The continent is the fastest growing region for Catholicism in the world, but the challenges are real
While the Western media focused intently on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and then the high drama of the Synod of Bishops in recent months, the pontiff’s impending trip to central Africa has largely gone unnoticed. Pope Francis will visit Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic from Nov. 25-30 on his first papal journey to Africa.
The theme of the papal visit, “Stand firm and be strong,” is a very apt one given both the challenges and opportunities for the Church in the continent.
A Church on the rise
Africa has emerged as a powerful spiritual bulwark and is the fastest growing region for Catholicism anywhere on the planet. Presently, there are more than 200 million Catholics in the continent. That number is expected to increase to 460.4 million by 2040. Already, Africans account for nearly one-fifth of the global Catholic population.
African cardinals and bishops also emerged during the last two synods as major voices against secularization and relativism and staunch opponents of any abandonment of Church teaching on marriage.
At the same time, Africa is still beset with problems and crises, ranging from economic, social and political instability, endemic poverty, the march of radical Islam, mass migration, globalization, climate change and ideological colonization by the West in the areas of life, family and gender. Francis will talk about all of those things, but he will also be a symbol of God’s loving mercy and will encourage Africans to fulfill the optimism expressed by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 that Africa will become truly “an immense spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.”
More than any other journey of this pontificate, in Africa, Francis faces some genuine risks to his safety. Jihadists have brought acute violence to Kenya, and security will be extremely tight, especially in Nairobi. Even more worrisome is the situation in the Central African Republic, where a bitter political struggle that includes Muslim-Christian fighting may delay badly needed elections and even derail the papal trip entirely.
The pope will begin in Kenya, home to more than 13 million Catholics, with more than 4 million of them inhabiting the sprawling Archdiocese of Nairobi. Francis will find a country that is struggling to stabilize democratic institutions in the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence that displaced more than 500,000 Kenyans and left more than 1,200 dead. The country is plagued by rampant corruption and incompetence and mounting hostility from the radical Islamic terror group al-Shabab, which has launched attacks from its bases in Somalia, slaughtering Christians, including the April massacre of 149 Christian students at Garissa University in eastern Kenya. In 2013, the group murdered 67 people at the popular Westgate shopping mall.
Kenyan Church leaders are praying that Francis’ visit will spark reconciliation and bring unity to the Kenyan people. At a news conference at the end of October, Cardinal John Njue, the archbishop of Nairobi, said the pope’s trip is a blessing and added his aspiration that Francis “is coming to bring a message of peace and hope.” He expected the pontiff to address corruption, climate change, tribalism and religious strife. The papal schedule in Kenya includes a Mass at the University of Nairobi where 1.5 million are expected to attend.
Traveling to Uganda from Nairobi, Francis will arrive in one of the poorest countries on earth that is also home to 16 million Catholics, nearly half of the total population.
Dominated politically since 1986 by President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda also has suffered from bitter civil wars that have caused the deaths of 5.4 million people since 1998 and forced millions to flee into surrounding countries.
Francis will encourage Catholic leaders to promote political reconciliation and for Ugandans to stand firm against the imposition of Western ideologies. Uganda has been in the front lines of battling pressure from the U.S. and international agencies to embrace contraceptives in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but the Ugandan stress on abstinence has long been credited with making Uganda one of the few great success stories in the war against HIV. Ugandans are also resisting all efforts to accommodate the West’s LGBT agenda.
Francis will certainly speak about commitment to faith when he stops at both the Anglican and Catholic Shrines of the Martyrs of Namugongo, the commonly called Martyrs of Uganda, 32 young men put to death by King Mwanga II of Buganda in 1886 for refusing to abjure the Christian faith. The Catholic martyrs were canonized in 1964 by Blessed Pope Paul VI.
Central African Republic
From Entebbe, Uganda, Pope Francis will fly to the dangerous capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui. There are more than 1.6 million Catholics in the country, some 36 percent of the total population, and the nation has been in Francis’ thoughts over the last weeks as the political crisis deepened. While the country is majority Christian, Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a coup in 2013. The civil war that followed included ethnic cleansing. Under international pressure, the Muslim rebels ceded power to a transitional government, but hopes for lasting peace were dashed by new attacks and retribution in Bangui that have killed more than 100 people. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, since the renewed violence began, nearly 400,000 people have fled to camps, and an additional 440,000 have sought safety in neighboring countries.
At his Sunday Angelus on Nov. 1, the pope asked for prayers for the “afflicted and tormented nation,” spoke of the “painful episodes of the past days that have worsened the situation in Central African Republic” and appealed to all parties to take action to end the brutality.
In Bangui, he will make a call on a refugee camp and will celebrate Masses at Barthélémy Boganda Stadium and at Bangui Cathedral.
In his Nov. 1 Angelus, Pope Francis added a special desire: “To express the closeness of the entire Church in praying for the country,” he said, “and to urge all Central Africans to be greater witnesses of compassion and reconciliation, I intend to open the Holy Door of the Cathedral of Bangui on Nov. 29.”
It should be spiritually powerful for the Catholics of the country, but the event that is most anticipated is his courageous visit to the central Mosque of Koudoukou, situated in one of the most perilous neighborhoods of the city. The message from the pope for dialogue will be unmistakable. Sadly, given the upheaval, it is distinctly possible that the encounter may not happen. If it does, Francis will remind the world that he will go anywhere — even a war zone — for peace.
That, too, will send a message.