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African synod in Rome sends wrong signal.

Pope John Paul formally announced, Jan. 6, Feast of the Epiphany, 1989, that there would be a synod of the African church. The draft document or lineamenta was soon produced. But the church in Africa, growing at the rate of a million and a half baptized every year, bad to wait four years before discovering where and when the synod would be held.

John Paul solved the mystery in Kampala on his 10th visit to Africa. Starting April 10, 1994, the synod will meet in Rome, where all other "special synods" have been held, as a sign of the communion between the African bishops and the successor of St. Peter.

This will be followed, at a later date, by the "celebratory" phase of the synod, which will take place in "several African countries" in the presence of the pope. This two-phase distinction means the real work will be done in Rome while the synod's conclusions will be promulgated in Africa to ensure maximum television coverage.

This decision will disappoint Africans who had hoped or assumed that Africa would be the setting for the synod. They had proposed two sessions but of a somewhat different kind. Father Kizito Sesana, editor of the Pan-African magazine New People, wanted the preparations for the synod to be a "participatory process."

To this end, he proposed two major sessions with 18 months between them so that bishops "and other delegates" could use the interval to discuss the issues with their own communities.

This was never very likely. This is a synod of bishops, organized by the synod Secretariat in Rome. Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the Slovak prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was in charge. Tomko seemingly did not take kindly to Sesana's idea of delegates representing all African Catholics.

The synod's preparation so far confirms a somewhat gloomy verdict for the gathering. Everything that has happened has served gradually to cut the synod down to size. The original idea was to hold not a synod but a council for Africa.

Africans were fired up by what Paul VI said at Kampala, Uganda, on his one and only Africa trip in 1969: "You can and must have an African Christianity. From now on you must become missionaries of yourselves."

A council was the traditional way to define a local church and set it on its way as a mature sister church. The African bishops, moreover, felt they had missed out on Vatican II: Of 264 bishops representing Africa, 191 were expatriate missionaries.

Bishop Paysina Laurent Monsengwo, from Zaire, president of the African bishops' theological committee, said in 1985 that "this consultation comes about as the result of the will of the African church as a whole, and therefore the African church as a whole should assume responsibility for it and for African problems."

Of course, the pope was expected to preside through a legate, but the Africans would have to do the work. And for that an African setting and a certain autonomy was necessary.

The late Cardinal Joseph Malula, archbishop of Kinshasa, Zaire, the leading spokesperson for reform, insisted there was nothing anti-Roman about Africans wanting a council. "Rome is our mother," he said, "and we will never reject the mother who nourished us and brought us salvation."

Malula saw the council as a chance for the universal church, symbolized by the pope, to listen to the specific problems of Africa. But Rome has not seemed willing.

The parallels with the CELAM conference at Santo Domingo last October are striking.

A synod is predictable, manipulable; a council can make off with the agenda, set up its own commissions, show a will of its own. The synod Secretariat, headed by Belgian Archbishop Jan Schotte, seems to have tried to eliminate much spontaneity from the gathering.

This charge was made by the provincial of the Missionaries of Africa (ex-white Fathers) in Mali, Father Jan Varenterghem. The synod lineamenta in their first draft, he pointed out, "instead of looking at what is happening in Africa today, begins with a doctrinal presentation and an historical summary."

The working paper offered 81 questions for discussion - and pronounced its list as exhaustive. Varenterghem asked: "Where do these questions come from? Who is asking them? What are they intended for?" If this list is final, the synod will be a deeply frustrating experience.

Many taboo questions, he said, were not included. Among them: the population explosion, communities without a priest, customary marriage, "new ministries" and lay ministries, the pill, married priests.

On "inculturization," the buzz synonym for Africanization, Varentergbem thought there should be "some positive and courageous thinking" instead of dire warnings about "risks of deviations" (that he did not minimize).

Finally, Varenterghem found the treatment of justice totally inadequate. There was no reference to the 1971 synod on justice, none to the African bishops' own document, "Human Promotion and Justice," and none to their emphasis on "base communities" as the way forward.

This was a Roman document, prepared in Roman offices. Bishops have now had the chance to respond to it and have done so massively - 94 percent, said John Paul, a remarkable response. What they have said is not yet known.

The African bishops' own "Human Promotion and Justice" document sketches out the way they appear willing to go: "The church's answer to the problems of poverty and injustice should not just be to throw money at them or provide material aid; it must give a Christian inspiration to the entire work of development and liberation."

Throughout his African trip, John Paul laid great emphasis on good relations with Islam. Islam is the great competitor for the soul of Africa, where it has a long history. It adapts easily to African culture.

The church has missed an opportunity. The better way to have answered the charge that Christianity is not a "European" religion imported from the outside would have been to hold the synod in Africa. Holding it in Rome sends a different message.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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