Following the unprecedented resignation in recent time of Pope Benedict XVI, there has been, as you would expect, a lot of speculation about who the next pope will be. Many are now suggesting it is time to break ranks with the thousand year old tradition of appointing only Europeans, especially Italians, and look beyond the shores to places where church attendance is spreading like wild fire. Specifically, the Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson is said to be enjoying a very high rating among oddsmakers and bookmakers. While I have no doubt whatsoever regarding the ability of an African candidate to be an excellent Pope, my concern is that the emphasis should not be on the place of birth, colour or height of the next Pope but rather on what he and the Church as a whole should and must mean for Africa.
Unlike here in Europe where church attendance is dwindling at an alarming rate, the church is to Africans what the pubs and gyms are to the Europeans. It is where people commune daily/weekly, make friends, find their future spouses and make merry. The priests and pastors are like the personal gym trainers; people revere them and religiously follow their instructions. It is therefore imperative that this phenomena is tapped into for the common good.
Church teachings and sermons have been so much about solemn spirituality, body language rituals, memorizing and reciting the catechism, and witch hunting the “devils in the village” for all our shortcomings. I am not suggesting in any way that the church deviate from its core teachings. However, I believe it’s high time it lived up to the present challenges facing the continent.
To begin with, the church needs to redefine the concept of the Devil. It is no longer the invincible double horned villain with a tail and scary long nails. The devils is no longer just invoked by those idol worshipers in the village and those neighbours who for some reasons shy away from Sunday masses. Evil comes from ignorance and the rules people fail to follow: examples include reckless driving such as drunk driving, not using seat belts, over-speeding, unnecessary and risky overtaking which lead to road accidents and deaths. Others include intimidation and harassment by the police; littering and defecating on the streets with wastes which in turn lead to the spread of diseases; exploitation of the poor and sabotaging public and private property. These are new evils of society, and what better place to talk about these things than in churches.
Training priests for Africa also requires special attention. Instead of learning Latin, they should be knowledgeable at least at an average level to talk about environmental sustainability, conservation, and cleanliness. Instead of just handing out penance of several Hail Marys during confessions behind hidden boxes, they should become proactive counselors skilled at conflict resolution, dealing with juvenile delinquencies, and detecting signs of radicalism and mental disorder.
Finally, the church should help build lasting harmony. The growing situation whereby people only associate with members of their own church and regard others as false is really disturbing. The idea than non adherents of your belief are doomed to hell is medieval and needs to be strongly addressed. And it’s not just about high level visitations among bishops, it needs to be preached to the lay followers.
Who said religion was fading and the role of the church is diminishing? No, it is not. There is so much work to do. Except, as Shakira put it in her famous 2010 World Cup song “This Time for Africa”