By Fr Terence Madden M.Afr.
When Cardinal Charles Lavigerie founded the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) back in 1868, he was responding to the needs of his times. Famine and disease raged in Algeria where he had newly become the Archbishop of Algiers. The priests of the Catholic Church only ministered to the French population and left the local inhabitants to their fate. Lavigerie knew that he could not stand by and watch, from the edges, the sufferings of the people. The words of Jesus Christ rang in his ears: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Mt 25:35
He took these words to heart. He wanted the people to whom he had been sent to live the values of the Kingdom of God. In order to do this, he knew he had to eradicate the injustices from which they suffered. He had to bring an end to the diseases and hunger which crushed them. For the next 100 years this would be the way of his sons and daughters, Missionaries of Africa. They would preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God by the good works they would do in development, health care, education, and in sharing their faith through prayer and catechism.
The result is clear. The Church is now established and still growing exponentially in almost all countries of Africa. So is the mission finished? In its last General Assembly, or “General Chapter,” in 2016 the missionaries of Africa defined their mission in these terms: “We are sent out to the African World and wherever our charism is needed, for a prophetic mission of encounter and of witness to the love of God.”
For 150 years these missionaries could only envisage their mission in Africa. Mission during that period of time was understood to be the Churches of Europe and North America sending missionaries into Africa to announce the Good News and establish the Church, in the form of Christian Communities, throughout the African continent. Today then, with the community of believers established, what can the mission be?
The essence of mission is to be found in the words “encounter and witness to the love of God”. By this encounter and witness, the Church hopes to cooperate with God who transforms the lives of people and society in general by God’s love.
Maybe more in Africa than any other continent, society needs transformation: from hunger and thirst to clean water and adequate food; from war and mortal violence to peace and harmony among peoples; from corruption and the rule of the strongest to integrity and democratic accountability; from exploitation by the rich and powerful to respect for all. Only the God of Jesus Christ wills that we all live in a Kingdom of Peace and Justice here on earth. Only the Gospel can transform Society into the Kingdom of God.
The Church still has far to go to establish this Kingdom. Now that the Church has taken hold in Africa the African Church has, by its very discipleship in Christ, to be the Sacrament of this Kingdom; making it a reality among the peoples of Africa, wherever they may be: on the Continent of Africa or in the world-wide diaspora.
Missionary Societies like ours still have much to do in Africa. We are sent to the peripheries; to the areas of conflict, to the places where the Church still has difficulty to establish the Kingdom, to the vast slums of the cities, to the distant, unreachable societies far from the centres of urbanisation, to those infected by HIV and other life-threatening diseases, to the poor and uneducated. We are sent, too, by the Spirit of Christ at the Well of Jacob (4th chapter of John’s Gospel), in a spirit of encounter and dialogue, to meet people of the Muslim faith and of African traditional religions. United with them, we have more chance of transforming the societies of Africa into the Kingdom of God.
Today missionaries also have a new prophetic role to play, constantly encouraging the African Church to avoid falling into the trap of clericalism, but to remain faithful to its mission to the poorest of the poor. This year of our 150th Jubilee, we, Missionaries of Africa in Great Britain, have responded to this challenge of meeting Africa and Islam in the diaspora of these islands by opening a new community here. We have accepted the invitation of the Archbishop of Liverpool to open a mission in Liverpool where our main aim will be to welcome the stranger and to meet the believers of other faiths. I will be relocating to Liverpool to join the new community of Missionaries of Africa there. We believe that this is our way of remaining faithful to the Society’s mission: “We are sent out to the African World and wherever our charism is needed, for a prophetic mission of encounter and of witness to the love of God.”
The African world is present in our midst. Islam is present in our midst. Our mission is to this world. We hope to assist the Church in Liverpool to welcome the migrants from Africa into its midst and to begin a new meeting with the people of Muslim faith.
(Terence Madden was ordained priest in 1981. As a missionary, he lived in Burkina Faso for 22 years, the Philippines for 5 years and Scotland for 5 years).