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James T. KeaneJune 26, 2024
Participants in the “Living Church: Theology of Synodality/Foundations of Synodality" meeting gather in Nairobi on June 21, 2024 (Photo courtesy of the African Synodality Initiative).

“We need theological foundations if we are to contribute to a culture of synodality. We are not just trying to imitate governance models from the corporate world; nor are we simply interested in engaging in practices that are efficient but not enduring.”

These words from Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, S.J., offered some of the rationale for the gathering last week of theologians for the African Synodality Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya. Composed of more than a dozen scholars from countries around Africa—including a number of African theologians working in the United States—the meeting was held at Africama House, the headquarters of the Jesuit superiors of Africa and Madagascar.

Titled “Living Church: Theology of Synodality/Foundations of Synodality,” the gathering brought together scholars from countries in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa. The goal of the conference, which will meet again in January of next year, was “to reflect on the outcomes of the Synod, provide a theological analysis of the key dynamics of the process, and offer a theological input from an authentically African perspective,” according to the official precis.

Theologians Léocadie Lushombo, I.T., and Veronica Rop, A.S.E., at the meeting of the African Synodality Initiative in Nairobi. 

“We are at a very special moment in the time of the church. We use words like ‘kairos’ and ‘inflection point’ to describe it, but they do not capture the energy, the urgency and the opportunity to do something for the global church,” Father Orobator told America. “Members of [the African Synodal Initiative] felt that we wanted to be closely involved and to create many opportunities for people to be part of this journey.”

Key to the synodal process, Father Orobator said, is that it does not become a mere series of responses to current issues in the church and society, but is embedded in more substantial theological ground: “For synodality to truly take root in the life of the church, it must be strongly rooted in theological foundations. And so we ask ourselves: How can we begin to articulate those foundations of a synodal church?”

The initial roster of participants included Anne Arabome, S.S.S. (Nigeria/United States), Chijioke Azuawusiefe, S.J. (Nigeria), Anthony Egan, S.J. (South Africa/Kenya), Nontando Hadebe (Zimbabwe/South Africa), David Kaulem (Zimbabwe), Ludovic Lado, S.J. (Cameroon/Chad), Léocadie Lushombo, I.T. (Democratic Republic of Congo/United States), Bienvenu Mayemba, S.J. (Democratic Republic of Congo/Ivory Coast), Philomena Mwaura (Kenya), Josée Ngalula, R.S.A. (Democratic Republic of Congo), Sheila Leocádia Pires (Mozambique/South Africa), Veronica Rop, A.S.E. (Kenya), Marcel Uwineza, S.J. (Rwanda/Kenya), and Father Orobator (Nigeria/United States), who is the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif., and a former provincial superior of the Jesuits of the Eastern Africa Province. Funding for the conference was provided by a Catholic family foundation.

Three participants in the Nairobi meeting—Ms. Pires, Father Orobator and Sister Ngalula—were also delegates to the Synod on Synodality in Rome last October and will participate in the second session this coming fall.

Rather than following a typical academic conference format where each participant would present a finished paper and ask for responses, the meeting was arranged so that each member submitted a draft paper beforehand for other participants to read. Presenters were then offered feedback at the conference from other attendees on how to improve each essay. “We didn’t want to come together and give speeches and then go away,” Father Orobator said. “The idea is not to come up with a unified voice; that would be contrary to the idea of synodality. Rather, we wanted a richly textured voice that identifies what complexities there are and what tensions there are—but also celebrates what gifts we each bring to the table.”

In addition to the theological foundations of the synodal process, other topics covered included the spirituality of synodality, the impact of the charisms of religious life on a synodal church, the role of women as teachers of synodality, the gift and exercise of authority in the church, the scriptural foundations of synodality, co-responsibility as a feature of participation in the life of the church, the role of ethics in a synodal church, and the importance of local churches and of young people in the process. Presenters also discussed the importance of communications for fostering dialogue in the synodal process.

Criticism of the synodal process over the past several years was also a topic of discussion, including the ways in which the synod has raised doubt and resistance in some corners of the global church. This included conversation on how the church can build a “synodal architecture” that can persist beyond next year’s meeting in Rome to make synodality a permanent feature of the church, one that allows for divergent opinions and positions and does not end up being merely an exercise in dialogue with no long-term effects.

A number of presenters noted that African theologians and local churches can offer unique and valuable insights on synodality to the global Catholic community, not least because the notion of a theological “center” and “peripheries” carries far less weight in Africa and the Global South than it does in Europe or the West writ large. Further, a deeper stress on community and dialogue in many African cultures is simpatico with the stated goals of the synodal process in its guiding documents. Several participants, for example, noted that the synodal method of “conversation in the Spirit” is one that already had deep roots in African religious practice.

“Community doesn’t only entail being people who are present to one another in the process,” Father Orobator said. “It also entails reaching out—to use terminology familiar from the continental phase [of the worldwide synod]—to widen the spaces, or make connections between spaces, where people experience and live out their faith.”

“We have this notion of existential peripheries, and we talk about the poor, the migrant, those who are marginalized by their identity or their status. But we talk about them as if they are separate pockets, as if they need to be forced into one center. We need to recognize that in important ways, there is no center. And we don’t want to force people into a space that is sanitized or controlled.”

Theologians Marcel Uwineza, S.J., and David Kaulem at the meeting of the African Synodality Initiative in Nairobi.

In a global church that is witnessing declines in overall numbers, religious vocations and general vitality in many regions, the Catholic Church in Africa stands out as a clear exception. The number of Catholics on the continent has more than tripled since 1965; Africa’s 273 million Catholics will soon surpass Europe’s total. Close to one-third of all seminarians in the world are in Africa, more than 34,000 men. Vocations among women to religious life also continue to grow on the continent, in stark contrast to most of the Global North. And religious practice—defined not only by Mass attendance but also participation in sodalities, small Christian communities and other forms of religious expression—is far more robust than in most of the Catholic world.

African theologians are also as a group typically younger than their counterparts in the Global North—Father Orobator has noted in the past that many prominent African scholars have received their doctorates in the past decade. This can make for a theological community that inherits the contributions of previous generations of theologians and so is well-versed in the church’s theological tradition, but nevertheless draws its core examples and understanding from local churches far more inculturated in the African experience.

At the same time, Father Orobator and other participants were careful to identify the dangers of an “African exceptionalism” that sees a broadly conceived “African culture” as uniquely placed in either positive or negative ways vis-à-vis the global church’s synodal efforts. Like other continental groups engaged with the synod, the African community is one of varied perspectives. “The African voice is not monotonous. It is actually a polyphonic one,” he said. “And in terms of culture and practice, we can be more willing to hold divergent positions and divergent views—ones that are not always going to be determined by the hierarchy but by listening to the voices of the people.”

Following the second synod gathering in Rome in October, participants in last week’s conference will meet again in Nairobi in January 2025 to further develop their essays. After another round of consultation and editing, their contributions will be published through Orbis Books as a collected volume of essays, tentatively titled Living Theology of Synodality: The Face of a Synodal Church.

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