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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 178-195
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Prospects of Ecclesia in Africa in the Twenty-first Century
Introduction: On the Prospect of an African Pope--The Success Story
"Father Emmanuel, Do you think the next pope is going to be from Africa?" the question is often put to me. I do not know how many times I have had to answer, or better, to dodge this question. No doubt, when the question is asked of an African Catholic priest it is supposed to make him feel good at the very prospect of having "one of us" in the Chair of St. Peter. On a more serious level, however, that such a prospect is even entertained, albeit only hypothetically, reflects the widespread optimism or confidence in the status of African Christianity in general, African Catholicism in particular. The 1995 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, itself provides an excellent example of the optimism relating to the Church in Africa. In Ecclesia in Africa, John Paul II, even though clearly aware of the various problems and challenges facing the African Church, celebrates "the glory and splendor of the present [End Page 178] period of Africa's evangelization" and the tremendous growth and maturity of the Church in Africa, which point to "God's marvelous deeds for Africa"(EA, 33-38). 1
It is clear therefore, that even though there might be a pervading mood of Afro-pessimism in relation to Africa's social, political, and economic future, the pessimism does not extend to the field of Christianity. Coming from a slightly different angle, the Ghananian Kwame Bediako so nicely captured the sort of optimism so characteristic of reviews on African Christianity:
In our time there has been much allusion to the marginalization of Africa, following the end of the cold war era . . . However, . . . in one particular aspect, Africa will not be mar- ginalized. That one area is the field of Christian theology and Christian religious scholarship generally. (Bediako 1993:11)
In this one area, we witness what Bediako variously characterized as a "surprise," an "incredible miracle" in the "phenomenal" growth of Christianity in Africa. In fact, for Bediako, as for many others, this "amazing success story" is a clear indication that the "tip of the balance" and the corresponding "shift of the center of gravity" predicted by Barret (Barret 1970:50) has already taken place--making Africa, and not Europe, the new heartland of Christianity.
A look at the statistics easily confirms the story of a massively and still growing Christian continent: According to 1990 estimates 41 percent of Africa's 550 million people were Christians, with Catholicism as the single dominant denomination (claiming slightly over 12 percent of Africa's population). This percentage is much higher in countries south of the Sahara: Over 60 percent of Ghana's 19 million people are Christians; 65 percent of Cameroonians are Christians (over 30 percent Catholic), 75 percent of Zambians are Christians, and 78 percent of Uganda's 20 million people are Christians, with Catholicism claiming over 40 percent of the population (Gifford 1998:61, 133, 183, 251). Whatever else these statistics [End Page 179] suggest, they certainly confirm that Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is a massively Christian continent.
This strength is often reflected in the growth in the number of vocations to priesthood and religious life. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, seminaries and convents do not have enough room for the aspirants to religious life. The Catholic Seminary of Cape Cost in Ghana, for example, has over five hundred men preparing for priesthood. The Bigard Memorial Seminary in Nigeria remains perhaps the most populous, with over nine hundred seminarians on its two campuses.
Impressive as the statistical growth of Christianity in Africa and the Catholic Church in particular is, it would be misleading to limit the optimism relating to the future of Catholicism in Africa to mere statistics. For the vitality and dynamism of the liturgical expression in many African Churches seems to have captured...