A new religious charism in Africa
The African Synod II last October proudly marked the growing number of Africans in religious congregations, some whom occupy important positions. There is a promising future as there are still many young people entering formation houses in Africa. For this, indeed, we can intone Te Deum for such blessing. However my query is: will the African Church continue this present picture of religious life?
As a result of missionary expansion we have had a number of religious congregations that came to Africa, mainly from Europe. Depending on the charism of each of these families, the religious gave witness in various fields such as health, education, development and parish apostolate. These are also the means through which we have come to them. Young people who aspire to join will speak of being drawn by such activities.
It is a consolation indeed that such witness is effective. There is an initial charismatic and prophetic spirit that permeates and gives sense to whatever activity members of a congregation may do. This too sustains the relevance of a congregation, even when the activity it is traditionally associated with is no longer the same. As I look at a number of diocesan religious congregations that have come up, it’s on that point that I have questions.
The picture has changed quite dramatically on the scene of religious life. The religious, especially sisters, who came as missionaries and worked in different sectors of the diocesan engagement are old or dead. Congregations recruit young people who are introduced not only to the activities but also to that foundational oomph from the founder. But there are also congregations that are just dying out, they are disappearing. What happens to the work they have been doing in the dioceses?
Many bishops have founded local diocesan religious congregations especially of sisters who have taken over the places left by missionary congregations. Often these local congregations have very limited financial resources, both for their own sustenance and for the apostolate, yet they accomplish admirable work.
Nevertheless, perhaps inspired by my own limited, biased perception of religious life, I wonder: are we going to found a congregation because the bishop wants sisters to teach catechism, because there have always been sisters in the Catholic school or hospital, or in the bishop’s office and they are no longer there? Do we start a congregation because we are used to seeing sisters in those fields?
If that is the case — and I know I’m being quite simplistic for the sake of discussion — couldn’t we employ nurses, teachers, secretaries and catechists who are not necessarily religious?
Diocesan congregations may have an administrative and financial connection with the bishop and owe him as their “ordinary”, but they may have very little, if any, “charismatic” connection with him. In a way, that may betray their existence, reducing them to something like diocesan “civil servants”. There may be nothing wrong with that, but is that all we can have as a version of African religious life?
Whatever we can say about religious life in terms of vows, it is also true that the initial charismatic momentum inherited from the founder is an important life stream significant in a religious family. Besides, a new congregation might risk appearing redundant if it lacks really new and prophetic answers to the situation in the Church or in society.
There has been creativity in the choice of names, but few ties with practice or charism. One may ask, in which way does such a new congregation challenge the Church or society today? The answer is not easy.
We shouldn’t lose the radical witness that has been a significant contribution of religious life even before engaging in any activity, a newness that will not only inspire the youth to join but also, and more importantly, interrogate society and its values.
We can also see it differently. Does religious life in Africa have to be a replacement of the dying congregations or perpetuation of traditional engagements? True, some of the engagements may have been radically prophetic at the arrival of the missionary, which may not be the case today. We should be bold enough to see things differently, and act accordingly.
I think here is just another area where the African Church needs rise, take up its pallet and walk. I would like to see the holy women and men of Africa who, touched by their surroundings, are going to stand up against the ulcers of African society today — tribalism, corruption, discrimination of women, slothfulness in public service — and give a fresh, timely and urgent witness to society. Such creativity only a charismatic inspiration can guarantee.
The basic question is this: how much does what is happening in Africa today touch African Christians and move them to live differently so as to give witness and inspire others to live differently for the better?
Please support The Southern Cross
Your support means we can keep Catholic news alive so that many others will have free access to the high-quality, trustworthy news they deserve. We seek your support not simply to survive, but to grow in our mandate to share the Good News and keep you informed about your Church and Catholic faith.
Every contribution, however big or small, makes a difference. Support us today â€“ it only takes a minute. Thank you.