Dear Brother Bishops,
1. I am happy to meet you, the members of the Council for the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, on the occasion of your first meeting in Rome to prepare for this ecclesial event of such great importance for the Church in Africa and the universal Church.
On 6 January of this year, having celebrated the solemn liturgy of the Epiphany and the ordination of thirteen new Bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica, during the Angelus address I announced that a Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops would be held on the theme: “The Church in Africa on the threshold of the Third Millennium”. When announcing this assembly, I also explained the reasons for it. In fact, I wished to agree to the request often made to me recently from this region, from African Bishops, priests, theologians and responsible laity, in order to promote an organic pastoral solidarity throughout Africa and the adjacent islands.
Africa is an immense, diverse and complex continent. Its countries often have to face problems which are similar and also very different. It is a continent of great expansion and complete evolution. The Church is present in all countries, in communities great and small, but is always animated by an unequalled missionary dynamism. She participates as such with all the citizens in the life of each nation and of the continent.
2. From her very beginning, the Church has always sought to be part of the daily vicissitudes of human life and of the various cultures, so that they could receive her Founder’s message of salvation. It is the Church’s constant obligation to manifest Christ to all peoples in all times, in their cultural and actual historical context. In doing so, as the Second Vatican Council says, she “does not take away anything from the temporal welfare of any people. Rather she fosters and takes to herself, in so far as they are good, the abilities, the resources and customs of peoples. In so taking them to herself she purifies, strengthens and elevates them” (Lumen Gentium, 13).
However, from apostolic times the Church realised that she had to promote collaboration, the expression of the one faith in various contexts, and, where necessary and possible, pastoral and missionary co-ordination in order to make the transmission of the Gospel message more convincing and to respond better to the demands which occur. For this reason today it seemed opportune to convoke this Special Assembly.
3. From the comments which have reached me and which continue to arrive, I can say that the convocation of a Synodal Assembly of the Bishops of the African continent has been accepted generally with joy and great satisfaction. Some Bishops and entire hierarchies have expressed their joy and thanks to me for giving them the occasion to meet, to agree at the pastoral and missionary levels, to fulfil better their responsibilities as pastors, and to be seen to affirm the personality and identity of the Church in Africa.
On the occasion of this meeting, I am happy to express my appreciation to those who have taken part in the Pre-preparatory Commission. Immediately after the announcement of the convocation of the Synod for Africa and the establishment of the Commission, its members met twice – 7-9 January and 1-3 March – to make a preliminary draft of the outlines of the theme, structure and norms for the holding of the Synod.
Notwithstanding their responsibilities in their respective dioceses, and their commitments to their Episcopal conferences or to various regional, continental or universal bodies, the members of the Commission have shown a generous and prompt availability for which I thank them sincerely. I also thank you for your expert contribution and assistance to the Secretary General of the Synod in laying the foundations for a good beginning of the Synodal process.
4. Now we have reached the stage when we must get to the heart of this Synodal process and face with determination the successive phases of the work. For this purpose I have established the Council of the General Secretariat for the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, composed of members of the former Pre-preparatory Commission, together with eight members whom I have invited to participate.
In fact, the Council has the essential task of helping the General Secretariat to prepare adequately the Synod meetings, and afterwards to ensure the carrying out of what has been decided by the Synod and approved by the Pope. Thus the Council of the Special Assembly develops its activity parallel to that of the General Assembly.
5. This is the first time that a Synod at continental level has been convoked. This involves a great effort on everyone’s part, and in the first place on the part of the Council itself. Your first task will be to prepare the Lineamenta, in order to foster joint reflection and in order to encourage suggestions and useful ideas on the general subject laid down for the celebration of the Synod.
The joint reflection should cover all the import aspects of the life of the Church in Africa, and in particular should include evangelisation, inculturation, dialogue, pastoral care in social areas and the means of social communication.
The Church is missionary by her nature. Evangelisation is a duty laid upon all members of the Church by the Lord Jesus himself, so that all people may come to believe and be saved. As my predecessor Paul VI said in an address to the College of Cardinals, “the conditions of society compel us all to review methods, to try by every possible means to study how to bring to modern man the Christian message, in which alone he can find the answer to his questions and the strength for his commitment to human solidarity” (22 June 1973).
Just as Jesus in proclaiming the Gospel used all the elements which made up the culture of his people, so the Church too must use elements taken from human cultures in order to build up the Kingdom. However, inculturation does not mean just an external adaptation. Inculturation means the “intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through the integration of Christianity and the planting of Christianity in the various human cultures” (Second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Relatio Finalis, II, D, 4).
The Catholic Church in Africa lives side by side with other religions. The Second Vatican Council exhorted Catholics living in a multireligious environment to bear witness to their Christian faith and life with prudence and charity, through dialogue and co-operation with people of other religions. At the same time it encouraged them to recognise, preserve and promote all the positive spiritual, moral, social and cultural values that the latter possess. The Church is bound ceaselessly to proclaim Christ who is the “Way, and the Truth and the Life ” (Jn. 14,6). Hence there must never be an opposition between dialogue and mission.
It is true of course that the Kingdom of God is not identifiable with any merely temporal achievement. But this does not exempt the Church from concerning herself with people in their actual personal situations and in the life in society. The conditions of extreme poverty and underdevelopment in which millions of our brethren on the Continent of Africa live ought to make all African Christians realise that they have a duty to promote equal human dignity and solidarity as well as economic and social development at the service of the individual and the family.
Reflection must also extend to the means of social communication. In recent years the communications media have vastly developed, and exercise an enormous influence on young people and all sections of society. They have also created new and serious problems. But if they are properly used, they can effectively contribute to social and cultural development, and can spread and consolidate the Kingdom of God.
6. Dear brothers, I thank you for your prompt response to my request for your help and for the valuable contribution which you are making and will continue to make to the preparations for this meeting. If it is prepared well, the Synod Meeting will be able to involve all levels of the Christian community: individuals, small communities, parishes, dioceses, and local, national and international bodies. It will have positive results and will benefit the Church not only in Africa but throughout the world.
I place this Synod under the protection of Mary, Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church, and I impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.