hearts.”

However, Fr Erasmus said that no matter how hard the African Christians try, they still have to grapple with the challenges of dual allegiance to Christian beliefs and traditional African religious beliefs.

To address this challenge, Fr Erasmus suggested that “prolonged catechumenate might be encouraged for some catechumens who have difficulty turning away from these covert traditional religious practices, when this is known”.

There is also a great need to continue inculturation of the Christian message, so that people can feel at home in the Christian religion and efforts should be made to make the use of sacramentals in the Church more meaningful and faith-laden.

“Finally, the priest should help the people to deal with their fears and issues bordering on witchcraft, divination, soothsaying etc,” Fr Erasmus said.

“The average converted African Christian whose faith is not solid, or rooted in Jesus, may continue to grapple relentlessly with these perceived and real demonic spiritual influences. Jesus, the Redeemer, by his death and resurrection has conquered death and evil in all its forms, and there is no better and more effective Protector than Him.

“That is the message that we, as pastors and Christian leaders and missionaries should preach and nurture in Africa.”

Following Fr Erasmus' presentation, Wilbert Mapombere, a barrister and minister, who came to Australia as a refugee from Zimbabwe was the respondent. MC for the day was Fr Philipus Panda.

Following the presentation, those present were invited to take part in the Eucharist at St Paschal’s Chapel, before enjoying a multicultural meal together at Dorish Maru College.

Photo of Fr Erasmus Norviewu-Mortty svd by Thien Nguyen svd

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of the in the Word, the monthly eNewsletter of the Society of the Divine Word Australian Province.

Read more about the life and work of the Society of the Divine Word Australian Province.