at the Mass of the Inauguration of the African Synod
at St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
10 April, 1994
1. "This is the day which the Lord has made: let's rejoice and be glad in it! (Ps. 117/118, 24).
Thus the Church chants throughout the Octave of Easter while she rejoices for Christ who is the "cornerstone" of her eternal construction (cf. Eph. 2,20).
"This is the day which the Lord has made". Thus today in particular rejoices the Church in the African continent, the Church who shares the fate of her people and the nations of this old continent. There she has such old roots like in few other places in the world. Looking back to the Old Testament, we can find that there through Egypt Abraham, father of our faith, had already paved the way, and then the way of Israel. It was there that Easter of the old Alliance began, including freedom from slavery, it was there that Mount Sinai stood and where Moses received the Ten Commandments, it was there in the desert where the chosen people spent forty years. All this happened there.
Then we have the apostolic period. And the Church returns once again to Africa with Deacon Philip who baptised an officer of the Queen of Ethiopia. This is when the Church began in that old and venerated part of the African Continent.
This is followed by the period of martyrs. The period of the first Council, that unforgettable activity of the Alexandrian Church, St. Athanasius, and a little later Saint Augustine, saint Anthony the Hermit and the great ascetic tradition of the Fathers of the Desert. All this is Africa! As you can see, the day of Africa in the Church has been going on for almost 2000 years.
2. We must remember this today, as we begin the Synod of the Church for the African continent, the first in history.
Naturally, we remember the African Synods of the first centuries, the activity of Origen and Saint Cyprian, the ecclesiological controversies which then divided Christianity. But those events were concentrated above all along the Northern coasts of the continent. Today for the first time there is taking place a Synod of the African Church involving the whole continent: from Alexandria to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Persian Gulf and the Atlantic islands of Cape Verde.
All of Africa is present today in Saint Peter's Basilica. With deep affection the Bishop of Rome greets Africa. He greets it in the persons of the Bishops gathered for the Synod, the great majority of whom are now sons of the African peoples: chosen from among those peoples and appointed on their behalf (cf. Heb. 5,1). The Holy Spirit has place you as Bishops in the Churches of Africa. The Bishop of Rome greets all the peoples of your continent, dearest Brothers, who represent all the races and cultures, the languages, traditions and customs through which these cultures have been expressed for centuries. From the very beginning of the Christian era, and even before that, Rome has felt united to Africa. Sons and daughters of Africa were already coming to Italy in the time of the ancient Roman Empire, just as they come today. It is not possible to recall all the historical details from the times before Christ, but it must be mentioned that from the beginning of the new era the children of Africa were present in the Church, and exercised various ministries within the Church. There were also Africans among the Popes.
3. Today the Bishop of Rome greets the Church which is in Africa, in every part of the great continent: in the immense Sahara, as in the depths of the African savannahs and the lush tropical forests where very ancient peoples live. The Church of Rome salutes these peoples, especially their religious traditions, in which is expressed the ardent search for the one God through veneration of their ancestors.
These traditions are still the heritage of the majority of the inhabitants of Africa. They are traditions which are open to the Gospel, open to the truth, expressed today by Saint John, who affirms that Jesus is the Messiah: "Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child" (1 Jn. 5,1).
The sons and daughters of Africa love life. It is precisely this love for life which leads them to give such great importance to the veneration of their ancestors. They believe instinctively that the dead continue to live and remain in communion with them. Is this not in some way a preparation for belief in the Communion of Saints? The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this life. They reject the idea that it can be destroyed, even when the so-called "progressive civilisations" would like to lead them in this direction. And practices hostile to life are imposed on them by means of economic systems which serve the selfishness of the rich.
The Church which at this moment is speaking through my words rejoices in the fact that the peoples of Africa with their cultures and traditions are living today in their own States and systems, that they are sovereign in their own continent. This sovereignty enables them to evaluate all that was positive in what Europeans brought for the development of the continent; it also enables them to judge critically all the injustices suffered during the colonial period and even earlier, resulting from the cruel practice, which lasted so long, of reducing to slavery many sons and daughters of Africa in order to deport them to the New World.
4. However if, on the one hand, we are pleased to notice that opening up towards life is one of the most beautiful and typical features of the African continent, on the other hand, we are very sorry and worried to see that this continent is torn apart by old tension and bloody wars. We can only be deeply struck and upset by this dramatic contrast between love and hate, between joy to live and terror, between solidarity and fratricide, between life and death.
In this context which unfortunately concerns many nations, I wish to recall now in particular the people and the Church of Rwanda, who these days are being tried by an upsetting tragedy linked in particular to the dramatic assassination of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. With you Bishops here present, I am sharing this suffering caused by this new catastrophic wave of violence and death which, investing this well loved country, is making blood flow even from Priests, Religious Sisters and Catechists, innocent victims of an absurd hate.
With you, reunited in this African Synod, and in communion of spirit with the Bishops of Rwanda who could not be with us today, I feel the need to launch an appeal to stop that homicide of violence. Together with you, I raise my voice to tell all of you: stop these acts of violence! Stop these tragedies! Stop these fratricidal massacres!
In Rwanda and Burundi, which have recently and continue to be strongly tried as well as the whole of Africa, the Church is called to give her precious and irreplaceable contribution to promote an urgent and radical work of reconciliation, in view of turning the African continent into a land where peace and love for life reign.
5. Vatican Council II which is the main source of inspiration of the African Synod, has opened a fruitful dialogue not only with Christians, but also with non-Christian Religions. In Africa, this dialogue has a broad range. This concerns in particular people who consider themselves as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, that is to say, the Muslims. The Church of Rome greets all the disciples of Islam who live on the African continent, in particular those in the Northern part of Africa. She wishes them to receive the benediction of almighty and merciful God.
At the same time, our Church, who is spread throughout the earth and who today expresses herself in a special way by the presence of African Bishops, strongly believes that the almightiness and mercy of our only God are shown first of all by the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Son who is consubstantial with the Father, who acts with the Father in the Holy Spirit and who, in this Trinitarian Unity, receives full glory and honour. Man and the whole of mankind are called to honour this God in spirit and truth. Jesus Christ is the one who came, as St. John says, "this is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness because the Spirit is the truth" (1 Jn. 5,6). This is our faith, this is the faith of the Church, this is the faith of all the local churches spreading on the African continent in the pilgrimage towards the house of God. This is the faith which wins the victory over the world. A conqueror of the world is he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. A conqueror of the world is he who is born from God (cf. 1 Jn. 5,4-5).
6. Before you, believers who profess one God, we bear witness of this ineffable mystery which God wants to reveal to man in Jesus Christ, bringing him justification by the faith and remission of sins. Jesus is the Son of Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth, as you yourselves also recognise this. This same Jesus, God-man crucified and raised from death, is the hope of all mankind. He is the hope of Africa!
On opening the Synod of Bishops for Africa, we invite you to pray to the one God, by Abraham, father of our faith, so that we can fully answer the call for the peoples of Africa who have been resorting to God for two thousand years with the help of Christ in his holy Church.
Today's liturgy, second Sunday of Easter, takes us back to the oldest periods of the Church, when "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, that they apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4,32-33). We ask the Holy Spirit that this "great grace" animate our Synod meeting. This assembly is the fruit of long work. The Church who is in the whole of Africa first of all tried to find an appropriate form for this meeting. Then they realised that this form had already existed for a long time in many African Synods. Today this form is expressed here in the Synod of Bishops of the Church who is in the African continent in communion with the Bishop of Rome. In this way, this Synod has a totally African character and, at the same time, participates in the full universality of the Church, as she is represented by the ministry of the Successor of Peter.
7. therefore, we wish this to be a real African Synod that goes to the roots, hence the Church in Africa is African and at the same time universal. We wish it to compare life in all the Churches of Africa with the commandment of love of God and one's neighbour and with that whole rich Christian message of moral truth, which has its personal, family, social, national and international dimension. We wish this Synod to study application in relation to the needs of Africa for principles of Catholic social doctrine, reviving at the same time the need for justice and peace from an international and continental dimension standpoint. If Africa underwent many wrongs by others in history and over the centuries, we must ask ourselves: what must be done to change this situation? Who must one turn to and what message, convincing and expecting, urging in the name of God, and also in the name of human rights and of common welfare for the whole human family, of whom the sons and daughters of Africa are an important part?
Thus the African Synod must stem from the whole heritage of the Teachings of the Church, it must also read in depth from its specific point of view all truths of the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church. After the Roman phase of the works, the Synod will transfer with its heritage to Africa, and there, in adequate places will bear witness on what a Synod born in Africa and for Africa represents.
8. Today's Gospel recalls how Jesus eight days after the resurrection, came to the Last Supper and turned to Thomas who was absent beforehand. Jesus said to him: "Put your finder here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing" (Jn. 20,27). Thomas answered him: "My Lord and my God!" (Jn 20,28).
The confession of faith by which Thomas turned to Jesus Christ, God-Man, joins us all who today begin the works of the African Synod. This confession also joins us to our Christian brothers, who are not with us in the full unity of the Christian Church. Today in particular we also give them a welcome. We greet both the representatives of the Orthodox Church, especially of the very old Coptic Church in Egypt and Abyssinia, and those of the Churches and Communities born after the Reform: Anglicans, Lutherans, and members of the reformed church. We greet those who confess that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, true God and true Man, whether they belong to indigenous populations or have come from other countries as missionaries. It is due to them in particular that we are attributing this re-launching of a commitment for Christian unity in modern times. By proclaiming Christ and the Gospel, they soon realised how confessional divisions hindered the evangelising mission on African continent. Therefore they decided to promote ecumenical activity to overcome this division and recompose Christian unity. Thus one can say that the contemporary ecumenical movement began among the African missions.
We greet all our brothers and sisters in their faith in Christ resurrected and we invite them to take part in the African Synod which is being held during the Easter period. In this period, we all confess together with Thomas "My Lord and my God!" and we all, like Thomas, hear from the mouth of Jesus the warning: "Have you believed because you have seen me - Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn. 20,29). Really blessed are all those who on the African continent, without seeing Christ with their own eyes, have believed in Him. Blessed are the Ugandan martyr saints, blessed Sister Josephine Bakita of Sudan, blessed sister Anuarite of Zaire, blessed Joseph Gerald O.M.I. missionary from Lesotho - blessed are all the Servants of God, such as Isidor Bakanja and others, whose elevation to the altar we are expecting.
"This is the day which the Lord has made!" Rejoice, Africa, of all your sons and daughters who, although they have not seen, they have believed! Be glad about your men of State, your men of culture. Rejoice about all those who develop wealth for African life and thought, about those who are, at the same time, true to the real values of the black continent and to Christ that Christ who revealed man to mankind and his high vocation.
Africa, rejoice in the Lord!