Pope visits Africa's growing flock
Pope Benedict XVI arrived Tuesday for his first visit as pope. The continent has seen a steady rise in religion, with Catholics making up one-fifth of the population.
JOHANNESBURG, south africa
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Why is it that Africa – a continent of bloody conflicts, forced migration, rampant health problems, and profound poverty where as many as 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger – contains some of the most exuberantly religious people on earth? How do Africans find so much hope amid the hopelessness?
Unlike Europe and much of the Western world, where church membership seems to be on a constant decline, Africa is a kind of religious Klondike, where mainstream Christian churches, evangelical churches, and Muslim faiths all appear to be growing with no end in sight. The Catholic Church alone has 185 million members in Africa – 20 percent of the continent's population. In countries, like Angola, with a Catholic colonial past, Catholics make up 60 percent of the population.
"Africa has so little, but it has a strong spiritual sense that is often lacking in the Northern Hemisphere," says the Rev. Rodney Moss, head of the school of theology at St. Augustine College, South Africa's only Catholic university. "Those who have the least often are those who realize the deeper need for the grace of God."
It's hard to imagine a time of greater need than right now in Africa. The global economic slowdown means richer nations have less demand for the natural resources – from oil and uranium to copper and gold – that Africa has to sell. The credit crunch has also slowed aid dollars. Add to that the continued spread of HIV/AIDS, ongoing conflict in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a self-destructive government in Zimbabwe, and Africa's needs might seem unfathomable.
Yet African clerics say there is a hidden strength in that misery. "There is a certain way of evaluating the material worth of things, that it has not conveyed everything of what it means to be happy," says Father Pius Rutechura, chair of the Nairobi-based Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. When the pope comes to Africa, he will see a real mixture of hope, a church that is vibrant, that celebrates life, but also he will see the challenges many Africans face, and a people who have more questions than answers about their lives."