Hope lies in togetherness: The laity in the Church of the Third Millennium in Africa

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1997 »Hope Lies In Togetherness The Laity In The Church Of The Third Millennium In Africa

Laurenti Magesa



One of the most important events of the twentieth century was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations Organization on December l0, 1948.  Even though the Declaration has been rightly criticized, as for example by Benezet Bujo (1998: 143), for being too deeply based on Western precepts and contexts, and therefore not taking sufficient account of other (such as African) ethical perceptions, its fundamental significance is not thereby diminished.  Bujo himself (ibid.) quotes with approval the statement by Wolfgang Schild that regardless of the many differences that are a part of human beings and humanity in general, “The importance of the idea of human rights for today’s situation of human history lies in the fact that it brings a common normative basis for the living together of all people in peace and justice.”

What is this “common normative basis” at the heart of human rights?  For the West it is “the dignity of the individual” person, a realization born of the European Enlightenment period of the l7th and l8th centuries, as Bujo (1998: 144) points out. For Africa, however, it lies in the dignity of the individual person “in solidarity with,” or “in interdependence with,” the community.  This communal perception, Bujo insists, should balance and enrich the Euro-American individualistic understanding of human rights if the Declaration is to be more appreciated by and benefit humanity worldwide. In my opinion, Bujo is on target: the two aspects do in fact form one firm basis for a comprehensive approach to human rights which benefits from the experience and wisdom of all the peoples of the world. Seen and used together, they make the UN Declaration even richer and much more responsive to the contemporary situation where the individual and the community must not be divorced.

As a political statement, governments must, of course, pay attention to the Declaration. But the Declaration is also very much a moral and ethical document, and as such it pertains to the Churches, specifically the Christian Church. Even if historically Catholic Christianity, for instance, has been nervous and uncomfortable with the language of rights, and has even condemned it in practice, the Scriptural roots of human rights and dignity in solidarity with others (living and dead), and with the rest of creation, cannot be contested. Pope Leo XIII’s letter Rerum Novarum of 1891 brought this fact forcefully into the foreground of the Church’s consciousness, and this has continued with Vatican II, the various general and special Roman synods since, and the utterances of various Popes, bishops and bishops’ conferences everywhere, as well as the courageous witness of many individuals worldwide. No wonder, then, that early on, Pope John XXIII hailed the UN Declaration of Human Rights as a foundation for “a legal and political organization for the world community.” He could have added, in his well known phrase, that it provides “a breath of fresh air” for the Catholic Church community’s way of seeing itself.

Just as for the body organism, fresh air is needed in the organism that is the Church, the body of Christ. The fiftieth anniversary of the UN Declaration comes just a year shy of the start of Christian Great Jubilee of 2000.  The two events must provide occasion for the Church to reflect seriously on the state of human right within its own parameters. For if the UN Declaration insists on justice and dignity for all human beings, the spirit of the Jubilee, as spelled out in the Book of Leviticus 25, also mandates a universal return to justice and equality. These qualities, after all, distinguish Jesus’ ministry; they constitute his “good news” to all humanity. Without them the church is without soul.

Since the Church, above all, must by its vocation represent these qualities clearly to the world, it is proper to ask how far it has succeeded in doing so.  In preparation for the Jubilee it is essential to point out aspects within the Church that call for repentance. According to Pope John Paul II (1994: nos. 33-36) in his letter on the advent of the Jubilee, repentance forms the celebration's pivotal axis. In this context, “Repentance” means, in practice, the recognition of the humanity of the person within the community and the integrity of the community within the sisterhood/brotherhood of other communities. It means, further, the erection, preservation and development of structures to preserve this humanity in community, and justice for all.

The Church is a future-oriented community which knows that it needs to be made ever more perfect. Christian faith and faithfulness require it to move ever forward in theological and ethical understanding and perfection of its vocation, under the motivation and guidance of God’s Spirit.  This is why the Church looks upon itself as a pilgrim community with no permanent abode here. This is an immensely significant theological metaphor which opens up the Church ever to correction, self-criticism and change of direction.


There are many aspects of its theological and practical life about which the Church can profitably examine its conscience in view of purifying itself for the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations. In this brief article, however, let us limit ourselves to the role of the laity in the Church in African context, and try to point out a number of shortcomings that have diminished their rightful place and identity as “actors” in the ecclesial community. One of these remains the lack of forums and avenues for the laity through which to share with the whole Church their own spiritual inspiration, their own attempt to be faithful to this faith, that is, in a word, their own perception and appropriation of the faith, and their own spirituality.

This is a serious matter on a number of levels.  First of all, in the absence of sharing no community is truly a community; and no community is Christian in the absence of shared prayer. Let us understand our categories correctly: sharing in this sense means a fundamental openness within the Church to each one of its members’ experience of faith in Jesus; and, most fundamentally, this is what prayer is: one’s faith experience regularly expressed in words.  But this sharing is proper to every baptized Christian; it is not a privilege of any one group or section of people within the Church.  The point is most significant.

Pope John Paul II (l996, no 3l) explains clearly the theological foundation of sharing understood in this way.  He explains that “by virtue of their rebirth in Christ, all the faithful share a common dignity; all are called to holiness; all cooperate in the building up of the one Body of Christ, each in accordance with the proper vocation which he or she has received from the spirit.”  What is primary is therefore not status or the process of delegation of human power in the ecclesiastical system.  The Pope is unambiguous in stressing that the central force in the life of the Church is the sharing, the participation, that flows from the power of God’s spirit at work in every Christian.  The dignity and right of every Christian in the Church must be seen in this light.  The Pope confirms: “The equal dignity of all members of the Church is the work of the Spirit, is rooted in Baptism and Confirmation and is strengthened by the Eucharist.”

The fact that Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist are the primary sacraments that introduce and maintain all faithful in the Church community should serve to arrest the sin of “hierarchism” which prevents the full flowering of lay participation and sharing. Hierarchism, the sin of which the Church needs repentance, must be distinguished from “hierarchy,” a legitimate ecclesiastical structure. The former is an abuse of the latter, where spiritual inspiration and the mechanisms of sharing religious experience are narrowed down and limited to the different levels of the clergy alone. Such reductionism needs to be clearly noted because it has been on the ascendance in the past two decades, contradicting trends in the Church rooted in Vatican II. As we approach the end of the present and the beginning of a new millennium, the Church needs to learn to be more hospitable again, to open itself up a little more to her children’s gifts, particularly those children who constitute the vast majority of her members. To exclude the experience of these is to limit the experience of the Church itself. It is to impoverish the Church.

Dale T. Irvin (1996:173) quotes a passage from novelist Salman Rushdie’sImaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism that is pertinent here.  Commenting on a novel by Saul Bellow Rushdie writes:

The Central character, the Dean, Corde, hears a dog barking wildly somewhere.  He imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limit of dog experience. “For God’s sake, the dog is saying, “open the universe a little more!”  And because Bellow is, of course, not really talking about dogs, or not only about dogs, I have the feeling that the dog’s rage, and its desire, is also mine, ours, everyone’s.  “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more.”

The protest against the exclusion of lay spiritual experience from the Church today is real and need not be imagined. Lay people, men and women, do sometimes seethe with inner rage and desire, like Bellow’s dog. When carefully deciphered, however, their message is deeply community-and communion-oriented. It says: make room in the Church for us too, for all our genuine spiritual experiences that foster the unity of the Church while respecting the genuine diversity that is ours as members of the Body.  For, as the Pope (see 1996, no 31) explains, unity is not an antithesis of diversity. Human dignity can and usually is, in fact, enhanced by legitimate diversity.  “Diversity,” says Pope John Paul, “is also a work of the Spirit.  It is he who establishes the Church as an organic communion in the diversity of vocations, charism and ministries.”


To open up the Church and expand its faith experience, several realities latent in its tradition need to be clearly recalled. There is, first of all, the theological given that all believers share common dignity granted by the sacraments they receive, particularly Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. But this quality is also a call, a vocation, enjoining each one of the believers, according to the gifts bestowed on him or her by God, to build an organic communion, that is the Church. However, God’s gifts are diverse leading to a diversity of states and ministries within the one communion. Pope John Paul II (see ibid.) distinguishes them broadly as “the lay life,” “the ordained ministry,” and “the consecrated life.”  These are all, according to the Pope, vocations “at the service of one another.”  In other words, it is theologically incorrect and pastorally dangerous to consider them too much in terms of status and rank.  This is hierarchism which easily leads to structures and attitudes of power and control, themselves truly antithetical to a system which should have service and open participation by all as its hallmark.

What did St. Paul say about this? In a language that truly transcends time and culture, and in an image that is transparent to all, he urged that in the functioning of the Church, as in that of the human body, all members possess equal dignity.  No single member or group of members can do very well without the others.  In actual fact, those members which seem less important may perhaps be more indispensable.  Granted that each member has his or her own gifts, lesser or greater, Paul does not see this to connote as “inferiority/superiority” contrast and relationship as such. In the community-participation-communion perspective that is Paul’s, “greater” gifts are those which facilitate and promote more intense relationships in terms of concern and service for one another (see 1 Cor. 12-14).  It is possible to render Paul’s teaching in the following way: it is not primarily where you stand in the Church’s hierarchical order that matters, but rather how you preserve, sustain and realise Jesus’ legacy of love.  In the words of the Gospel according to John (13: 34-35), “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis of Pope John Paul II (1992, no l7) would seem to say the same thing when it warns that “the ministerial priesthood does not of itself signify a greater degree of holiness with regard to the common priesthood of the faithful.” As its designation makes clear, the ministerial priesthood should be at the service of the common priesthood of all Christ’s faithful. I have already made the point, but it bears repeating here using the phrasing of the recent Roman “Instruction on certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest” (Priests and Laity 1997, par. 1): “For the building up of the Church, the Body of Christ, there is a diversity of members and functions but only one Spirit who, for the good of the Church, distributes his various gifts with munificence proportionate to his riches and the needs of service.”  In other words, the fulfilment of the Church consists in sharing of gifts in universal communion.

One would have hoped for the instruction to sustain this point, central for a liberating ecclesiology, in its practical directives. But it is rather inadequate there, as Bishop Reinhold Stecher (1997: l668-9) of Innsbruck, Austria, among others, has taken pains to show. How can the Instruction justify its restriction of the gift of preaching and the ministry of distributing communion primarily to the priest alone?  Is this not an example of a “defect” in the Church’s hierarchist view which, according to the Bishop, “is concerned entirely with defending the rights of the ordained [while] it shows no concern for the health of the community”?  The Bishop wonders. He admits of course, that “certainly anyone who preaches at the liturgy must be authorized by the Church to do so.” This is in the interest of good order and needs to be adhered to.  “But to omit the homily at Mass because it must be given by an ordained priest is quite another matter.  No one in our communities can understand such a ban when the alternative is to go without having a homily at all” (Ibid.:l668).

Bishop Stecher is shocked and distressed by the tendency in the Church, ‘at the end of this millennium,’ “to place human laws and traditions above our divine commission” to bring the Good News of salvation to humanity. He cannot understand the tendency to substitute that commission with concern primarily for ecclesiastical authority and “the strict preservation of our ecclesiastical structures.”  In this he articulates the sentiments of many across a broad spectrum of Christ’s faithful on an aspect of Church life which obviously now needs examination, repentance and change. A basic problem lies, as he sees it, in the rather distorted perception of values, where the more important realities are subjected to the less important.  Because “Instead of making provision for the Eucharist based on the spiritual health of the Christian community we concentrate on purely human laws about who is authorized to do what - Laws which ignore God’s will that all should be saved as well as the essentially Eucharistic structure of the community. Everything is sacrificed to a definition of Church office for which there is no basis in revelation” (ibid.).

These are strong words. Bishop Stecher is unequivocally blunt in his assessment, but his central concern is that the Gospel should be preached and the sacraments should be made available to all who need and want them. Is it really unthinkable that the distribution of the Eucharist, and even the administration of the sacraments of Baptism, of the sick, and assistance at marriages might be considered an ordinary part of lay ministry?  The question is, how may the laity realise their participation in the threefold roles of Christ of kingship, prophecy and priesthood, to which they are called by Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist?

Kingship involves leadership and guardianship. Prophecy entails speaking out for God, guided by the Spirit through “visions” and “dreams.” Priesthood incorporates the function of witness to the faith and self-giving or self sacrifice for others, as Hebrews 4:14-5:l-10 insists.  This is what Christ’s ministry, as well as the Church’s true ministry consists in and involves.  Those who participate in these gifts and functions, therefore, participate in the sacred and saving ministry of Christ, whatever their office. Now it is easily demonstrable that these gifts are by no means a preserve of the ordained.  From this perspective, then, are titles such as “chaplain,” “coordinator,” or “moderator,” applied to the laity who have the charism to exercise leadership in the Church really confusing? (see Priests and Laity 1997: art 1#2). How can prophecy (of which preaching the homily may be a powerful element) be restricted to the ordained alone? (see ibid.:art 3).  Might not self -giving service be seen more integrally as part of the Mass and consequently open it up much more for lay participation?  These are areas where the law may stiffle the Spirit by laying too much stress on order. In such cases, observance of law turns into legalism which, like hierarchism, is a negative trait in the Church, calling for repentance.


Since the African Synod was meant primarily not as a portrait of the past but a map for the future of the African Church, we may confidently turn to it to provide a compass for some practical orientation for the Church here in the coming millennium.

Church as Family

It is now well known that perhaps the most central theological insight of the African Synod was the conception of the Church as “Family of God.”  Various African theologians, such as John Mary Waliggo (1996) have, however, rightly warned against the misuse of the model in an oppressive, unchristian way. Waliggo asks: Will this model respect the rights of women and children in the community or will it retain its hierarchical character where the father is a feared figure?  According to Waliggo (ibid.: 208), “The theology of Church as family is a double edged sword. It can be profitably used but it may also lead to benign paternalism.  We must be careful not to end up again with a pyramid structure of the Church instead of a circular one of communion.”

The Synod incorporated pre-synodal sentiments that the structure of the Church in Africa must not exclude the laity. Several African theological institutes (TIFAS l996: 56-58) stressed this and declared that “lay people must be empowered.”  They meant by this that “The Church as the people of God should be structured in such a way that it becomes evident... that the lay ministries - of both men and women - may receive their important and integral place” (see ibid.:57).  These sentiments appear in number 90 of Pope John Paul II’s (1995) exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, and were summarized in Proposition 12 of the Synod in this way:

The laity are becoming increasingly conscious of their vocation and role in the Church. They wish to carry out the mission entrusted to all the Baptized, namely, to proclaim Jesus Christ. To help achieve this, the Synod exhorts and proposes that schools or centres of biblical and pastoral formation be established in parishes, dioceses, countries and regions of Africa. Special attention should be given to formation of the leaders of SCC’s.
As witness to the faith in daily life is an act of evangelization of first importance, the Fathers ask that Christian decision-makers receive a suitable formation in the social teaching of the Church so that they may witness to the faith in their milieu.

The idea of Church-as-Family needs to recognize the active participation of every lay person “who through Baptism and Confirmation participates in the three great functions of Christ, priest, prophet and king...” (MOS, no. 57). The message of the Synod decried “A certain idea of the church [which) produced a type of lay person who was too passive. [But] the Church-as-Family is a Church of communion” (ibid.). In this sense the laity possess not only the right but also the responsibility to utilize in the Church every genuine gift which the spirit has bestowed on them. (See ibid.).

Lay women

Beyond remarks about participation in ministry of the laity in general, I think that within that concern special attention must be paid to the participation of women. This is because of several reasons. Women in general, but especially women in Africa, have enjoyed less rights than their menfolk in our communities while shouldering a disproportionate part of responsibilities. At a time when the secular world is recognizing more and more this imbalance in gender relations, it would be ironical that the Church would remain rigid or even retrogressive in its position on women, apart from the nice words it sometimes utters, which are often seen by many women to be paternalistic anyway. It would not be an overstatement to say that in the African situation women are the backbone the Church in every sense.  To exclude them from ministry in the Church is to undermine the Church itself. The Synod recognised this. In humble and truthful terms, the Fathers declared in their message (MOS, no. 65):

“We render homage to you our mothers, our sisters! This Synod of Hope reflected on the alienations that weigh upon you.  They come from a traditional vision of man and of the world and in this manner they manifest clearly one of the major forms of the structure of sin engulfing our African societies.  They also come from unjust structures of the present world.”  It is curious that the Synodal Fathers did not specify in this respect the unjust structures of and in the Church.  However, they recognized that “the quality of our Church as Family also depends on the quality of our womenfolk, be they married or members of institutes of the consecrated life” (ibid.: no.68).

The tricky and sensitive question, however, remains intact even in this recognition. What is this quality that is desirable in our women-folk? In the past silence and meekness have been emphasized; today, following Mary the mother of Jesus, women are struggling for liberation from such demeaning perception. They want to be seen as mature people, with a voice worth listening to both in the world and in the Church.  The African Church of the third millennium needs to listen carefully to the testimony of Sister Bernadette Mbuy - Beya (1996:186) of the Democratic Republic of Congo:

It must not be forgotten that we are all invited together, women and men, to seek a new way of being Church today. There are certain women, shepherdesses of prayer groups and religious in parish or hospital ministries, for example, who have close contact with the life of the community and with people in search of God.  It would be desirable for them to take on certain sacramental ministries such as baptism, the sacrament of the sick, the sacrament of reconciliation, and the role of official Church witness at weddings. One need not even mention the roles of lector or homilist... I myself have assumed the responsibilities of pastoral assistant in two different parishes. Until now, in our diocese, at least, only women religious may distribute communion alongside the priest and laymen.  Any woman with a real responsibility in the church should be able to be called to this ministry.


The genius of leadership in the Church lies in two factors: a) to encourage and enable universal participation, subsidiarity in decision-making and collegiality in governing, and b) to recognize continually that leaders do not know everything. This is the sense in which the Church is truly community in pilgrimage. Perhaps this is the most fundamental, as well as the  most  difficult,  process  of  repentance and  change  facing  the African Church in the coming years. But it is needed if the Church is to grow according to the vision of the Synod.

But the root of the trouble, as Mgr. Christopher Mwoleka, then Bishop of Rulenge, Tanzania, once told his fellow bishops, lies in clericalism and hierarchism.  “The root of the trouble,” he said, “is that we [i.e. bishops) have a fixed idea of the church. At meetings like this everybody seems to agree that the church, of course, means all the faithful. But at the back of our minds and in our imagination, almost instinctively, the Church is always the Church of the clergy. The disease is incurable” (see Uzukwu 1996:120). And the disease may easily turn into ecclesiastical tyranny, exemplified by the words of one Nigerian bishop to his seminarians, quoted by Uzukwu (ibid.:121). I rearrange the sentence here to highlight the impact of the dangerous contrasts the Bishop made:

We [bishops] are the church, you are not the church; 
the church speaks, you listen;
we talk, you do the listening; 
we give directives, you obey; 
you are there, we are here;
we send you, you go!

While it is not possible to declare that such attitude has or is disappearing among African bishops, for, indeed, among a number, judging from their utterances, it seems to be on the ascendance, there is reason for hope.  Archbishop Anthony Mayala of Mwanza, Tanzania, among others, typifies this hope.  Speaking on Small Christian Communities and lay ministries called for, by, and pertinent to them, the Archbishop confessed: “Unless we [bishops] undergo... a profound change of mind. and heart... it will not be possible for most of us to recognize, accept and affirm the rightful place of the laity as agents of proclamation and give them the necessary formation to exercise properly their ministries” (quoted in ibid.: ll7, emphasis mine).


An ecclesiology of community and communion (incorporating participation, subsidiarity and collegiality, and excluding clericalism and hierarchism) constitute, in my view, a church for the coming millennium that is closer than the present one to the likeness of Christ’s Spirit. In the new ecclesiology the role and rights of women in the church merit, or indeed require, special attention. Renewal or reconstruction of ecclesiastical leadership structures and philosophy does as well.  The necessity of recognizing lay ministries which are legitimate in themselves, as the New Testament and the early history of the Christianity indicate, and are not necessarily a concession of the ordained ministry, is crucial for this development to mature.  Just as no one should do anything in the Church without the bishop, the bishop also (as St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage bequeathed to us) ought not to take any decision without the advice of the priests and the consent of the people, the laity (see ibid.:125). Outside of this process and procedure the Church is stunted and impoverished.

We should not wait any longer “to stir and promote a deeper awareness among all the faithful of the gift and responsibility they share, both as a group and as individuals, in the communion and mission of the Church” (John Paul II 1988, no. 2).




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  • Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in Spirituality and Leadership
    Aug 04
    Nov 30