Catholic bishops study problems facing Africa


VATICAN CITY -- Summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II for a special congress, Roman Catholic bishops from Africa are seeking to match the demands of their faith with the social, political and economic needs of a hungry and often violent continent.

For some 300 bishops from the 53 nations of Africa attending a month-long synod here, "inculturation" -- the melding of Roman Catholicism with African traditions -- emerged as an overriding concern. "It is the marriage of faith and life," said the group's interim document.

Relentless tribal savagery in Rwanda, the most Christian country in Africa, is a tragic counterpart to the exaltation of a continent where Catholicism is growing quickly and the Vatican counts 80 million believers among 610 million people.

A practical advantage of holding the synod in Rome is that it exposes the stay-at-home Vatican administration, or curia, directly to leaders of the African church. And such meetings provide a valuable chance for participants to compare notes.

"Exploration of common problems by bishops who didn't necessarily know one another should result in a stronger African church," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a California Jesuit who is following the synod as a specialist in church organization.

The secular context for a church transported to Africa in the past century by European missionaries emerges with painful clarity as the bishops -- 90 percent of them Africans -- recite a litany of continental needs.

"In almost all our nations, there is abject poverty, tragic mismanagement of available resources, political instability and social disorientation," noted Cardinal Hyacinthe Thiandoum of Senegal.

Part of the blame rests with Europe and North America, which contribute material assistance to Africa, but are also responsible for "bombs and weapons to destroy our people, and to create insoluble debts," observed Mozambique Cardinal Alexander Jose Maria dos Santos.

The burden of responsibility for African trauma, however, rests heaviest not on outsiders but on African political leaders, the bishops warned.

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