Inculturation Is Africa's Ecclesial Crux - Bishops: Roman Culture Wilts on Foreign Soil

By Edwards, Robin T. | National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 1994 | Go to article overview

Inculturation Is Africa's Ecclesial Crux - Bishops: Roman Culture Wilts on Foreign Soil


Edwards, Robin T., National Catholic Reporter


ROME - Many African church leaders, while in Rome, made it clear they had little desire to continue doing as the Romans do after they return home.

Throughout the first week of "interventions" during the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, running April 10-May 8, many prelates spoke forcefully of their desire to do things in ways more consistent with their cultures.

They presented that desire to the synod under the title of inculturation - a single word that in recent years has taken on complex and profound meaning to many of them. It is about rooting the gospel message in the culture of the local people.

In this case, the culture of the people is not Roman but African, and as such, multicultural. And the Roman rite seems, based on the comments of some bishops, to be wearing out its welcome in Africa.

Episcopal requests for greater inculturation were repeated throughout the special assembly sessions as the African bishops started making their cases before each other and Pope John Paul. At times, these requests came across in the form of urgent pleas.

While the number of Catholics continues to grow in Africa, Catholicism for too many of them, some of the bishops say, ends when they walk out of Mass on Sunday.

Bishop Peter Sarpong of Kumasi, Ghana, says part of the problem is that the traditional Roman forms of liturgy and worship are just not at home with many African Catholics. The churches are packed on Sunday in his diocese. But after Mass, many parishioners typically head straight to a "sect" or another religious movement." They do this, he says, for what is referred to back home as bompaee - best described as perhaps a more satisfying form of spiritual nourishment for their "whole being."

Sarpong says the pastors of Africa should be given the freedom to adopt formats that can lead to a better understanding of liturgy and worship - a sentiment echoed by many of the African prelates.

Faith |by proxy'

The talk in Rome about the issue of inculturation in Africa centered on more than just liturgy and worship - although they were clearly focal points. Other aspects of African life touched by inculturation include marriage and family, healing and sickness, and initiation rites.

"Genuine inculturation constitutes an ongoing dialogue between the gospel and culture," said Fr. Aylward Shorter, who spent nearly 30 years in Africa as a member of the Missionaries of Africa. The order is more commonly referred to as "White Fathers" because of their white clerical garments.

Shorter, now president of the Institute of London, took part in one of several symposiums sponsored by SEDOS, an organization of religious and missionary institutes.

Since white missionaries began making their presence felt in Africa during the 15th century, the "Euro-Latin form" of the religion they brought has reigned superior. Now as the church in Africa grows with increasing numbers of native bishops, religious and laity, the demand for inculturation is being looked upon as a priority.

Wherever the gospel is prevented from "taking root" in a local culture, Shorter said, a schism is possible.

"Inculturation is opposed to uniformity in the universal church. It demands the legitimization of diversity," he said. "A fear of diversification will bring disunity, even schism."

Leading up to the synod, countless calls for inculturation were being sounded. One such appeal came from the Inter-regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa, or IMBISA, a group that consists of several episcopal conferences in Southern Africa, which issued a study document on inculturation in Africa last January.

"The time has come in which we, as Africans, cannot continue to respond in an alien form, however good and exact it may be. We ought to give our response in recognition - not to people but to Jesus Christ himself. …

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