Most lively faith today unknown in Europe, and distinct African theology; the consequences of colonization and the responsibility of the West; the chances for decreasing the migrant influx and ways to help everyone to live on their birthplace. Szilárd Szőnyi, press officer of the Hungarian Jesuits is talking with Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar.
– There are more than 220 million Catholics in Africa, the number of baptized Catholics grow faster than anywhere else in the world. What factors might make your continent, as many say, the future of the church?
– Pope Benedict XVI described Africa as the “lungs of humanity.” Despite the challenges facing the continent of Africa, the women, men and children of Africa have been very receptive to the Christian faith. On this continent to be a Christian is not a badge of tradition and a cultural acquisition; it is a way of life that colours, shapes, influences and conditions every aspect of life. To live is to believe. That is why some people say that Africans are incurably religious. This dimension of life is a gift to the church. So, not just the number but the faith and conviction of African Christians is vital for the future of the church in the world.
– The world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria, and the number of priests in Africa is rapidly growing. Why do you think your continent is so rich in vocations?
– As I said in response to your previous question, the faith is very much alive on the continent of Africa. That is not to say that there aren’t other factors that explain the surge of vocations. Surely, there are. I can think, for example, of social mobility and the privileges that come with being a clergy in Africa as in other parts of the world. These could be factors in the growth of vocations. On the whole, however, I believe it has to do with the experience of religion and faith in Africa. Young people still see vacation in the church as a meaningful and fulfilling path in life, hence the desire to respond to a vocational call. We need to do more work in forming the young people in a way that makes priesthood a path of integrity, service and prophetic witness to the Gospel.
– In one of your publications you write about a distinct African theology. What are the features of your way of thinking that differentiates your theology from that of a more Eurocentric understanding of religion?
– I happen to have been schooled in Western theology. So I am familiar with the traditions of theological reflection in the West. From a personal perspective, I have deliberately focused my research on African theology. It is grounded in reality rather than preoccupied with tightly defined categories of doctrine and dogma. As an African theologian I draw on my experience and the experience of people to reflect on the import of revelation for our reality. Theology is not the production of an expert, but the narrative of a community, with all its joys and hopes, pain and anguish, prospects and promises, problems and challenges. This is what differentiates my theology. Theology shouldn’t be a closed discourse among experts, but a people’s experience of encountering God and telling and symbolizing that story and experience in concrete ways. A theologian is a servant of this narrative. This is what I did in my book, Theology Brewed in an African Pot (2008) and in Religion and Faith in Africa: Confessions of an Animist (2018). However you look at it, I can only do theology as an African.
– While Africa is a fascinating place, it has its special social issues as well. You have to face acute problems like illiteracy, child-labour, masses infected by H.I.V., hundreds of millions going to bed hungry – issues the Western world was lucky enough to have left behind. How does this experience challenge your reflection of faith and social justice?
– All these issues you mentioned are present and real challenges for the continent of Africa. But it is not entirely accurate to say that “the Western world was lucky enough to have left behind.” It wasn’t luck. We shouldn’t forget too quickly the history of colonialism and several of the injustices that were visited on Africa as a result of the colonization of the continent by the West. The exploitation of child labour in cocoa farms in West Africa is linked to the chocolate industry in the West; the same is true of coffee plantations in East Africa or the plunder of natural resources in central Africa. So, it is more accurate to say that some of these issues that we are facing today in Africa were left by the Western world. The important point is that they are issues of faith because we cannot talk about faith and not be involved in the mission of justice.
– How do African Jesuits, as we keep saying, “go with Christ to the borders”, that is, help the millions in need on your continent? Is there a lesson we in Europe may learn from the way you do it?
– Actually, we don’t have to go to the frontiers – we live in the frontiers! Christ lives in the frontiers as we see in Matthew 25. We are surrounded by and in the midst of impoverished masses, corrupt leaders, political instability, social and sectarian conflict, and all forms of violence. We are in the middle of all of these challenges. I think Europe needs to see the rest of the world. There are walls coming up all over Europe – political walls by populist and extreme right groups and governments. Europe needs to understand that it has responsibility and a moral duty to reach out and make a difference in the rest of the world, especially where vulnerable lives are under threat of dehumanization, brutalization and marginalization.
– Your pastoral responsibility sometimes leads you into perilous situations. In 2014, when terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria, in an open letter to the president of the country you demanded his resignation on account of dereliction of his duty to protect the victims. As you said later, you knew that you could have been arrested. Did you suffer any consequences of your letter?
– No, I didn’t suffer any consequences. I believe the sad part of this episode is that so many people continue to suffer the consequences of this crisis. Several of the original schoolgirls or Chibok Girls are still in captivity. Their lives have been ruined. It is a situation that doesn’t need to happen; it is the consequence of poor leadership and lack of regard for the dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable. We need to continue telling their story and speaking out on their behalf, no matter the consequences.
– You once urged the world to help Africa in a proper way: not by sending guns, ammunition and soldiers to take sides in local conflicts, but by sending teachers, doctors, engineers. Was your voice heard?
– Mine is just a modest voice crying in the wilderness, so to speak. I don’t expect it to be the voice that makes a difference. In any case, it is important that we continue to speak out in many ways. As they say, one mosquito can make a difference.
– „By 2035 450 million young Africans will seek employment, while during the same time only about 100 million jobs will be created” – you said a couple years ago. If so, is there any chance to keep those hundreds of millions of unemployed at home, and not become part of the immigrant influx coming to Europe?
– Unfortunately, the answer is no. The migration flow cannot be reversed without a global compact to provide safe and humane options to young people where they can realize their dreams and be fulfilled. The first option of young people is not to join the migrant train; they want to live in their own countries and contribute to the development of their own countries. Sadly, they have been failed both by the leadership of their country and an international system that is building higher walls and creating stronger barriers to protect the privileges of unfair socio-economic and political structures and to exclude the most vulnerable.
– In July you and German Jesuit superiors signed a letter to EU-officials on migration, saying: while foreign investors keep exploiting African countries and bribing governments to provide favourable taxation regulations, there is no hope for a better future. “There is more money leaving Africa in illicit financial flows through aggressive tax evasion and money laundering, than is entering Africa in combined developmental aid and foreign direct investment” – you said. The deduction is clear: if Europe supported African governments in curbing those outflows, the countries could spend more on infrastructure, education and healthcare, and this would, in the long run curb illegal migration. Can we expect any progress in that?
– You are absolutely right in your deduction. But “Europe” doesn’t just represent a rules-based order; “Europe” is also set of vested economic interests represented by multinationals who need these capital flows. And there are unscrupulous individuals and governments who facilitate these illicit capital flows. There is too much to lose for the minority. In the meantime the masses of people continue to bear the brunt of this challenge. I am not giving in to despair; I am both hopeful and optimistic that the work that we have started would continue and that progress can be made to ensure a more equitable access and distribution of the goods and resources of the earth.
– Finally, I’d like you to picture yourself in the following situation: a Hungarian Christian, for example the one who is reading this interview, would like to help Africa, but is hesitant, because he is uncertain whether his drop in the ocean would be of significant contribution. How would you encourage him that your cause is worth helping?
– There is a proverb that if you think you are too small to make a difference, consider sleeping in a room with one mosquito. No matter how small, that mosquito can make a difference. You may not be able to change the world, because of the immense scope and magnitude of the problems and crises. But think of how God changed the world. When God chose to become one us, God did not raise an army or build a global financial, economic and political system. No. Rather, God went to a simple teenager, Mary, in a rural village and asked her to become a partner in transforming and saving humanity. It worked! Follow God’s example: your small and simple gesture can make a difference to one little kid; it could be the difference between life and death, between hunger and food, between homelessness and shelter, for just one child.