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Christianity and The Roman Catholic Mission In Africa

Despite the beliefs of many early Christians, religion in Africa is everywhere. Traditional African beliefs and rituals, as in recourse in sacred objects when an individual is about to embark upon a journey or the worship that one pays to natural objects, such as the Hottentots who dance in the moonlight in praise of the moon, is not understood by Christians (New Advent 7). Many early Christians believed that there were tribes without any form of religion in African as well as tribes like the Hottentots, who believed in the wrong god and took it upon themselves to bring them the word of their God.

African Christianity began as early as 180 by a group of martyrs and has pushed on ever since (Early African Church 1). Several hundred years later, Roman Catholic missions in Africa began with Portuguese explorations down the west coast of Africa. In the 1490’s Kongo became a Christian kingdom. Many political leaders, like Manikongo the Christian King of the Kongo, pushed devotion toward Christianity. With this devotion came an interest in Western medicine, education, and technology and with it came the trouble of the white man. Shortly after this time, the Portuguese clergy began to do more harm than good to progress Christianity among the Kongo. Slave trading went into full swing and Manikong appealed to the Pope for support against the slave trade, but to no avail (Pre-Col 1). Other missionaries began to spend more time in trade than teaching or preaching and the number of Christian slave trade supporters grew. The Christian kingdom then collapsed in 1665 (Kongo Christianity 2).

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By the 1840s the Roman Catholic Missions experienced a great revival with the founding of two new missionary orders in Africa, The Congregation of the Holy Ghost and the White Fathers (Pre-Col 1). More and more white settlers continued to come into Africa, from Belgium to France, with their government or church-supported missions to ensure their compliance in the world of colonial pacification. Most Africans did not take these intruders well, yet some did and were surprisingly helpful. As one missionary wrote in 1906, “The blacks are far from ignoring that the colonial authorities are hostile to us and that our religion is not that of the whites who live in the [French] Sudan,” (Colonial 2). Either way, with or without support, the missions kept pushing and many native clergies and self-sufficient local churches were formed.

Most African Catholics owe their conversion to black African catechists, not to the self-confident, self-sacrificing white man. These black catechists were responsible for the huge increase in the number of Christians in Africa. One community in Igboland grew from 5,000 to 74,000 Christians in less than 10 years in the early 1900s (Colonial 2).

As the Catholic communities grew and matured, they began to found schools. In order to maintain and develop their communities, Catholic education became crucial. By this time the 1960s had arrived and even more, momentous changes were about to occur in Africa and in the Roman Catholic Church.

Roman Catholicism in Africa was reshaped by the twin event of decolonization and Vatican Council II (1962-65). With this came the enthusiasm for change. Vatican II stressed understanding and encouraged the use of the vernacular, rather than Latin, in worship and looked openly upon co-operation between faiths (Vatican II 1). This was the key to the African Catholic movement. They began to develop African hymnody and instrumentation as well as vernacular translations of the Bible.

“It may seem odd, but it is probably true, that the most important single effect in Africa in popular terms of the Council has been the change in singing, in hymns, in music, and in the use of musical instruments. African churches glorify in its use of the drums and harmonium” (Vatican II 1). With this movement also came the “de-mystifying” of folk Catholicism, which refereed to such things as holy waters, healing shrines, statues, and candles, all of which were continuously resisted by the African Catholic Christians (Vatican II 1). The church also became relatively un-sacramental with the catechist movement mentioned earlier. Catechists had been the main factor in the spread of Christianity in the 19th Century. Since catechists cannot administer sacraments, weekly worship moved again toward singing and dancing celebrations, much like traditional African worship (Vatican II 2).

African Christianity, including Catholicism, as well other branches, had a greater sense of openness. With this came the formation of the African Synod led by Pope John Paul II. He defined the church as the “Family of God” and worked to incorporate that image in the African context. The synodical participants stressed the need to inculturate Christianity into areas of African life, including marriage and reverence for ancestors (Vatican II 3).

For thousands of years, the African people have had to face the penetration and aggressiveness of Christians in their land. As we saw in the video in class, as well as in Ambiguous Adventure, Christianity and white man brought change, whether the Africans liked it or not. Over time, and even still today, Christianity in Africa is changing to meet the needs of its’ followers.

As the Puritans had done to the Native Americans when they came to seek religious freedom in the new land of American, Christians did to the African natives. They brought new beliefs, traditions, goods, and diseases. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to try to understand, for both parties, the odd beliefs and ways of a stranger. Yet as the video portrayed, many Africans had lost faith in their own beliefs and found hope in the Christian message. I also believe that many turned to Christianity to help them to find the secret of the white man. Yet after reading Ambiguous Adventure, the spiritual wealth and earthly connections of the Diallobe don’t even compare to the emptiness of many of the white men and women.

Although Christianity is still banned in many African countries, Christianity, in one form or another, has survived in many. This brings into play a very familiar word, syncretism. Syncretism is “The process by which elements of one religion are assimilated into another religion resulting in a change in the fundament tenets or nature of those religions. It is the union of two or more opposite beliefs so that the synthesis forms new things. It is not always a total fusion but maybe a combination of separate segments that remain identifiable compartments” (Syncretism 1).

African Christianity is the convergence of practice and beliefs from several diverse origins. As portrayed in the Religion in Africa documentary, the Christian students praised “God” yet incorporated their praise with traditional African dances, colours, chants, and songs.

Hilde Arntsen, a lecturer from the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo, tells us that “It is not unusual to hear African Christians refer to Jesus as universal Mudi Zimu, as in Mudzimu Mukure (the great ancestral spirit). He becomes incarnated with the African culture and in the way people can understand his role and participation in all aspects of life, rather than being confined to ecclesiastical or spiritual matters (Arntsen 1).

As Wyatt MacGaffey says in Chapter 13 of the book Religion in Africa, “To be human is to be a syncretist” (241). Religion, culture, and politics (just to name a few) are all multiple layers on which our beliefs are formed. On the second day of class, we discussed who we are and where we came from. Although my family history, at least as far back as I know, has been white Christians, I can’t pinpoint or label exactly who I am, nor can anyone. We all take in cultural and religious experiences and build our own beliefs. We formulate our own concepts and beliefs based upon the convergence of many beliefs and thoughts. For me, it has been an easier road than it has been for some, like the first African Christians. Many lost their traditions and their lives. Others have faced suppression, racism, hatred, and fear, all ironically in the name of God. However, African Christianity has survived and is forever evolving with syncretism.

The Bible reveals syncretism as “A long-standing tool of Satan to separate God from his people” (Syncretism 1). Yet without syncretism, African Christianity, nor any other individual beliefs, could exist.

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Christianity and The Roman Catholic Mission In Africa. (2021, Feb 23). Retrieved July 9, 2021, from