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Oblate Superior General’s Meditation: The African Synod – “A breath of fresh air”

November 10th, 2009

The Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops took place in Rome on 4-25 October on the theme The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. Missionary Oblates Superior General Rev. Fr. Wilhelm Steckling OMI looked at the African Synod in his November missionary reflection statement, which we would like to share here.

Oblates have been present in Africa since Saint Eugene’s time and its importance for our Congregation keeps increasing. What do we know about Africa? While the Continent occasionally appears on the world news there is still too much silence about it. Very recently we got an opportunity to hear what our African Church leaders are saying about their Continent and I invite us all to lend them listening ears.

The first Synod for Africa was held 15 years ago. I still remember the opening ceremony, I had just settled here in Rome. As it seems, that synod was mostly a time to become acquainted. The post-synodal document, “Ecclesia in Africa”, inspired us with the image of “the Church as God’s Family” which it took “as its guiding idea for the evangelization of Africa” (EIA 63).

The “Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops” ended a week ago. It focused on “The Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace”. Among the 240 participant bishops, eight were Oblates, and among the almost equal number of auditors, experts, fraternal delegates and helpers we had, for the first time, five of our scholastics involved, offering different services.

We will have to wait a few months for the main document to appear but the message given at the conclusion is already out. I found it particularly outspoken and striking, and to read the whole text is worthwhile. Let me highlight just a few points, in three steps. While the message tells us how the African Synod sees its continent, it may also offer us inspiration for our mission in other parts of the world.

I. At the outset, the synod offers an overall view of the Continent and does so in a balanced way. It starts off with the statement that “We live in a world full of contradictions and deep crisis. … In all this, Africa is the most hit. Rich in human and natural resources, many of our people are still left to wallow in poverty and misery, wars and conflicts, crisis and chaos.” Analyzing these situations it appears that those “are very rarely caused by natural disasters. They are largely due to human decisions and activities by people who have no regard for the common good and this often through a tragic complicity and criminal conspiracy of local leaders and foreign interests.” On the other hand the light of a new dawn is already shining. “Africa must not despair. … There is much good news in many parts of Africa. But the modern media often tend to emphasize bad news and thus seem to focus more on our woes and defects than on the positive efforts that we are making. Nations have emerged from long years of war and are moving gradually along the path of peace and prosperity. Good governance is making appreciable positive impact in some African nations, challenging others to review past and present bad habits.”

II. Following this overview, the synod turns to its main theme, which concerns reconciliation, justice and peace. We are invited to contemplate the heart of Christ: “The Church in Africa, both as family of God and as individual faithful has the duty to be instruments of peace and reconciliation, after the heart of Christ, who is our peace and reconciliation.” Is not reconciliation one of the great missionary tasks of the Oblates all over the world? The African Synod issues a call to help “break the vicious circle of offence, revenge and counter attack. In all this, the virtue of pardon is crucial, even before any admission of guilt. Those who say that pardon does not work should try revenge and see.” What a powerful message coming as it is from Church leaders who often are living in the in the midst of war and strife, or in its aftermath! It indicates as the only way out, making ours that pardon which flows from Christ’s heart. There is no alternative to it. “Those who say that pardon does not work should try revenge and see”.

III. A number of other themes follow, and I mention just a few. There is the appeal to the local Churches to “ensure real participation of women at appropriate levels”. There is the reference to HIV/AIDS when the Synod affirms “The Church is second to none in the fight against HIV/AIDS” and launches an appeal to follow programs that propose fidelity. “We address ourselves particularly to you, the youth. Let no one deceive you into thinking that you cannot control yourselves. Yes you can, with the grace of God.” There is finally the call on the great powers of the world: “we plead: treat Africa with respect and dignity.” “A change in the world economic order” is needed and the Synod is quite specific: “A change is called for with regard to the debts burden against poor nations, which literally kills children. Multinationals have to stop their criminal devastation of the environment in their greedy exploitation of natural resources. It is short-sighted policy to foment wars in order to make fast gains from chaos, at the cost of human lives and blood.” The appeal finishes with a loud cry: “Is there no one out there able and willing to stop all these crimes against humanity?”

I was touched by the whole message which contains both deep, faith-filled reflections and passionate, outspoken appeals. At the General House we got a taste of this spirit when about a dozen bishops, Oblates and others, visited with us during the second week of the proceedings. With this synod, the continent has made visible how much Africa is part of Christ’s body, the Church – part of all of us. Pope Benedict said at the inaugural Mass that “Africa represents an enormous spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope”. Indeed, the synod’s message can help the whole Church to breathe some fresh air.

“Africa is not helpless. Our destiny is still in our hands. All she is asking for is the space to breathe and thrive. Africa is already moving; and the Church is moving with her, offering her the light of the Gospel.”

Oblates at Africa Synod

There was an Oblate presence at the Synod as well, eight bishops in all. There were seven from the different parts of Africa:

  • Three from South Africa: Archbishop Buti TLHAGALE (Johannesburg), Bishop Barry WOOD (Auxiliary of Durban) and Bishop Edward RISI (Keimoes-Upington).
  • Two from Namibia: Archbishop Liborius NASHENDA (Windhoek) and Bishop Joseph SHIKONGO (Rundu).
  • One from Chad: Bishop Jean Claude BOUCHARD (Pala).
  • One from Lesotho: Archbishop Gerard LEROTHOLI (Maseru).

Among the bishops invited by the Holy Father was Archbishop Orlando QUEVEDO (Cotabato, Philippines). He serves as General Secretary of the Federation of Asian Episcopal Conferences. Also assisting at the Synod were four Oblate students from the International Scholasticate who had the unique opportunity of serving as “assistants” to the Synod Fathers during the three-week event at the Vatican:

  • Bro. Bonga Thamsanqa MAJOLA (Northern Prov. South Africa)
  • Bro. Thabang NKADIMENG (Northern Prov. South Africa)
  • Bro. Ndodana TSHUMA (Zimbabwe)
  • Bro. Andreas Sekake THAMAE (Lesotho)
  • Bro. Marcin SERWIN (Assumption)

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