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Africa-wide Roman Catholic body marks 50 years of progress

Clergy wear commemorative vestments during the opening ceremony of the 18th Plenary Assembly and Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar on July 21, 2019, in Kampala, Uganda. Photo courtesy of SECAM

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Roman Catholic leaders in Africa are celebrating the church’s progress and steady growth across the continent as they meet in Kampala, Uganda, this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.

Established during Pope Paul VI’s 1969 first-ever papal visit to Africa to give its churches a forum to address local and global concerns with one voice, SECAM once consisted of fewer than 50 clerics. The symposium now brings together some 400 delegates from 40 national and regional bodies, including cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests.

Since 1969, church membership in Africa has more than quadrupled, reaching 178 million, from 40 million, and Roman Catholicism is one of the fastest-growing and most vibrant faiths on the continent.

“It is our sincere desire that this anniversary will be an occasion for reflecting on and embracing spiritual and pastoral renewal, both on your part and that of the entire church in this continent,” Archbishop Protase Rugambwa, the Vatican’s secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, told the gathering.

In his sermon opening the weeklong gathering on Sunday (July 21), Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle of Ghana noted that the boom in ordinations in African countries meant that African missionaries are now going to Europe, Canada, the U.S. and Latin America to serve in the Western church that once evangelized Africa.

“We are contributing greatly to integral human development, through hundreds of hospitals and clinics … schools and training colleges, universities and professional formation programs,” he said.

The success of the church in Africa is seen as a validation of the concept of “enculturation of the gospel,” which grounds evangelism in local culture. Paul VI saw traditional African moral and religious values as a foundation on which the gospel could be delivered and a new society based on Christ to be created.

Rugambwa said enculturation is as relevant today as it was in the past.

“It is important to recall that the goal of enculturation … is to allow the church to emerge as authentically African,” he said in his speech to the SECAM delegates.

Likewise, Rugambwa said, the challenges the church faced five decades ago have not changed. Economic development, education, health, preservation of the family and civil society concerns are still obstacles to a just social order, according to the prelate.

“It is not an easy mission, since it stretches into the sphere and duty of politics, which is not one of the direct competencies of the church,” he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni also addressed the gathering. He said that although Africa is doing better in faith matters, it lags behind in the economic and social welfare of its people.

“This is the welfare of your parishioners, of your people whom you lead spiritually. … That is where the challenge is,” Museveni said, urging the church to prioritize basic human development.

Low economic productivity, he said, affects the work of both the church and the state.

“Since the systems are not giving enough, Christians also give little offering to the church,” he noted.

The clerics met amid the growing challenges posed by Islamists, especially in West Africa, and will also discuss the emergence of “splinter” groups as some Catholic priests quit to form their own churches, among other concerns.

At the end of the meeting, the bishops will produce a document that will review the past work and give a direction for the church in Africa in the next five decades.

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