The prophetic role of African religious women to the mission of the church and the building of their society

Despite the numerous challenges and difficulties, religious life in Africa has grown from strength to strength making a qualitative contribution to the growth of the local church. The role of religious women in fighting illiteracy, injustices, sickness, poverty, misery and oppression has led to the assertion of some authors that “Christian Africa will be what the African Sisters will make it.”[1] In fact, they are an indispensable evangelical sign among their people constituting in the heart of the church an enormous resource through their readiness for service, presence and witness through which they continue to give an effective, irreplaceable and unique contribution to the prophetic mission of the church and to human promotion in their society.

African religious women as prophetic signs to the church and society

During the Second Synod for Africa, the synod fathers expressed the expectations of the church on religious in the following words: "The Church expects much from the witness of religious communities, characterized by racial, regional and ethnic differences. With their common life they proclaim that God does not make distinctions between people and that we are all his children, family members, living in harmony in diversity and peace."[2] In a continent characterized by many problems, challenges and difficulties such as poverty, hunger, ethnic conflicts, economic and political instability, religious institutions are encouraged to be at the forefront in the mission of establishing peace, reconciliation and justice.

To effectively accomplish this mission, African religious women in particular must retrieve the mystical dimension of their consecration, which is often rendered less visible by the desire to "do" rather than to "be." Despite the many human needs of our people, the significance and importance of consecrated life in Africa today cannot be based on the numerous apostolates or works, no matter how essential they may be, but fundamentally on being men and women totally dedicated to God. This is the basis of the prophetic witness which our church and society seriously demand from us today.

Promotion of peace, justice and reconciliation

Today in Africa, the promotion of peace, justice and reconciliation occupy priority of place in the church’s mission and in the building up of the society. This was the theme of the second African synod which keenly reflected the aspirations and the sensibilities of every African today.[3] The commitment of African religious women to this field demands a constant review of their lives to see how they themselves are instruments of peace, justice and reconciliation. Their communities must become schools of peace, reconciliation and justice where people can learn to live and love each other without any distinction of race, tribe or nation.

In addition to this, through their scholastic institutes, communication media, multiple religious and educational projects, African religious women are actively contributing to the formation of young people as advocates of peace, justice and reconciliation. This commitment ought to manifest itself most actively in those persecuted sections of voiceless injustices.

African religious women and the transformation of their culture

The incarnation of the Gospel into the African culture demands a change of some socio-cultural structures that encourage injustice, oppression, exploitation and that reduce human dignity and respect. This involves underlying factors like world views, value systems and vision of the human person, of the world and of reality as a whole.

African religious women insert themselves in the midst of cultural forces like education, arts and media. This becomes a challenge as well as an encouragement for cultural change. Against the culture of globalisation, modernity, materialism and secularism – which is spreading its tentacles widely in Africa today – communities of religious life are challenged to witness to the real essence of human life.[4]  In a society characterised by an unmitigated craving for material goods, fame and power – where egoism wears a coat of love – the profession of the evangelical counsels becomes a counter-cultural witness which points to the proper use of material things, the essential needs of the human person and authentic freedom, solidarity and self-giving.

African religious women are invited to assume an important mission in the formation of a new African culture that does not call for a retrospective journey to traditional culture or its complete abandonment, but rather for a critical reading and assessment of the past, an objective analysis of the present and an optimistic projection into the future in the light of the Gospel as the message of life, love and hope. They are expected to be women of dialogue between their culture and the Gospel, to promote a new Christian culture born from this dialogue. In this context, community life itself, as a place of multicultural and intercultural encounter, becomes an evangelising factor of a culture often conditioned by blood or parental affinities, tribalism, alienation and violence.

Through intercultural dialogue and exchange, African religious women become prophetic signs and instruments of an integral and a liberated evangelisation. The experience of the Gospel leads them to create an alternative culture with new prospects of looking at God, the world, reality, life and the human person as a whole. Their life-style and apostolate become a testimony of a culture transformed by the Gospel and a means for the realization of a cultural change that fosters justice, peace and reconciliation.[5]

Preferential option for the “materially” poor

The prophetic mission of Christ finds resonance and challenges the African religious woman today more than ever as she watches children die of hunger, young ones roaming the streets, brothers and fathers carried away to war fronts from where they hardly return and hundreds crying behind prison bars where their voices are never heard. In this context Pope Francis’ words become very pertinent: “People today certainly need words, but most of all they need us to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord which warms the heart, rekindles hope, and attracts people towards the good. What a joy it is to bring God’s consolation to others!”[6]

This option for the poor is not just that priority attention towards them, but also includes our acceptance of the message which they carry. They pedagogically help us to perceive the emptiness of a faith that is not the transforming and constructive force of a just society; they question the authenticity of our evangelical poverty. Practically African religious women are challenged by the poor they serve to bear a renewed and vigorous evangelical witness of self-denial and restraint, in a form of fraternal life inspired by simplicity, solidarity and hospitality.

Challenges

The basic challenge for African religious women today is the search for their specific identity as women from the African culture, called, consecrated and sent on mission to evangelize and to incarnate the Gospel into their own socio-cultural reality – in other words, a crucial question of what it actually means to be a consecrated religious woman in Africa with all the cultural, social, political and economic problems presently ravaging this continent. This question calls for a rigorous re-examination of the content of religious life as understood and lived in Africa today – its organization, lifestyle, form – and the capacity to incarnate itself profoundly into the African culture.

Closely connected to this is the lack of the identification and inculturation of the proper institutional charism. African sisters today are challenged to be mystics by identifying themselves firmly with the charismatic roots of their religious institutes and the Christian life, to incarnate this charism and the original inspiration of their founders/foundresses in the real-life situation. Without this, religious life loses its vitality and becomes a simple social ladder for a superior social status. During the First African Synod, this came up as one of the main difficulties facing the flourishing religious life in Africa. The synod fathers affirmed that:

Many new diocesan institutes are springing up in many places on the continent. These are welcome as they contribute to the fullness of the being and apostolate of the church. It would seem, however, that some of these new diocesan institutes are being created for apostolates already being undertaken by many others. Others seem to lack a distinctive charism and spirit. In addition, some new institutes do not seem to have adequate means to form their members and engage in effective mission. To avoid duplications the amalgamation of institutes with similar charisms and apostolic goals would seem to be in order. Multiplying diocesan institutes for their own sake could be a counter-witness by creating jealousy, prejudice, possessiveness and narrowness of outlook. Care should be taken to give Sisters an inculturated and relevant spiritual and academic formation.” (Instrumentum Laboris, n. 32).

Another serious challenge confronting religious life in Africa is lack of authentic and integral formation. Religious formation today cannot be based on pure indoctrination, but must take into consideration the present reality of this continent. In most of our local congregations, formation is still based on generic principles and norms of religious life without any cultural reference. There is an eminent need for a qualified process of formation which is integral and which does not only bear particular attention to the tradition and spirituality of the institute, but which equally seeks to transform and consolidate some of the values of African womanhood.

Conclusion

Despite the numeric challenges and difficulties afflicting the African continent, religious women continue to prove their dedication to their people as a mother to her children. This could be made more explicit by the words of John Paul II: “The example and activity of women who through virginity are consecrated to the love of God and neighbour, especially the very poor, are an indispensable evangelical sign among those peoples and cultures where women still have far to go on the way toward human promotion and liberation.”[7] These are the type of women Africa ardently needs today.

[Kenyuyfoon Gloria Wirba is a member of the African Province of the Congregation of the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, located in Cameroon.  She teaches courses on Theology of Consecrated Life at the Institute of Catechesis and Missionary Spirituality at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. She holds a doctorate degree in missiology from Pontifical Urbaniana University and a licentiate degree in the theology of consecrated life from Pontifical Lateran University.]

[1] Baur, John. 2000 years of Christianity in Africa: An African Church History, Pauline Publications, Nairobi (Kenya) 1994, p. 410.

[2] Synod of Bishops, Second Special Assembly for Africa. “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world’ (Mt 5: 13, 14),” Propositions, (October 2009), n. 42.

[3] Cfr. Synod of Bishops, Second Special Assembly for Africa. Lineamenta: The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace, Pauline Publications, Nairobi 2006.

[4] Cfr. Amaladoss, M. “The Religious in Mission,” in Consecrated Life Today, pp. 136-137.

[5] Cfr. Kiaziku, V.C. L’Inculturazione come una Sfida alla Vita Consacrata in Africa Bantu, p. 72.

[6] Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Year of Consecrated Life, Rejoice: A letter to consecrated men and women, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta’ del Vaticano 2014, n. 8.

[7] Pope John Paul II. Redemptoris Missio, no. 70.

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