When one thinks of Africa, one is immediately confronted by its vastness, diversities, complexities as well as its mysteriousness. The catholic Church in Africa is wrapped up in these factors which need to be unpacked before anyone can understand the reality of the Church in this Continent.

African Vastness
The total area of the African continent is 30,306,780 square kilometers (equivalent to 11,706,166 square miles), as compared to the USA, whose surface is 9,372,614 square kilometers (equivalent to 3,615,102 square miles). You will not believe it but you can fit in the whole of China, USA, India, Europe, Argentina and New Zealand into the surface of Africa, and still be left with some thousand square kilometers.

Cultural and Geographical Diversities
When we speak of Africa, we must remember that North Africa is completely different from Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, each of the regions: Eastern, Western, Central, and Southern differ significantly from each other. Linguistically, Africa is even more complex. Leaving all the dialects aside, we may count about 2,000 different languages and so one can imagine the enormous problem of communication facing 62 Africa nation states today. This language diversity is indeed one of the factors of African under-development. As one travels from one country to another, the way of life may sometimes differ considerably, for example, the main livelihood of the people, the costumes, and the main staple food.

Africa is Full of Surprises
Africa was once referred to as the "Dark Continent", not because of the skin colour of the people, but because of the mystery that surrounded this continent. Little was known about Africa before the 14th Century when serious exploration began. Much of the lack of knowledge about Africa is still found in romanticized and exotic novels and movies such as "Tarzan". But as Karen Blixen, in the award winning movie Out of Africa, has expressed, Africa is enchanting and fascinating.

Despite the diversity of Africa and African people, there is a certain common historical context. In one way or another, the people of Africa have all suffered from colonialism under different masters in different historical periods. Since the scramble for Africa led the occupying powers to fight each other for territorial control, a conference convoked by these very powers was held in Berlin in 1885 to literally parcel out Africa like a piece of cake among the various colonial governments. At times that meant dividing some ethnic groups from each other.

Early Evangelization of Africa
It is important to recall that evangelization entered the continent of Africa much earlier that the colonial interests. According to the Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40, the Apostle Philip baptized the first Ethiopian Christian. By the Fourth Century, both Ethiopia and Nubia (modern Sudan) were Christian. Coptic missionaries (from Egypt) had founded churches with distinctive local cultural forms. The Ethiopian rite of the Mass is one of the most beautiful ancient rites of the Catholic Church and one that has inspired many African Bishops in search for a more authentic African expression of the faith in liturgical worship.

Already in 1454, Pope Nicholas V (6 March, 1447 - 24 March, 1455), granted the Portuguese the privilege of expanding their influence into the African continent as far as Guinea. With the Papal Bull Inter Cetera, all Catholic sovereigns were granted extensive powers to evangelize the so-called new lands. It was within this framework that the continent of Africa was placed under the patronage of Portugal. By the end of the 15th century, the Church in Nubia had been completely destroyed by the advance of Islam. During the same century, Portuguese missionaries of the Latin Rite evangelized the Kingdom of the Kongo (modern day Angola). It is important to note that the missionaries, with permission from Rome, allowed the Kongo Catholics to adapt the Christian faith to their own culture, and for some time developed a flourishing Church among the Kongo people. However, according to some historians of this period of Church history (cf. John Thornton, "The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo - 1491-1750"), by the end of the 19th century, the form of Christianity that had developed in Kongo had so radically changed that the new missionaries were not able to recognize it as Christianity. The real reasons documented so far for the apparent disappearance of Christianity in the Kingdom of Kongo are surrounded by accusations and counter-accusations between the royal authorities and the missionaries, many of whom were actually persecuted and others forced to leave. In the process of such conflicts, ecclesiastical boundaries changed , sometimes at the request of the King, who also had a say in the appointment of the Bishop of Saõ Salvador, the King' capital. The gradual withdrawal of Portuguese missionaries, the diminishing number of local clergy and catechists, the coming of Italian Capuchins and the fact of Portuguese interference with the capuchins missionaries, may have led to gradual decline of the quality of Christianity. With the creation of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide) in 1622, the evangelization of Africa began to accelerate. But it was soon marred by four centuries of slave trade. By the time the repeated condemnation by various Popes were headed leading to the abolition of slavery in 1833, Africa had lost 10,000,000 people taken into slavery in the new world.

Catholic Population on the Rise
It is estimated that by the year 2000, out of a total population of 393 million Christians in Africa (48% of the total African population and 19.5% of the total world Christianity), nearly 118 million (30%) of total African Christianity) will be Catholic. The Statistical Yearbook of the Church for the period ending 31 December 1993, showed a total Catholic population of 98,851,000 (14.4%) of the total African population. in Africa. At the end of 1994, the total Catholic population had grown to 102,878,000 (14.6% of the total African population). This would be an annual increase of 4,027,000 (0.2%). For a more complete picture of the facts about the Catholic Church in Africa look at the basic statistics.

Vocations on the Rise
There is a steady growth of vacations to the priesthood since the Second Vatican Council and more so in the last ten years. According to the Statistical Yearbook of the Church, there was an enormous growth of vocations between 1983 and 1993. In 1983 Africa had 6,813 diocesan priests and in 1993 the number had grown to 11,683. During the same period, there was an increase of more than 3,000 ordinations to the priesthood in Africa, while the number of ordinations in the USA went down drastically. There are a number of factors for the increase of vocations in Africa. The main one is that the Catholic faith is young and dynamic. Moreover, the Church is indeed becoming indigenous, with bishops and priests of the land, and therefore it is no longer considered strange to become a priest or to enter into religious life for men of women. Thus places of formation are for women and men religious are overflowing with young vacations. Local religious communities and international ones are reaping the benefits of an abundance of vocations. One must admit, however, that the rise in vocations poses a new serious challenge of careful discernment in the process of formation.

Mission of the Church in Africa
The evangelizing mission of the Church in Africa and the means of carrying it out, may very well be summed up in the focal points discussed by the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa (hereafter referred to as the African Synod) 1994-1995. These focal points were summed in John Paul II's Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa (the Church in Africa), officially signed and presented by the Holy Father to the African Bishops on the African soil at Younde, Cameroon, in September 1995, for their study and pastoral implementation. The key word that opens a window for understanding the mission of the Church as discussed at the African Synod is evangelization, which takes place in particular pastoral contexts within the African continent. This pastoral situation is a complex one as summed up by the Apostolic Exhortation paragraph 49, which touches on the difficult political and human rights situations that the Church in Africa must face in offering its prophetic witness (cf. Ecclesia in Africa, 70). Such mission commits the Church to the challenge of trying to bring about unity and reconciliation in a continent torn apart by human brockenness, ethnic conflicts, tribalism, political dictatorships, mismanagement of state funds by political leaders and civil servants, and the consequences that such issues bring to bear upon the countries of Africa, among which is the serious debt crisis.

This understanding of the mission of the Church places the search for Christian unity and thus dialogue among Christians at the very center of the life of the Church in an attempt to find solutions to the problems facing Africa in collaboration with other Christians and in a spirit of common witness before African Muslims. Ecumenism is affirmed by Pope John Paul II as a pastoral priority, not an option. The mission of the Church thus always involves a dimension of relations with other religious with a view to entering into dialogue with them and finding ways of cooperation. The most challenging aspect of the mission of the Church in Africa is found in the area of serving society and in its contribution to integral human development (Ecclesia in Africa, 68-69). But above all the catholic Community in Africa is called upon to bear authentic witness before all humanity to the unity of the whole human race rooted in the fatherhood of God, for all are destined to form one family according to God's plan of salvation. Thus justice, peace issues, reconciliation, mediation and solidarity with those who suffer under oppressive regimes become very much part of the mission of the Church in Africa towards the Third Millennium.

One effective means of bringing about this evangelizing mission of the Church in Africa is the inculturation of the various aspects of Church life in Africa: theological, sacramental, liturgical and canonical. As the Synod itself put it in its final message, "it is the entire Christian life that needs to be inculturated" (Message of the Synod, 18). Another most effective means of evangelization which was underlined by the Synod is social communication, which is also a major pastoral challenge to the mission of the Church in Africa. This is because there is an urgent need for preparing effective social communicators capable of using the media for the evangelizing mission of the Church in Africa ( Ecclesia in Africa, 125). Indeed the evangelizer must be an effective communicator if the Gospel is to take root in the heart of the listener. This has serious implications for the pastoral formation of priests as well as other pastoral collaborators in every diocese. For example, attention would need to be given to the way priests prepare and deliver their homilies on Sundays, the only moment in a week for many parishioners to be spiritually uplifted through the celebration of Word and Sacrament. The aspect of effective communication is often forgotten in preparing the Sunday celebration. In the African context, what is needed more urgently are skills on how to use the available resources in African culture such as symbols, proverbs, myths, drama, and art for effective evangelization. In catechesis, besides the use of symbols, drama and group media are much more appreciated in Africa as an alternative method among others because they reinforce the idea of journeying together towards God, the idea of discovering God's story as people reflect on the Scriptures together. The use of group media in fact presumes support from gifted social communicators, who are able to produce the much needed materials: songs, posters, pictures, slides, drawings, sculpture, short documentaries and so forth. Using means of social communication is thus more complex than one realizes and therefore needs urgent attention in Africa today, not tomorrow. Young persons (both lay and ordained) need to be sent for training in some of the areas mentioned above. The Church in Africa must find ways of putting social communication skills at the service of evangelization and concretely at the service of catechesis.