At the close of a high-stakes meeting last week, bishops from throughout Africa said the event was a sign of hope, and they also doubled down on their commitment to evangelization, specifically highlighting the role of laypeople.
July 20-29 the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) celebrated both its Golden Jubilee and its 18th Plenary Assembly in Kampala, Uganda, reflecting on the theme: “Church-Family of God in Africa, Celebrate Your Jubilee! Proclaim Jesus Christ Your Savior!”
During the plenary, which drew some 300 participants including bishops, clergy and laity, Cardinal Philippe Nakellentuba Ouédraogo, Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, was elected president of SECAM. He was tapped to lead his archdiocese in 2009 and was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2014.
In a message issued at the close of the meeting, SECAM said the jubilee has been a time of joy, and that the presence of cardinals, bishops, priests and laity present from various nations in Africa, Madagascar, Europe, the Americas and Asia, “demonstrates the universality of the Church which is rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ.”
They pointed to the prominence of the Ugandan Martyrs in African devotion and emphasized the important role that young people and women play in the African Church.
Young people “need to be given special attention and quality Christian education to make them effective witnesses to Christ,” they said, and praised women for their “irreplaceable role and place in the Church and society,” specifically citing their contribution to education and evangelization.
The bishops also called the event a time of “ecumenical communion,” since members of other Christian churches attended the plenary as observers.
This year’s Golden Jubilee, they said, “is a commitment to the service of reconciliation, justice and peace which promotes communion and pastoral solidarity which enables us to stand together against: Ideological colonization, land grabbing, political and democratic destabilization, human trafficking, terrorism and arms trafficking.”
Faced with the “anguish” that many people in Africa experience, the bishops said SECAM from the beginning was aimed at being “a sign of hope, especially for families and our countries.”
Created in Uganda during St. Pope Paul VI’s visit to the nation in 1969, SECAM brings together forty different national and regional bodies of Catholic Bishops in Africa. Pope Paul VI’s trip marked the first-ever papal visit to Africa, and the July 29, 1969 establishment of SECAM cemented the continent’s growing influence in global Catholicism.
The bishops in their statement insisted that the family “founded on the union of man and woman” is the primary point of evangelization. They also recalled the various social and charitable initiatives of the Church in Africa, many of which are dedicated to caring for migrants and refugees.
Evangelization, they said, has not only ecclesial, but also “socio-political” dimensions, and they urged government leaders and politicians to “work for the wellbeing of their people.”
At the close of their document, the bishops issued 15 “commitments and exhortations” based on the plenary discussions. These commitments were largely focused on two areas: Education and outreach, highlighting the need for a greater biblical, moral and spiritual education for lay people in Africa.
The bishops made a commitment to promote new programs and associations aimed at evangelization through both new and traditional communication methods, and to better care for families and the environment.
A special commitment to both the professional and moral education of youth was made in order to “help them to be more deeply rooted in the values of the Gospel in order to prevent them from engaging in all forms of fundamentalism and violence.”
A stronger commitment to ecumenism and collaboration with political leaders was made, including a pledge to “call (politicians) to accountability so as to put our human and natural resources at the service of development, reconciliation, justice and peace; to address the problem of migrants, refugees and all who are still victims of slavery and human trafficking.”
Religious congregations, particularly in North Africa, were urged to increase their missionary activity, and researchers were urged to study traditional African religions, Islam, new religious movements, secret societies and problems related to the belief in witchcraft.
Thy bishops also touched on priestly training, saying it ought to focus on helping clerics form a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, as well as a sense of accountability and service. They also urged the laity to be more involved in “transforming society” based on the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s social teachings.
In an article on the website for the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA), Thomas Adefolusho Adekoya, the President of the National Laity Council of Nigeria, urged greater inclusion of laypeople at a continental level in the Church.
“Most of the funding/finances that support church projects and activities usually come from the lay people including contributions for the expansion of parishes, church institutions and other things,” Adekoya said, insisting that laypeople “are an important organ that keeps the Church’s engine moving” and “there is no way the Church can be vibrant” without them.
In brief comments made during the plenary, Adekoya said he advocated for lay representation from all African nations at SECAM, pitching the idea of a “pan-African Laity Council,” which, like the bishops, would meet annually “to share and formulate ideas then present them as suggestions to the church leaders for implementation.”
Adekoya said he also pleaded for a greater education in Catholic social teaching for laypeople involved in the political sphere, since they are in a position to “bring (a) good development agenda to the continent of Africa.”
“We need the Catholic Church to give people guidance in so many things and the Catholic Social Teachings are the best that we could offer,” he said.
In its closing message for the plenary, SECAM urged pastors to be close to politicians, adding that priests must help them to avoid corruption and to promote good governance and management of natural resources. Christian communities were also encouraged to foster stronger interpersonal relationships and a greater closeness to the poor and those who suffer.
As a follow-up to last week’s meeting, SECAM will eventually release the “Kampala document” based on the plenary discussion and outlining SECAM’s vision going forward.