An African Perspective on the next Pope

I was only 11 when Pope John Paul II made his third (and last) apostolic trip to Kenya. On that occasion, in September 1995, the Holy Father was in the capital city of Nairobi for the launch of the Synod of Bishops document, which had taken place the year before. My family lives about 150 kilometers from Nairobi, so I did not have an opportunity to see him on his visit.

Ten years later, I signed up with a group from my home diocese for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany. I was looking forward to finally seeing the Pope. I had read many of his messages to young people at previous World Youth Days and was deeply touched by this Pope who loved the youth. Then on April 2, 2005, the news of his death came through. Eventually, I did go to World Youth Day. This was Pope Benedict XVI’s first apostolic trip outside of Italy. This time, I had a chance to see the Pope!

Blessed John Paul II was wonderful with young people, and Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s legacy of ministry to young people. His apostolic visits to Africa (and other parts of the world) always included meetings with young people. In 2011 in Benin, he met with children, just as he did when he visited Angola and Cameroon in 2009.

The membership of the Church in Africa is young. Parishes in my country boast of vibrant youth groups, while University chaplaincies have many youth movements that offer students the possibility of engaging in faith and leadership formation.

Young people around the world are currently faced with massive unemployment and other contemporary challenges. They have many questions about life and are generally worried about the future.  The lack of job opportunities is compounded even further in Africa, because social safety nets are very weak or non-existent in many African countries, as compared to the developed world. Engagement with young people, in my view, should be an important aspect in the ministry of the next Pope. This is true not only in Africa but for the universal Church as well. Pope Benedict XVI has already set the pace by his presence on twitter.

While the last decade has witnessed a dramatic reduction in the number and scale of conflicts on the African continent, places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic are still plagued by wars that are wreaking untold havoc on communities, especially children and women. The Church has been and continues to be close to the people in these conflict-ridden zones. Many priests, religious and lay people have paid with their very lives as they accompany the people while providing essential services to refugees. The Church is also quite instrumental in the promotion of peace and justice. Mediation between warring parties has in many instances been facilitated by the Church. The universal Church can help encourage the work and efforts of those involved in these complex situations on the continent, by expressing its solidarity with the Church in Africa. The next Pope can contribute to this solidarity by focusing the attention of the Church and the world on the suffering of the people who live in areas that have experienced conflict for so long. This would greatly energize and encourage those who for one reason or another may be experiencing fatigue in their ministry of bringing relief to the suffering.

Benedict XVI has been referred to as the ‘Green Pope’ for his consistent message on care for creation as an important aspect of our faith as Catholics. In his message to the Second Synod of African bishops in 2009, he pointed out the challenges of environmental degradation on the continent. The Pope Emeritus not only emphasized this message in words, but also through actions. For example he oversaw the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Paul VI hall.

While climate change affects the whole world, the most vulnerable communities are found in Africa and Asia. In 2011, the worst drought in 60 years affected the Horn of Africa region. Tens of thousands of deaths were reported. Many farmers lost their crop and pastoralists their livestock, severely impacting food security and the livelihoods of more than 10 million people in the region. The cause of the drought was partly attributed to climate change. For Africa, therefore, the next Pope would do well to build on the work of his predecessors and make ecological issues a concern for the universal Church and emphasize even further its centrality to our faith.

The Church is growing tremendously in Africa. Many young people are entering seminaries and formation houses of religious congregations across Africa every year. Africa, once the target of Western missionary work, is now sending missionaries to Europe and the United States, which are experiencing shortages in vocations. The continent traditionally viewed as a ‘recipient’ is now a ‘donor’ in this context. However, the faith in Africa has sometimes been described as being ‘a mile wide but only skin deep.’ Formation of the clergy and religious therefore needs to be a concern for the next Pope.

The laity who are the Church also need to be properly formed, to be equipped with the necessary skills they need to engage with the leadership of their nations and communities and to challenge the structures of injustice and impunity that cause misery and hardship to many on the continent.

Many points of view have been put forward as to whether or not it is time for an African Pope, and what that would mean, especially for the Church in Africa.

In a recent BBC radio interview, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, stated that, “I have come to elect ‘a Pope’. Not an African Pope, or a European Pope, an American Pope or an Asian Pope.” I feel that the Church in Africa will warmly welcome the next Pope, regardless of where in the world he was born. Africa has been immensely privileged to experience the universal character of the Church owing to its history as mission territory. I have met priests and religious serving here in Kenya from Asia, the United States, Europe, and Latin America. I have also worked alongside priests and religious from regions all across Africa.  For my confirmation ceremony, I had a Colombian missionary priest as godfather. Two dioceses, one in the west and the other on the coast of Kenya, are led by an Irish and a Maltese bishop respectively. The clergy and the laity love their shepherds in the same way as Kenyan bishops.

Of course I will be delighted if one of the 11 Cardinal-electors from Africa were to be elected Pope. But the young and vibrant African Church will continue to grow and contribute to the well-being of the continent, irrespective of the nationality of the next Pope. Africa joins the universal Church in praying for the Cardinals as they listen to what the Holy Spirit is asking of them.

Allen Ottaro, an Environmental Planner and Manager by profession, currently serves as the Coordinator of the Ignatian young adult program MAGiS Kenya based in Nairobi. He is the Founding Executive Director of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA).