Africa’s commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ is a precious treasure which I entrust at the beginning of this third millennium to the bishops, priests, permanent deacons, consecrated persons, catechists and lay faithful of that beloved continent and its neighbouring islands. Through this mission, Africa is led to explore its Christian vocation more deeply; it is called, in the name of Jesus, to live reconciliation between individuals and communities and to promote peace and justice in truth for all.
It was my wish that the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, held from 4 to 25 October 2009, should continue the work of the 1994 Assembly, “which was intended to be an occasion of hope and resurrection, at the very moment when human events seemed to be tempting Africa to discouragement and despair.” The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa of my predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, brought together the pastoral insights and proposals of the Synod Fathers for a new evangelization of the African continent. It was appropriate, ten years into this third millennium, to rekindle our faith and hope, so as to help build a reconciled Africa by pursuing the paths of truth and justice, love and peace (cf. Ps 85:11). In union with the Synod Fathers, I recall that “unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour” (Ps 127:1).
Exceptional ecclesial vitality and a theological understanding of the Church as God’s Family were the most visible results of the 1994 Synod. To give a new impulse, filled with evangelical hope and charity, to the Church of God on the African continent and the neighbouring islands, I thought it necessary to convoke a Second Synodal Assembly. Sustained by the daily invocation of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of countless members of the faithful, the Synod sessions bore fruit which I would like to transmit through this document to the universal Church, and in a particular way to the Church in Africa, that she may truly be the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (cf. Mt 5:13-14). Inspired by “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6), the Church seeks to offer the fruits of love: reconciliation, peace and justice (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-7). This is her specific mission.
I was impressed by the quality of the speeches given by the Synod Fathers and the others who spoke at the sessions. Their realistic and far-sighted contributions demonstrated the Christian maturity of the continent. They were not afraid to face the truth and they sought to reflect sincerely on possible solutions to the problems facing their particular Churches and the universal Church. They also recognized that the blessings of God, the Father of all, are beyond counting. God never abandons his people. I see no need to dwell at length on the various socio-political, ethnic, economic or ecological situations that Africans face daily and that cannot be ignored. Africans know better than anyone else how difficult, disturbing and even tragic these situations can very often be. I pay tribute to Africans and to all the Christians of that continent who face these situations with courage and dignity. Rightly, they want this dignity to be recognized and respected. I can assure them that the Church loves and respects Africa.
In the face of the many challenges that Africa seeks to address in order to become more and more a land of promise, the Church, like Israel, could easily fall prey to discouragement; yet our forebears in the faith have shown us the correct attitude to adopt. Moses, the Lord’s servant, “by faith … persevered as though he saw him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). For this reason I call upon the whole Church to look to Africa with faith and hope. Jesus Christ, who invites us to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14), offers us the power of the Spirit to help us come ever closer to attaining this ideal.
It was my intention that Christ’s words: “You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world”, would be the unifying theme of the Synod and also of the post-synodal period. When I spoke in Yaoundé to all the faithful of Africa, I said this: “In Jesus, some two thousand years ago, God himself brought salt and light to Africa. From that time on, the seed of his presence was buried deep within the hearts of the people of this dear continent, and it has blossomed gradually, beyond and within the vicissitudes of its human history.”
The Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa made its own the idea of “the Church as God’s Family”, which the Synod Fathers “acknowledged … as an expression of the Church’s nature particularly appropriate for Africa. For this image emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust.” The Exhortation invited Christian families in Africa to become “domestic churches” so as to help their respective communities to recognize that they belong to one single Body. This image is important not only for the Church in Africa, but also for the universal Church at a time when the family is under threat from those who seek to banish God from our lives. To deprive the African continent of God would be to make it die a slow death, by taking away its very soul.