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Plenty of work ahead for new pope in Africa

The new pope is the first ever not to come from Europe, and he may have a better sense of the problems facing the rest of world, including Africa. Although the church there is growing, the challenges are huge.

If statistics are anything to go by, then the Catholic Church in Africa does not have much to worry about. In 2011 the number of Catholics across the continent grew by more than 6 million to almost 18 million. Seminars that provide training for the next generation of priests are packed to capacity, and in crisis-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, the local parish priests often enjoy more authority then government representatives.

In the face of shrinking numbers of clerics in Europe, the African church has even started to export some of its priests. "The face of the global Catholic Church will soon be an African one", Pete Henriot, a Jesuit priest who has worked in Africa for close to 25 years, told DW.

"Quality is needed"

But beyond the numbers, Africa's churches face a myriad of challenges. Plenty of work is waiting for the new man in Rome. "Growth is always exciting but what's really important is quality, not quantity," Pete Henriot says.

A burnt out church in Congo Copyright: Simone Schlindwein 04.09.2012, Shabunda, Nduma, Ostkongo

Christians are suffering persecution in many parts of Africa

Benedict XVI acknowledged that when he called for an "African synod" and invited 197 African bishops to Rome in 2009 to discuss the church's role on the continent. It was the second such meeting in the church's history, the first was presided over by his predecessor, John Paul II.

In an apostolic letter after the meeting, Benedict noted that the church had a special role to play in addressing the continent's challenges, ranging from poverty and civil war to totalitarian regimes. However he failed to offer solutions. Instead, he saw the church in an educative role. According to him, one of the tasks of the church is to "form upright consciences receptive to the demands of justice."

Speaking out

These words offered little comfort to Catholics across the continent, who are under enormous pressure from local leaders. In the absence of strong opposition parties or a functioning civil society, church leaders are often the only ones who take their governments to task over corruption, human rights abuses or manipulated elections.

When Joseph Kabila was re-elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 after a campaigned marred by violence and electoral fraud, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Laurent Monsengwo, said the election results did not "conform to truth or justice."

Competition from evangelical churches

The church is also a major provider of education and health services.

Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana was one of the early favorites, but soon fell back

There are more than 6,400 Catholic health centers and hospitals across Africa. Numerous children learn how to read and write by attending church schools.

While the church's political and social involvement is often much appreciated, not all Catholics are enthusiastic about their church in everyday life.

"I like our church, because it is a universal church. We have one format for doing things worldwide", Caroline Kaboko told DW. The 25-year-old is a voluntary youth leader with the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic congregation. However, many other young Catholics see this differently. Although they remain Catholics on paper, they worship in the growing number of evangelical churches across the continent.

Dealing with these dissatisfied Catholics will be a major challenge for the new pope and the church leadership, says Caroline Kaboko. "During mass, many young people would like to do things their way, spice it up, but when the church says we follow the liturgy, they consider it boring and change to Pentecostal churches", she told DW.

Condoms controversy

That's why Jesuit priest Pete Henriot recommends that the new pope should support a process of "interculturation", that is, adapting the global liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church into the African context. "We need an encouragement that says, 'Well, try different things. The liturgy does not have to be the way it is in Rome or in Germany, because it is being performed in Africa," Henriot said.


Will the new pope have something new to say about birth control?

Another issue the new pope will have to deal with is the position of the church on the use of condoms and other contraceptives. "Many young people here believe that condoms can protect from HIV and AIDS. They do not understand why the church does not allow them to use condoms," Caroline Kaboko said.

Many observers in Africa and abroad hope that, on this issue, the new pope will not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. On his first trip to Africa in 2009, he made his position on the issue very clear. "HIV and AIDS are a tragedy that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms which can even increase the problem", he told reporters on the plane even before it had landed on African soil.

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