Out of Africa

Students of religion have been saying for a long time that Africa is the future of Christianity. Twenty years ago, Philip Jenkins argued, in his still enlightening book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, that by 2050 there will be more Catholics in Sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe, and by the end of the century more than there were in the whole world then. (And that was before the rapid decline of Christian numbers in Europe and America.) He also predicted that “global” Christianity, which takes its most dynamic forms (both Catholic and evangelical) in Africa and Asia, will change the face of the churches in the rest of the world.

I have to confess that when I first read that, shortly after the book appeared, I assumed that Jenkins was right, if only owing to sheer population growth in Africa. But if you reflect on the matter a bit, Church growth is never automatic. Children abandon the faith of their parents, the parents themselves drift away or grow indifferent, other influences – notably militant incursions from Islam or economic infiltration by the Chinese – may lead people astray in various parts of the developing world. It takes evangelization – not our first-world fears of  “proselytizing,” but a robust presentation of the Gospel and the truth about the living God – to transmit the Faith across generations, even in Africa.

Happily, the effects of that evangelization don’t stay in Africa. During the past few synods in Rome, the African bishops have stoutly helped hold the line on matters such as marriage, homosexuality, and the formation of young people. Cardinal Kasper, whose work helped get Communion for the divorced and remarried on the table at the two synods on the family, became so exasperated when things didn’t move in the direction he hoped that he was caught on tape saying “they [the Africans] should not tell us too much what we have to do.” If you agree with him about where the Church should go, of course, he had a point. Those traditional societies aren’t intimidated by what they see happening in our confused and – let’s say it frankly – decadent cultures.

For certain churchmen, that’s a potent threat. When you see a picture like this one of people actually happy and devoted to the Faith, you realize what the Church might be again if it returned to its roots and used resources properly.

I attended a fundraiser this past Friday for the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Togo (pictured above). Fundraising events in our nation’s capital are typically melancholy affairs. For all the hype, ambition, hoopla, and glitter, they’re almost always events where elites of various kinds put on the dog and promise political salvation. Depending on the specific cause, financial support may, it’s true, keep things from getting a lot worse, for a while. A few institutions such as the March for Life or the Catholic Information Center actually move the ball forward. But after many years of sitting through such fundraising dinners, I’ve come to the conclusion that the deep changes we really need, if they come, will come some other way, perhaps even from elsewhere.

By that, I mean efforts like our modest but heartfelt gatherings to support the Togo Mission Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For an even dozen years, Mary and Nick Eberstadt have hosted them – with just 40 or 50 of us – in the side garden of their D.C. home (two years had to be “online” because of COVID, but we were back again, in person, last Friday). The mission has had its challenges and even disappointments. But for more than a decade, it has offered witness to what a mission, even in our troubled and chaotic post-modern moment in the Church and the world, can still be.

At the first fundraiser, the goal was to find the modest resources needed just to dig a well. Thanks to the energetic efforts of Fr. William Ryan, an American missionary, things have changed quite a bit over the past decade or so. This year he needs to build a girl’s dormitory to house just some of the now 1300 students (yes, that figure is correct) who attend the school he has created (the brown building in the photo below).

Unlike many missionary efforts, the Togo Mission does not plan on being dependent on American or other foreign donations forever. Fr. Ryan wants to help the Africans to become self-supporting in various ways. He has a native-born priest assisting him in the work now and has sent a couple of his villagers off to the seminary and convents. A French order of African nuns is in charge of the school. On the specifically economic side, this past year the search for self-sufficiency meant buying and planting 2400 orange trees, setting out fields of Palm trees, and developing other crops that will support the village.

The main mission of a mission, of course, is to preach the Gospel. In the past year alone, Fr. Bill baptized 47 children, who also made their First Communion along with 32 others previously baptized, for a total of 79 who received the Eucharist for the first time. These numbers are impressive in themselves – that kind of growth would reflect great dynamism in any enterprise. But that the Catholic Church is still producing such marvels in our own age, when so much looks so bad in the places that have been the historic home of Christianity, puts a new and fresh perspective before us.

These days, I sometimes find myself uncertain about where to make donations. Even some Catholic relief agencies lately have permitted population control and other morally suspect compromises into their otherwise good work. That’s one reason why I now support efforts like the Togo Mission Church. And hope you will too. (Just click here.)


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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.