It was with great joy that the IMBISA region received the summons of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, to take part in the preparation of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on synodality. The invitation was greeted with enthusiasm. However, some were pessimistic, sceptical and indifferent about the whole process, questioning whether their voices would reach the ears of the bishops and the Pope. Others also questioned whether the hierarchy was ready to listen and act according to their views and concerns. Most dioceses are generally rural, with great distances, poor road, and communication infrastructure. This made it difficult for the teams to reach everyone in time. During the synodal process there was the challenge of reaching everyone without discrimination, priests, men and women religious, lay people, non-Catholic Christians, believers of other religions, indifferent and non-believers, politicians and other sectors of society. Many local Churches have made efforts to go beyond the confines of the Church, which included groups such as prisoners, the homeless, and non-practicing Catholics and Christians belonging to other Churches. In some Episcopal Conferences, there are dioceses that have managed to reach even politicians and others have not.
It should be noted that some were unable to attend due to work, social or domestic obligations. Other members were unable to participate in the synodal process due to the language barrier. Due to the deadlines involved, the diversity of the region and the effects of COVID (which had a major impact on the Church), each Episcopal Conference addressed the process in the most appropriate way to its situation. Some Conferences have translated the Synod prayer into the different local languages. As a working methodology, local commissions were created consisting of priests, consecrated men and women and other faithful who were at the forefront of auscultation from the base including ecclesial movements, associations and committees, young people, seminarians, formation houses and other Christian Churches. In the process, the Region identified the positives and negatives present, as well as the perspectives and actions to which the Spirit calls them.
I. THE FELLOW TRAVELERS
The positive aspects that stand out in our walking together are:
Conscience that the Most Holy Trinity is the foundation of our journey together. Many voices pointed out that our walk is multifaceted, with companions who come from both within the Church and from outside. On the inside, co-travellers are the baptized, the elderly, the sick, those who share the same opinions as us, as well as those with whom we pray in the Small Christian Communities. Community (social) leaders are vital travel companions. Formal and informal meetings take place at regional, national, inter-diocesan, diocesan, rectory, parish and other lower levels. There is a rich journey of fraternal unity at the local level (communion within communities and among them in the parish and diocesan context) and at the national level (inter-diocesan communion) joining by all ecclesial forces (Bishops, priests, religious, laity) in an ever deeper and fruitful way.
Pastoral Assemblies at diocesan and national level are strong moments of sharing, programming and evaluation and have provided pastoral agents and Christian communities with common “guiding directions” for the exercise of their duties and mission. The journey together and going to meet the most disadvantaged, such as the sick, orphans, widows, prisoners. This journey together also embraces the whole society, in whose joys and pains the Church participates, especially in times of natural calamities, violence and injustices that the Church has always sought to denounce.
The Church is inserted in a context where relationships continue to be fractured in many ways, racially, socially, religiously, economically and politically. There are issues of family breakdown, plurality, radical inequality, human rights, life issues, xenophobia, violence, violence inside and outside the family, violence against women and children, general crime, declining moral standards, poverty and access to basic services. These fractures impact on the Church and the way Christian life is lived.
There is a broad sense that the Church needs to be a more welcoming family, especially for all those who have experienced exclusion. Some individuals and groups left behind on the journey include prisoners, single mothers and fathers, widows and widowers, polygamous, individuals confined to home, blind, unemployed and youth and young adults. Other groups identified as left behind are those that are in minority groups such as street children and people with disabilities. Some identify themselves as those who do not belong to any structure or association and are forgotten or left behind. Some voices have also identified people suffering from what they believe to be possession of spirits, sorcery, and curses and are neglected or totally rejected by their leaders. Some voices also identified those with different sexual orientation as part of the group left behind. Most Catholic parishes and institutions do not have provisions for people with disabilities, which does not facilitate their participation. Divorcees feel left behind because most parishes do not have relevant programs that cater to them. Negative attitudes and prejudices lead to trials, unfair treatment and discrimination against single and divorced mothers.
Also feeling on the margins of ecclesial communion are the couples who live together or in de facto union, or in second marriages, the second wife of a polygamous man, women or men whose partner do not want to know anything about the Catholic Church; there are also the healers and practitioners of the traditional religion who, although baptized, do not find acceptance in the Christian community.
Our pastoral care also excludes, in some way, the sick, the deaf-mute (lack of Eucharistic celebrations using sign language), the elderly, who are often accused of sorcery and who cannot go to the Church, people living in rural areas with few access routes. Other groups left on the side-lines are children, adolescents, young people (generational conflicts between them and adults), prisoners, among others. Sometimes this is due to the lack of an accessible language or not belonging to any group. In this case, some local churches recognize that there is little attention given to those who have been confirmed, mostly young people. As a result, the faithful end up abandoning the Catholic faith and adhering to other sects and Churches. There is a feeling of walking together, however, in some parts, the conflict between consecrated persons scandalizes the laity. There is also the feeling that the church is not really synodal, that it has become more focused on church staff, especially ministers. The church, according to this view, should also include those members who are not so active, even those who left the church due to various disappointments with ministers or other members of the church.
The Church is invited to revisit existing synodal structures, review the spirit to fully live communion, achieve participation, and carry out our mission in the local church. There is a need to consider the creation of lay counsel. Pastoral Councils are called upon to use a round table approach where everyone can be recognized and heard. The formation and resuscitation of Small Christian Communities so that everyone can be involved in the life of the Church is essential.
It is necessary to:
• Seek pastoral dynamics that lead to their growth and a better society, to care for those on the margins, to walk the path of prayer, listening and dialogue with all its segments and with society in general and to create structures of inclusion for those who do not integrate groups or movements, the most disadvantaged, materially, humanly and spiritually; elderly people, widows, prisoners, refugees, delinquents, alcoholics, prostitutes, homosexuals, divided families, people separated from their partners, disabled people, people who have no time or voice; groups with little expression in the Church.
• Implement the evangelization of acceptance, accompaniment, catechesis, comprehensive and permanent formation for all, community and solidarity, awakening the sense of belonging and missionary commitment.
• Develop the gift of listening to others, respecting differences in a spirit of co-responsibility, elimination of conflicts of generations,
• Seek solutions for married couples living apart and for families especially in situations of polygamy and families where the faith of women is conditioned by husbands, study the issue of children of single mothers.
• Meet people who are turned away because of polygamy, divorce. Divorced people should be able to take on tasks in the community when the maturity of faith and behaviour permits.
In general, lay people feel that the various organisms in the Church are listening to them. The contribution of the consecrated is integrated into the ordinary platforms of the Church.
Many voices have expressed that the lack of listening and speaking can be a serious obstacle to authentic dialogue and the whole process of walking together. On a positive note, most people appreciate that to some extent the Church listens informally and formally using canonical and non-canonical synodal bodies and structures. Listening helps people know that they belong, that they are loved and valued. Some people said they had bad listening experiences in the Church. Some of the people in positions of power exercise their power more often without listening especially to the marginalized, such as women, children and young people.
The Holy Spirit is calling us to be a Church that listens and discerns, to hear the multitude of voices that speak to us. Hearing the voice of young people was often mentioned and considered crucial. We must also pay attention to the thoughts and ideas of the extended family and fellow travellers, non-Catholics, politicians and non-believers. These are voices in our neighbourhood that we cannot avoid so that we do not lose God’s promptings through them! The clergy and consecrated, formed and authorized, must have time for humble listening, being reliable and accessible. There are many who are not in the church, who need to be heard, like many of the physically or socially marginalized, many young people, who are not part of the parish circles, those who are divorced, civilly separated or remarried etc. A Conference thinks that those who have different sexual orientations should also be heard and the church should discuss their problems openly. Promote the pastoral care on the street (in the urban environments) and ensure a spiritual assistance of proximity to families, movements, organisms, associations, and others.
III – SPEAK
Several reasons have been expressed as to why people do not speak. It includes fear of leadership, especially of priests, and sometimes a blind loyalty and respect for them, ignoring the individual voices of people, including some of the elderly, social threats, absence of suggestion boxes in parishes, absence of regular meetings, lack of good leadership structures for young people and platforms to freely express their concerns, hostile environment in communities, fear of being discriminated against, unavailability of priests, deacons and bishops to find and listen freely to people, as most of them rush to their offices after celebrations or official programs, citing excusable reasons for their apparent haste etc.
Other reasons not to speak include fear of victimization, weak leadership, gender discrimination. Another obstacle to listening and speaking is the attitude of leadership that refuses the correction of the laity and is intolerant to divergent points of view. The culture of intimidation still exists, combined with the control of the means and opportunities to exercise freedom of expression, especially in public media. To this we can add factors such as: Weak human and Christian formation, shame and fear of reprisal which leads many, at home, at school, in the Church and in groups, not to raise their voices and omit the truth for fear of losing bread and/or life; “institutional barriers” imposed on the laity, inferiority complex because of social, ethnic, professional and civil status (friendly or separated); inequality of opportunity. One conference misses catechesis in schools.
Against the above limitations, the Spirit impels the Church to the following actions: to gain greater and better advantage of the media, making them the pulpit from which pastoral workers (bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, evangelists, catechists and those who spread the Christian message and contribute to the church’s greatness), proclaim and defend the church’s social doctrine in general and justice, with courage, freedom, truth and charity. Other missionary suggestions include: growing up in missionary experience and in the pastoral care of visitation to enhance biblical groups and foster a taste for Sacred Scripture; to guarantee to all members, as far as possible, basic access and training on social networks; incentive in the construction and improvement of chapels through the approval of projects; inclusion in the formation of Fathers and Sisters of skills focused on financial sustainability; concern on the part of the Church for climate change.
It is urgent to provide the means for evangelization, such as the installation of radio stations in parishes and a Catholic television station to transmit the Word of God, Sunday Mass, among other programmes that help the faithful who for some reason cannot go to church. One conference holds that the Church is the herald of the Word of God. – The requests for the circle of preaching to be opened to allow lay people and women to preach. The idea of the Church as a community is important in the context of Southern Africa. Ubuntu is an African philosophy that says people exist in community and not isolated. We are human because of our interconnection with others. This Ubuntu serves as the spiritual basis of African society. It is a unifying vision enshrined in the Zulu or Xhosa maxim highly valued, which is “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, that is, a person is a person through other people. There are principles of Ubuntu that contain Christian values such as commonality, respect, dignity, value, humanity, sharing, social justice, co-responsibility, solidarity, compassion, joy, love, personality, morality, conciliation, etc. in isolation or individualistically. Therefore, the Church as a community is no stranger to Africa and our Episcopal Conference. Liturgical experience is important. There is a desire for good liturgies that unite people and connect them with the divine. The same Conference that misses the catholic education in schools, suggests the return of Religious to resume religious Education.
IV – CELEBRATE
Prayer helps unite the heart, mind and soul; therefore, it helps the Christian to meet his God, with himself and with his brothers and sisters. In turn, the celebration animates the soul. Church Celebrations are greatly appreciated. The synod reports confirm the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of Catholic communities. Community listening to the Word of God and active participation in the celebration of the Eucharist bring healing, unity and growth in faith. Many express the joy of active participation in the vibrant, rich and enculturated liturgy. Lay people appreciate their roles in the liturgy as readers, service leaders in the absence of a priest, extraordinary ministers of communion, funeral ministers, hospitality members, animators, choir members and many other liturgical responsibilities. There is, in general, a deliberate effort to involve children and young people in liturgical celebrations. The active participation in pilgrimages, sacraments and sacramentals, living the strong moments of the liturgical journey, are also positive aspects; and other liturgical or paraliturgical actions (worship of the Most Holy, pilgrimages and processions, Rosary to the Virgin Mary and Via Sacra).
Some members of the Catholic family, such as single mothers, feel excluded in prayer and community celebrations, with some parishes exercising long periods of unjustifiable trial on these women. Some denounced ill-prepared liturgies, poor homilies and little attention to the liturgical needs and sensitivities of young people, which contributed to the exodus of many youth and young adults from the Church. Voices from missions and remote communities or chapels expressed insufficient attention given to them by their pastors due to the sparse distribution of the population and the precarious road infrastructure. Poverty, which is very prevalent in rural areas, also affects the services provided by priests, who struggle with resources. The ministries of Reader and Acolyte is now left only to those preparing for the Priesthood. Christians do readings sporadically.
The Holy Spirit is inviting us to reflect on the fact that a good number of their family members do not receive Holy Communion. A human, Christian and common approach needs to be implemented urgently to address the issue of this group, such as single mothers and polygamous marriages. It is necessary for the Church to pay serious and urgent attention to people who are struggling with matters of possession of spirits, curses, and sorcery. Formation for pastoral agents and the faithful in general on the importance of Sunday; in the Eucharistic dimension; in the ministry of readers and acolytes; on the mysteries of the Church, the Virgin Mary and the Saints; and give greater relevance to the Word of God in national languages. More attention in the preparation of homilies to build the faith of believers.
V – CO-RESPONSIBILITY IN MISSION
The pastoral structures and programs that exist in the country at the national, inter-diocesan and diocesan level help the Church in the region to be a family. Committees, Associations, Presbytery and religious, diocesan and national bodies play a crucial role and are beautiful ways for us to walk together.
The lack of deep knowledge and substantial scarcity of faith reduce the activity of lay people to liturgical activities and some others in the church. Basically, people feel illequipped to respond to the call to evangelize. Some still have the misconception that priests and consecrated men must do everything. Still others feel that the church suffocates them for not being able to fully express their potential. Some even tend to shine and become ardent evangelizers when they leave the Catholic Church.
There is a common outcry for the poor quality of catechesis due to the lack of serious involvement of the ordained in the planning, direction and supervision of catechesis and the poor formation of lay catechists. Parents are also not well prepared to play their role as family catechists. Some pointed to the lack of updated catechisms that address modern issues affecting the faithful.
Unfortunately, whenever the Church plays its prophetic role, it is interpreted as “political”. Even when the Church would make an effort to dialogue with the State on issues relating to the human condition on poverty, human dignity and rights, she is viewed with suspicion. The Church, therefore, unfortunately has limited her dialogue at local levels of the Church, except in the bishops’ conference through formal and formal meetings and pastoral letters. Freedom in proclaiming the Gospel is scarce, as threats of victimization by political leaders overlap on the heads of proclaimers. The number of Catholics in positions of civic and political influence is decreasing.
Thus, our Church often presents herself as a silent Church and afraid to denounce injustices, and it is therefore common to say that we are not consistent with the message of the Gospel. Families are severely unstructured, without moral authority. It seems that the Gospel has not yet properly incarnated in the faithful, conversion is partial and Christian identity has not been interpreted and channelled into the marrows of African blood. The lack of properly established goals, the lack of communication and consultation by priests and other authorities, the lack of responsibility are areas of concern. Elements of clericalism, factionalism, ethnicity contribute to the division in the church. The faithful lose respect for priests and religious due to certain inappropriate behaviours. Some divorced people are prevented from receiving sacraments. Mixed marriages are seen as a complicated process.
One Conference states that some suggest that deacons could administer the anointing of the sick. Similarly, women, especially religious sisters, could become deaconess, considering their eager and active involvement in church ministry. In addition, young people often feel ignored by priests and other leaders when they raise their voices. Young people hear mainly how bad they are, how poor their participation is, how undisciplined they are, their inappropriate dress code. The lack of attractive and innovative programs that thrill and inspire young people, the feeling of young people that they are excluded from the church’s decision-making bodies. In some contexts, there is little involvement of children in church activities, in addition to homilies and sermons that exclude them.
The Holy Spirit calls us to grow in synodality, actively seeking the poor and minority groups and tribes. This can be done through effective pastoral programs that directly meet the needs of these groups. Our church buildings must be built to accommodate people with disabilities and the elderly. The Holy Spirit calls us to be open and receptive to change and permanent formation. Walking together implies receptivity to change, formation and continuous learning. Canon law needs to be constantly updated and contextualized. The Holy Spirit calls on us to lead a well-developed programme of liturgical and missionary formation of the laity and in the documents of the Church, so that they may be missionary disciples and participate significantly in liturgical celebrations. Priests are expected to be more involved in coordinating catechesis in missions and parishes.
The Holy Spirit calls the Church to continuous commitment and dialogue, both reverent and prophetic with the world of politics, even at local levels. There is also a serious need for the formation of our Catholic politicians in the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Holy Spirit calls the ordained and consecrated to commit themselves again in the life and service of the Church and to remain faithful to their vocation. One Conference says that some people even suggested that our priests should marry as a solution to end the scandals. The church should be able to provide better psycho-spiritual support to children, helping them to cope and grow, since families do not.
VI – DIALOGUE IN THE CHURCH AND SOCIETY
Internal dialogue and dialogue with society, collaboration between dioceses, these are favoured through diocesan assemblies, pastoral councils, meetings with committees, exchange of experiences, sharing of missionaries, meetings between movements, diocesan and inter-diocesan pilgrimages as means to promote collaboration between neighbouring dioceses and between religious communities in the same territory.
Among the negatives are: non-fraternal relations between priests, consecrated men and women and lay people in some places; few opportunities for dialogue in communities and, in some cases, between communities and civil society and poor understanding of the identity of each of the religious confessions and sects present in the country.
A suggestion is the existence of appropriate rooms for listening and boxes for suggestions and complaints to allow for more freedom.
VII – DIALOGUE WITH OTHER CHRISTIAN CONFESSIONS
It has been mentioned that ecumenism is of increasing importance.
Most local churches have expressed positive experiences of healthy and respectful relationships with Christians of different confessions. Key areas where the local church collaborates with other churches at the base level include community moments in funerals, weddings and natural calamities or other problems that plague society.
Despite what has been said in the positive aspects, there is also a deficiency in ecumenical dialogue; to some extent there are disagreements and conflicts with some religious confessions due to lack of knowledge of the origins of each and the misinterpretation of passages of the Sacred Scriptures between religions. In this perspective, it is important to emphasize the lack of respect, complex superiority and the discord of some beliefs in relation to others. Finally, one of the obstacles in this synodal path is to be overshadowed by political, economic and social powers, which is the tendency of political parties to use the church for their own purposes. There are also obstacles such as: accusation against the Catholic Church of idolatry (cult of images) and of getting into politics.
On the other hand, there is the idea that all denominations are equal. Worrying, however, is the experience of churches and sects that seem to aim to degrade and attack the Catholic Church and proselytizing Catholics. It has been noted that Catholics are victims of all the new Churches seeking new members. Dialogue with these groups has been difficult. On the darker side, some have indicated that there is discrimination between Catholics and some non-Catholics. In some answers it was mentioned that non-Catholics are not welcomed in the Catholic Churches, for they cannot receive communion.
The Holy Spirit Santo invites the Church in the region to continue promoting ecumenical and interreligious dialogue through common theological reflections, shared worship, dialogue and action on social justice. It is important that all catholic parishes and institutions embrace ecumenism without judging the “other” as inferior or misguided. This requires openness and suspension of presumptions, individualism, and fanaticism by adhering to the Catholic faith and ethos. Meetings that allow mutual knowledge and remove any stereotypes should be promoted, in the knowledge that the same identity can lead to action; organize training sessions on Ecumenism to avoid ignorance and fanaticism, which promote disputes and intolerances.
VIII- AUTHORITY AND PARTICIPATION
Close collaboration between bishops, priests, religious, catechists, group leaders, movements and associations, and pastoral decision-making based on openness, participation, dialogue, mutual respect and acceptance in diocesan and parish assemblies.
Some religious have noticed that there is male domination in the Church, with a tendency of some priests to treat religious as subordinate or inferior. Female contribution is sometimes interfered even barred by the Priests. Clericalism is a cancer that has manifested itself in some communities where priests want to do and control everything in the parish with cases of abuse of power, money and church property by clergy and religious in some cases. In some cases, the laity are expected to only pay, pray and obey. Children complain about the scarcity of specific programs aimed at their evangelization and insertion in diocesan dynamics; young people confirm the lack of factors that condition youth leadership in dioceses.
One conference mentioned that in relation to bishops there is an appreciation of the church’s leadership and what they do within the Church and in society at large. However, for some there was a desire for a change in the autocratic and bureaucratic leadership style to one that is more listenable, open and consultative. This was a desire of both the laity and the clergy. In relation priests, issues such as priestly relationships with bishops, leadership styles, pastoral care, communication of chancelleries and the lack of implementation of decisions arose several times. The development of a greater priestly fraternity is something that needs attention, where some expressed difficulty in belonging and construction of unity. As for deacons, there is an appeal for women’s acceptance to the diaconate and the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood. As far as parishes are concerned, the challenge of communion is to build more inclusive and welcoming communities open to marginalized, divorced and remarried people, homosexuals and LGBTIQA+, homeless people, those who do not feel welcomed, the deaf and disabled.
The Holy Spirit invites the local Church to use existing formation programs to build on and develop clear formation programs in synodality at all levels of the Church. Training in synodality implies receptivity to the apprenticeship and to change, both personal and institutional. Training should cover areas such as synodal structures, a serving leadership, listening and speaking and discerning and deciding. The development of formation capable of eradicating the signs of clericalism, abuses of power, fundamentalism and prejudice within it, overcoming latent clericalism, which still distrusts the capacity of the laity. To have more encounters between the clergy and the laity, which mobilize participation, subsidiarity and co-responsibility, putting the diversity of gifts of all at the service of mission in the church and in the world. One Conference is in favour of open preaching by lay people, including women, expanding involvement in ministries and responsibilities, etc. It also advocates the development of the ministries of the laity, with enough space to exercise these ministries.
IX – DISCERN AND DECIDE
Diocesan synods, diocesan and parish pastoral assemblies, council meetings at various levels show moments of discernment
The lack of coherence of some consecrated men between what they transmit to the People of God and what they live is the reason for discredit before the lay faithful. Generational conflicts within the clergy, regionalism, tribalism, excessive pursuit of non-ecclesiastical personal interests, lack of sensitivity on the part of some priests in relation to the problems afflicting the faithful, little solidarity in times of difficulties.
X. GRADUATING FROM SYNODALITY
Establish organisms and training programs for synodality, maintaining the dynamics already begun; formation in the ecclesiology of synodality so that each one may take his place in the Church; and to strengthen those synodal organizations that already exist in the Christian communities.
To a large extent, what emerges from the fruits, seeds and weeds of synodality are voices that have great love for the Church, voices that dream of a Church with credible witnesses, an inclusive, open and welcoming Church family of God and a Church where everyone is aware of their responsibilities in the mission. This synodal experience helped our Church to evaluate her process of inclusion, listening, and the involvement of all God’s people and all people of good will. It allowed us to clearly identify the joys and difficulties of the communities. It taught us that synodality is not a content to be assimilated, but essentially, it is a lifestyle of the Church that must be cultivated and born of the perfect community, which is the Holy Trinity. The key to everything is formation at all levels and scopes. This should be a continuous task.
CASES WITH A LOT OF EXPRESSION THAT REQUIRE SPECIAL AND URGENT ATTENTION
There is a general concern that many young people will leave the Church after confirmation, if they get there. Some of the reasons presented were hostility towards young people, intergenerational conflict, role of parents, teenage pregnancy, moral teachings of the Church, temptations in the broader world, lifestyle choices, and lack of attractiveness of the Church. The relationship between young people and the Church is something that needs reflection and development in the areas of catechetical programs, good preaching, creation of an open environment, good liturgy and deeper spirituality.
More emphasis needs to be placed on the formation of the family as a domestic church. Further related to the family is the urgent need for a pastoral approach to the issue of traditional marriage, polygamy, de facto unions, divorced, separated, remarried, single mothers.
One Conference says it hears requests for the Church to reconsider issues such as divorce, remarriage, contraception, and canon law in relation to marriage. There are misunderstandings about divorce and remarriage in the life of the Church. There is a strong need to look at other ways of being a family – single parents, LGBTQIA+, multigenerational and mixed families and adoption. There needs to be more open space for discussion around issues affecting family and marriage without being closed by church law or morality. People who suffer the breakdown of marriage seem to be stigmatized. However, there is a strong need to look beyond the ideal of heterosexual marriage.
Another Conference maintains that Christians feel that the Church does not deal sufficiently with the problems related to marriage, as is the case of divorce and separation. Ecclesiastical courts should be more active. They think that the church’s non-recognition of traditional marriages should be reviewed.
There is an urgent need for further progress in enculturation in various dimensions of African life and not only at the liturgical level, to reconcile faith and culture. One conference proposes that the Church reconcile its rules with the acts and practices of traditional doctors.