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John Paul 11 And African Traditional Religion

If a Pope has ever involved himself so personally and deeply in the African reality, it is John Paul 11. He has been loud in the praise of African cultural and religious heritage. The numerous pastoral visits John Paul has made to Africa provided him with unique opportunities to impress upon his African hearers the high regard and respect the church has for the African traditional cultural heritage, and how this should be brought into service of the gospel, and for the enrichment of the universal church.(9)


But it is in his most recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, that a clear pronouncement on African Traditional Religion is made. "Africans", says John Paul 11, "have a profound religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the creator and of a spiritual world. The reality of sin in its individual and social forms is very much present in the consciousness of these peoples, as is also the need for rites of purification and expiation.(10) The Pope therefore calls for dialogue with African Traditional Religion:

"With regard to African Traditional Religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on the other, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonised with the content of the faith"(11)

Pontifical Council For Inter-Religious Dialogue And African Traditional Religion

In 1988, the secretariat for Non-Christians, as it was then called, (incidentally headed by an African, the Nigerian born Cardinal Francis Arinze), as part of its solicitude for African Traditional Religion, addressed a letter to the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar, urging them to give a serious pastoral attention to African traditional religion incorrectly called "animism", the letter says.(12) The letter re-echoes the position of the Church with regard to other religions in the world:

The Church respects the religions and the cultures of peoples, and wishes that in her contact with them, to preserve all that is noble, true and good in their religion and their cultures.

The letter envisages a fruitful dialogical encounter between Christianity and African Traditional Religion, with promises of a mutual enrichment for both:

In the measure where traditional religion will be better understood by the messengers of the gospel, Christianity will also be presented to Africans in a more appropriate fashion. A study of traditional religion will identify the underlying felt needs of Africans, and clarify the manner in which Christianity can respond to them. This way, the Church will be at home in Africa, and Africans will feel more and more at home in the Church.

The letter thus recommends dialogue with traditional religion to take place at two levels, first, "with the people who adhere to traditional religion and who do not yet desire to become Christians". With such persons, "dialogue has to be understand in the ordinary sense of encounter, of mutual understanding, of respect and a mutual search of the will of God". Second, with those who desire to become Christians, and with Christians converted from traditional religion, the dialogue has to be understood in a wider sense of a pastoral approach to traditional religion, in view to present the Gospel of our Savour Jesus Christ in an appropriate manner, so that the Church takes deeper roots on African soil."

As part of the pastoral attention to traditional religion the letter calls for appropriate research centres to be established for research purposes into traditional religion, to discern the "principal tenets of its beliefs: particularly God the Creator, the place of the spirits of the ancestors, the fundamental rites in this religion, sacrifice, priesthood, prayer, marriage, the human soul, life after death, religion and the moral life". The letter strongly recommends that ATR be part of the curriculum and study programmes of seminaries and religious houses of formation.

This letter of the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue is the first (sic) (13) of its kind to come from very high ecclesiastical circles, a Vatican central office, to pronounce directly and elaborately on the need for the Church, particularly in Africa and Madagascar, to take ATR seriously, to give it urgent pastoral attention, to study it, and to enter into dialogue with it. Undoubtedly, too, it gave birth and greater impetus to efforts already contemplated or initiated in research work on ATR by theological faculties and ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning such as at Kinshasa, Nairobi, Abidjan and Port Harcourt, as well as the teaching of ATR in major Seminaries. The letter is a main inspiration for the various dialogue commissions on the diocesan, provincial, national, inter-regional and inter-national levels.

The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue has since its establishment religiously promoted dialogue with traditional religions, with ATR receiving great attention because of the relatively large area of its influence. For instance, at the November 1995 plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, ATR received some attention. The idea of holiness in African Traditional religion was examined, as well as the motivations within traditional religions (with focus on ATR) for dialogue with Christianity.(14) The same Pontifical Council organised recently in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a colloquium on the theme "The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Encounter with Traditional Religions". This was from July 29th to August 3rd, 1996. African Traditional Religion received prominent attention at this Colloquium as theologians, including several Bishops mostly from French speaking West Africa, reflected attentively on traditional religions and their place in God's plan of salvation. Recommendations made at the Colloquium include the intensification of dialogue with traditional religion, teaching traditional religion in seminaries and religious houses of formation, and promoting research into traditional religion in ecclesiastical institutes of higher learning.

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