Pope Francis’ current journey to Africa has brought into the spotlight the spiritual side of that continent. The predominant religions are Islamic religion with 250/280 million followers, especially in the northern and eastern regions; that of the animistic kind which counts 200 million; and finally, Christian religion that is divided into catholic and protestant, counting 120 million believers.
It is a specific continent, in which all ethnic faiths found themselves in front of modernization and growth on the social ladder as well as on the theological one, because they are looking for religious symbols of universal resonance. It was inevitable, over time, that religious systems broader than missions – Christianity and Islam – influenced this development.
Today, the Pontiff is in a context where the number of Muslims is growing, and the region as a whole resists traditional religions with inadequate ideas about God and some objects, rituals, superstitions, fear of spirits (which often are thought to be inside many of the objects people use in everyday life, wherefrom the term “animist” with respect to religious belief), questionable moral practices, degrading rites, use of magic (the best known of which is the voodoo rite), discrimination against women, (occasional) human sacrifices.
Is it a useless journey, then? No, quite the opposite. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Africa“, I declare that Africa’s religions have to be treated with respect because they are the expression of a people’s soul. And even with all their specific trait, different as the many different ethnic groups, these religions have common traits: the faith in a Supreme Being that can be called in different ways – “mighty Spirit” rather than “The one who lives up there” – and are, therefore, essentially monotheistic; they believe in spirits, among which a very important place is occupied by their ancestors, both to reject evil and to obtain favors.
Those are principles with which an encounter is possible. On the other hand, even Paul VI, in the distant 1967, spoke about a “peaceful and prudent dialog” (Africae Terrarum) with regard to traditional religions. Which, obviously, are closed in themselves; being of ethnic derivation, in fact, they do not feel the need to spread to other peoples. They are generally based on the family and do not have a central organization on a national level, left alone an international one.
What is the path of the “prudence” invoked by Montini and that of the “respect” invoked by Wojtyla? First of all, they pass through eliminating some injustices steeped in preconceptions that have accompanied the image of Black Africa for years. While maintaining the right distance from some tribal extremes that sometimes lead to sectarianism, magic rituals and to the occult, some terms referring to African religions have been distorted over the years, often confusing the two contexts.
Sometimes it was defined as “paganism”, yet those peoples’ approach is towards one sole God, incomparable and creator. Another accusation was that of “fetishism”, especially against the Africans on the west coast who wore objects of religious value such as talismans and amulets; compared, nonetheless, to our rosaries, medals, and even crucifixes. No big differences can be noticed, because those objects testify devotion to a sole Creator and Lord. Therefore, describing amulet as a “fetish” was more of a negative interpretation that obviously prevented dialog; on the basis of the same principle, the same is true for the accusation of “idolatry”.
In the African traditional religion there are some basic principles that promote human values and good life. Principles on which the Creator has built all things in a way that Africans could survive. This is a concept that helped them a lot during slavery, and that has many similarities with the period of the Christian persecutions.
That is why Africans are open to the Gospel. On the one hand, there is their creed in orixas, a different declination of the African gods, on the other hand, there is the teaching of the Saints of the Catholic Church. For the slaves there was no opposition. With respect to everyday life, especially as far as diseases or witchcraft is concerned, it was wise to remain anchored in the old beliefs, whereas for salvation and eternal life, the path was indicated by the Roman Catholicism.
There is plenty of room for evangelization, there is much need for spirituality. That is why the Holy Father has insisted on making this journey despite the risks. A new mission: make the Church become the protagonist of the Third Millennium again, in the name of Jesus.