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U.S. bishops urge action to aid mission of African church

In the past decade about 30 U.S. bishops have visited Africa, seeing firsthand the ravages of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which threaten to kill a quarter of the population of some sub-Sarahan nations over the next 20 years. They have also learned of the plight of Africa’s 3.5 million refugees and its 25 million persons who are internally displaced as a result of wars and famine.

In their most recent 46-page statement, “A Call to Solidarity with Africa,” the U.S. bishops said that “lives are being lost at an alarming rate” because of hunger and the lack of adequate health care.

The bishops are not blind to the proliferation of ethnic enmities and armed conflict, the widespread corruption on the part of African governments and the deteriorating effects that the debt burden has had on education infrastructures, community life and health care in individual nations. In the midst of such human misery, the American prelates want to encourage “the family of God in Africa,” they write in their document.

The U.S. bishops have witnessed the strength of the African church. They see its youth and vitality as inspiration and gift to the universal church. While American teens often quit attending church after confirmation, African youth -- by contrast -- remain “highly involved” in church life, said Franciscan Fr. Michael Perry, African affairs policy adviser to the bishops’ international policy committee.

Over half of Africa’s 115 million Catholics are under 19, and 70 percent of Africa’s Catholics are under age 30. Getting to know some of these future church leaders through visits and student exchanges is but one facet of the bishops’ call to the U.S. church for solidarity with Africa. All 13 of the African-American bishops in the U.S. conference, including its president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Bellville, Ill., will visit Africa in April 2003.

Following their November meeting, some of the bishops held individual meetings or made telephone calls to members of the Bush administration, expressing their concern that Africa not be neglected because of the government’s preoccupation with the war in Afghanistan.

The bishops are aware of the struggle the church faces in many African nations where speaking out against corruption and human rights abuses have cost Christians their lives.

It is surprising on the other hand to learn that during the 1990s, dictatorial presidents in Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo summoned African bishops for consultations on how to build democracies in those countries, Perry told NCR.

It is the hope of the U.S. bishops that American Catholics will not forget their fellow Christians in Africa. They would like Catholics to develop an “empathy” with Africa and learn of its cultures through contacts with Africans. “We need to be willing to alter our perceptions of Africa and Africans,” Perry said.

Perry suggested that American Catholics consider the capabilities of Africans in their plans of assistance. “Giving money [alone] won’t do it,” he said. Instead he urged American Catholics to “step out in faith and courageous action” for Africa. “This is a church attempting to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” but often doing it under dire political and economic conditions, he said.

American Catholics might well choose as their special ministry the task of facilitating Africans in carrying out their mission as church. He pointed to church communities in Kenya that have created a care service akin to a Christian social worker network that has reached out to victims of HIV/AIDS, developing a spirituality of care based on solidarity with the suffering. Three years ago, Perry saw these same victims shunned, treated as contagious and their disease kept secret. Today they are welcomed into liturgical services, he said.

Already thousands of U.S. Catholics have launched projects of solidarity with Africa. In this issue, NCR looks at two such ventures between Kenyan Catholics and those in the St. Cloud, Minn., diocese and relations between Congolese Catholics and Catholics in the Sioux Falls, S.D. see. Others are underway in Chicago, Madison, Wis., Trenton, N.J., and in 21 dioceses that are engaged in resettling some 2,000 “lost boys” from the Sudan, youth, primarily males, displaced by war.

Perry and the bishops have suggested that Catholic dioceses and parishes be in touch with Catholic Relief Services, which has programs in 36 sub-Saharan states. The bishops’ conference hopes to become a resource for centralizing information on Africa that would aid American Catholics in their outreach. They also plan to compile a database of all African priests serving the U.S. church in 2002, Perry said.

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002