Presbyterorum Ordinis

Profile of the priest in Africa, from the Council until today

Brother among brothers in the Family of God

John Njue Mugo
The situation of priests in Africa has to be looked at against the background of a Western-style missionary past that, together with doubtless gifts, has left behind significant conditionings. In the wake of Vatican II a process is in place which perceives the mandate of priests in the context of the mission of the whole people of God and aims at respecting the specificity of African cultures, treasuring their values. The author is studying for a doctorate in the Culture of Unity at the Sophia University Institute in Loppiano (Florence, Italy), where he is doing research on "The Church as a home and school of communion for universal brotherhood in Christ: a challenge for the priestly ministry in Kenya today."

The period since Vatican II has been very important for the development of the profile of priests in Africa.
Before the Council, priests were considered by the people as powerful men, who made, knew and could do anything. Missionaries, in fact, worked as teachers, doctors and engineers, as well as priests, because they were building schools, hospitals, workshops, etc. They solved people’s problems, who, rather than participate, received.
On the other hand, African priests basically took the same identity as missionaries. For the people, they were "mysterious" and, in a sense, "abnormal." Unmarried men without children in Africa were "useless", that is, they were people who did not follow the traditions of their ancestors and, because of that, lost their purpose.
The opening of the Council to the local Churches produced a movement that has encouraged new developments. We were in the time of decolonization and felt the need to root the Church in the local reality, aiming at institutional, economic, and cultural independence. Liturgy which included African music and customs was developed; the sacraments and catechesis were integrated in the context of culture; within the Church the role of catechists and lay participation was enhanced.

The African Priest at a Crossroad
If we wonder how priests in Africa have managed to implemented the Council, I think that we should answer: not without difficulties! For three reasons in particular.
Theological. A whole generation of priests was educated by missionaries according to the pre-Vatican II Roman theology with a strong hierarchical, rather static and legalistic mould. The ministry focused on the administration of the sacraments according to Latin guidelines where the rules of canon law played an important role. Fearful of losing authority and rank, priests found it difficult to give space to the laity.
Cultural. Seminary education distanced African priests from their culture and traditions and "westernized" them. At the same time, they felt inferior compared to the Western world with its industry, commerce, and its luxuries.
Psychological. The African priest, after an inner struggle that led him to reject the customs of his country, had accepted Western Christianity as a path to success. According to the indications of Vatican II, he would now have to go back to an attitude of service and a simple lifestyle which he now considered inferior.
For these and other reasons, the transition from the Church of the missionaries to the African Church was not very easy. Suffice it to say that the local clergy continued to some extent to depend on the missionaries for the sustenance of the Church and that the people themselves often continued to turn to the missionaries for their needs.
The Church as the “Family of God”
The 1994 Synod for Africa was like a springboard to launch the vision of Vatican II. It defined the model of the Church in Africa as the "Family of God", which promotes the values of the African community by extending to all areas of society the sharing and simplicity of family life.
A feast cannot be celebrated without the participation of the whole village. The priest must therefore promote the participation of all members of the Christian family, each one in their different roles, according to their possibilities and skills, taking part himself as a brother among brothers.
The Synod also noted that the style of the Church in our Continent was dominated by the "hierarchy" and the clergy. It stressed the need that the minister be the servant and animator of the community and collaborate with the laity.

Challenges for the life of the priests
The priest in Africa faces a rapidly changing society where the processes of democratization and development awaken the animosity and the awareness of the people. Hence the need for priests to listen deeply.
In addition, because of globalization, Africa is losing its traditional values, especially among the new generations who tend to believe that their own institutions and their culture are inferior to Western ones.
A big obstacle derives from the individualism of priests who remain inevitably influenced to varying degrees by the dynamism of modern life.
The need "to create a family atmosphere" first of all among priests, to then be able to transmit this experience to the Christian communities, is not yet shared by all.

Some formation models
The then Archbishop of Mombasa (Kenya), John Njenga, in his talk at the 1994 Synod said: "We need to redefine authority and communion in seminary life .... Authority must be understood as a service in the building of communion. ... Seminarians should be formed in the exercise of authority and leadership as a service to the community."
The then Bishop of Embu (Kenya), John Njue, now cardinal of Nairobi, proposed to "encourage the involvement of skilful and mature women in the formation of future priests, in both minor and major seminaries, as teachers, members of advisory committees, etc.". "The education of priests to celibacy - he pointed out - necessarily entails a balanced attitude towards women." Indeed, the presence of women and lay people can help avoid clerical trends in future priests.
Increasingly, we also perceive the need to learn how to use modern means of communication and social media with today’s language in order to communicate the Gospel and create fraternity and communion.

Two Cornerstones
Amid the many problems and difficulties which may discourage priests, where are they to find inspiration and strength?
Certainly, in the image of Jesus on the cross who, in the moment of his abandonment, has overcome every trial entrusting himself with love to the Father. He is the model that gives light, strength, "shape" and style to the ministry.
Having established this fixed point, we must put charity and mutual love at the basis of all, so that we can manifest the presence of Jesus among his own, as in the Upper Room where Mary, together with the Apostles, and men and women disciples of Jesus, formed the first cell of the Church-Family of God.