Bishops discuss challenges of evangelization in Africa, Asia, and Oceania

.- Bishops from Africa, Asia, and Oceania spoke at the Second General Congregation of the Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Tuesday, discussing the challenges facing the evangelization of their regions and considering how the Word of God may be translated into their local cultures.

John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, described the state of the Church in Africa, remarking that some of the earliest centers of Christianity, such as Alexandria, Carthage, and Hippo, were in Northern Africa.

“Our continent can boast of being a 'biblical land' in a way that many great Christian nations of today dare not,” the archbishop commented, the Vatican Information Service reports.

He said that acquiring a copy of the Scriptures is a significant problem in Africa, where a Bible may cost as much as a month’s wages.

Noting that many languages still do not have an adequate translation of the Bible, Archbishop Olorunfemi said interpretation must follow translation “so as to imbibe the true meaning of the message that the Holy Spirit intends for those to whom the Word is addressed,” he said.

“Here comes the task of interpretation, of exegesis both at the scientific level and at the popular level.”

The archbishop noted that Catholic missionaries to Africa from the late nineteenth century through most of the twentieth century were “men and women of their own times and of their own places of origin” and came from a milieu where “the Bible as a scriptural text was not very much a priority in the life of the Church in those days.”

“But this does not mean that they were ignorant of Sacred Scripture,” he continued. “The Catechism itself was based in an indirect way on the Scriptures. More important still was the liturgy. At Mass, regular passages were read and homilies delivered upon them.”

“Africa is still a continent of first evangelization. ... The task of primary evangelization obviously demands that the Word of God is announced and proclaimed in all its power and vigor. This requires that the scripture be properly presented to those whom we are inviting to accept the Christian message.”

Archbishop Olorunfemi said some African Catholics face problems from fellow Christians who are “not only of the fundamentalist type but clearly anti-Catholic.”

Many Catholics are often “embarrassed” by attacks and harassment from such groups, “especially when they themselves are not properly prepared to defend their Catholic stand. Many of our members however have been challenged to take the Scriptures more seriously, precisely to be able to stand their ground when others attack them and their Church.”

He explained that the Africans at the synod hope that their enthusiasm for the Word of God will be strengthened and sustained by the gathering.

“We are hoping too that having told our story about the challenges we face and the limits of our resources, we can look forward to more support from those who have been helping us in the areas of need already mentioned," he concluded.

Archbishop Tomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India also touched on the theme of translation, saying Christian evangelists in India translated their “Word” into action. Citing the example of Mother Teresa, he said such Christians’ services in education and health are “greatly esteemed.”

“They are active in the struggle for justice for oppressed groups; in the work for social change, cultural promotion, protection of environment, defense of life and family; in advocacy on behalf of the weak, downtrodden and the marginalized and giving voice to the voiceless. ... Even where the Gospel is resisted most, the evangelical witness of socially relevant works find welcome."

He noted the apostolic work of priests, sisters, and catechists is encouraging “significant Church growth” among “responsive communities” such as ethnic minorities in different parts of China, the Indonesian islands, North Myanmar, Thailand, and Northeast India.

“Religious life is understood in Asia, its relevance recognized, its contribution appreciated, and its representatives respected,” he continued, explaining that other religions’ native models are already present.

Renunciation, austerity, silence, prayer, contemplation, and celibacy are highly regarded, the archbishop reports.

“Religious persons are considered the guardians of religious and human wisdom in Asia,” he continued, saying young religious can become “effective announcers of the Christian message” with adequate formation.

He explained that the borrowing of elements suitable for faith and worship from other religions must be handled “with care,” lest adherents to those religions view such an act as a violation and come to see Christianity “as an imposition of something alien.”

The spread of Christianity in Asia is effectively done through personal witness, he continued, which is shown either in assistance to the hungry and the poor, peacemaking, justice work, and equality advocacy on matters such as class, gender, caste, or ethnicity.

“These efforts are different from a textbook presentation of Christ based on truth claims, debates and arguments. But they explain the teachings of the Gospel most eloquently. They translate the Christian message into life,” Archbishop Menamparampil remarked.

“In many countries in Asia, Christians are under heavy pressure. Freedom is restricted, new converts are harassed, and the believing community is persecuted as happened in Orissa, India, recently. However, the patience manifested by the community, the restraint shown, the moderation in response, the spirit of forgiveness -- all these have an evangelizing power"

Bishop Michael Ernest Putney of Townsville, Australia addressed the synod concerning the Gospel in Oceania.

Saying evangelization has “borne enormous fruit” throughout the Pacific, Bishop Putney said that missionaries introduced some elements that were “culturally alien” to the native peoples, while some native elements “inconsistent with the Word of God” continue to influence.

The Church in Oceania faces the challenge of transitioning from village communities to urban life, which stresses family life and the social fabric.

The multiplicity of languages is another problem Bishop Putney cited, reporting that there are over twelve hundred “quite different” languages in Oceania.

Calling Australia “one of the most secular countries in the world,” he said the descendants of Europeans in Australia and New Zealand are far less religious than Pacific Islander people.

"The challenge confronting Australia and much of Oceania is to find new ways to enable this gift of the Gospel to be heard," he concluded.

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April 21, 2014

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