The explosion of the Catholic presence in Africa


There is understandably a tremendous amount of excitement (other than from SEPTA employees) about the pope’s upcoming visit to our area. However, it’s important to remember that in a global church his other apostolic visits also carry much significance. After the unquestionably important appearances in front of Congress, the U.N. and the World Meeting of Families in the United States, Pope Francis will return to Rome before an extensive African trip later in the fall.

The pope will make a historic visit to Uganda and the Central African Republic, the former French colony previously known as Ubangi-Shari. It will coincide with the Year of Reconciliation in Africa which was opened in Ghana this week. The continent-wide event is a response to an invitation made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus (“The Pledge for Africa”). Its theme is “A Reconciled Africa for Peaceful Coexistence.”

The explosion of the Catholic presence in Africa cannot be described as anything short of astonishing. In 1900 there were less than 2 million Catholics in Africa, a significant portion of whom were white missionaries and European bishops. Today, there are over 130 million. The balance of power — at least in terms of numbers, if not yet influence — is drastically shifting toward the global South, and what some scholars now call not the Third World but the Majority World. African birth rates, unlike most of their northern Christian counterparts, continue to rise. There will, for instance, be more people in Nigeria than in the U.S. in a few decades. And Nigeria is less than 10 percent of our size in square miles. (Think roughly Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri).

Of course, this meteoric rise in numbers of believers is conjoined with a number of serious issues which plague the continent: poverty and lack of accessibility to resources and clean water, war, HIV/AIDS and political corruption to name but a few. The pope recently met with the bishops from the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). He told them to resist at all costs “new and unscrupulous forms of colonization, such as the pursuit of success, riches and power at all costs; but also fundamentalism and the distorted use of religion, and new ideologies that destroy the identity of persons and families.”

While, of course, the West can offer aid with resources, medical technology and political support toward establishing and maintaining peace, Pope Francis insists its throw-away culture ought not to infect or weaken the vibrant and polycentric commitment to the faith which has obviously grown and taken root in Africa’s native soil.

The pope acknowledged the contributions of so many on the continent toward evangelization, care for the suffering during the Ebola virus outbreak, and of making the entire world aware of the rights and dignity of some of the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. His visit there will seek both to tap into and to encourage the energetic outpouring of the faith there.

Francis is of course the first pope born south of the equator, although he has predecessors from Northern Africa in the early centuries of the church. In all likelihood, he will someday have successors from the continent as well.


Dr. Michael M. Canaris, originally from Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.