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Church's strength lies in its unity

Gerard Gough

MUCH has been written and spoken about with regard to the decline in numbers and influence of religions throughout the world—with Catholicism perhaps receiving the most column inches and airtime in this regard. However, anyone with a proper understanding of the universal Church and who has experienced it in different continents will realise that these reports are inaccurate, or at the very least only viewed through a very Euro-centric prism.

The beauty of the Catholic Church lies exactly in its universality and by looking to that—and indeed the facts, figures and projections—a different picture begins to emerge.

In 1900, the entire continent of Africa boasted just a couple of million Catholics. Some 100 years later that figure had grown to around 130 million and today that number is approaching 200 million. By 2030, it is expected that the number of Catholics in Africa will exceed the number of Catholics in Europe. A few short years after that, Africa is projected to become the most Catholic continent in the world, overtaking America. To put it into context, in 1950 the world’s Catholic population was 437 million. If current trends continue, by the 2040s there will be some 460 million Catholics in Africa, greater than the entire global Catholic population less than a century previous. African countries will likely feature among the largest Catholic nations in the world around about that time too, most notably Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Catholic population of the latter is expected to reach 100 million around that time, enjoying parity with the likes of the USA.

Asia’s Catholic story is no less impressive. In 1900, the three nations with the largest Catholic populations were France, Germany and Italy. Today, the leading countries are Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. The latter currently boasts around 85 million Catholics, a number which is expected to grow to well over 100 million by 2050. In 2015, there were more Catholic Baptisms in that country than in France, Spain, Italy and Poland combined.


With this in mind, it came as little surprise that Pope Francis turned to the Philippines when appointing a new Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, selecting Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (above) for the role. In one of his earliest interviews after his appointment he spoke about how he had had many messages of congratulations from these two growing Catholic continents, while also outlining his new responsibilities and what is needed to successfully evangelise.

“I have received many e-mails and messages from all over the world,” Cardinal Tagle said. “From Africa, from the Middle East, from Asian countries such as Japan and Cambodia and from many other nations. This shows me that there is enthusiasm among the faithful for the work of evangelisation.

“I am happy to begin this new service. The Holy Father sent me a message, giving me a new responsibility. I am grateful to him for the trust he has placed in me.

“Every Christian is called to communicate, through his life, the presence and compassion of Christ", he said. “A personal encounter with Jesus Christ is necessary because there is no mission, no proclamation of the Gospel without an encounter with Jesus who is the Gospel.

“The proclamation of the Gospel begins with a spirituality of listening. We are called to listen to God and listen to one another with patience, interest and attention to play our role in evangelisation. Very often when we talk about communication, we are in a hurry and we do not listen to other people. We do not pay much attention to listening to others with the heart, whereas it is a necessary first step in evangelisation.”

Malawi's youngest diocese

Clearly, Cardinal Tagle is acutely aware that effective communication and interaction with people is key to evangelisation and growing the faith. During my time in Malawi, I was afforded the opportunity to spend some time with Bishop Martin Anwel Mtumbuka of Karonga Diocese (above) in the north of the country and during the course of our conversations, it was apparent that he agreed with Cardinal Tagle’s approach.

The Diocese of Karonga is the youngest in Malawi, established in 2010. However, even allowing for that, its development since those early days has been impressive. At its inception there were 57,000 Catholics living there. There are now circa 85,000 and around 38,000 of that number are those aged between 6-21 years old, bringing a youthful vibrancy to the diocese. There are 10 full parishes with two in the making, 10 priests, five Francis de Salles Missionaries and two Fidei Donum. There are also 12 Sisters of the Holy Rosary, and 24 seminarians. 2019 saw three ordinations to the priesthood, while another two are set for 2020.

That said, the diocese still faces a number of challenges, including conflict resolution, the threat of natural disaster and financial issues, with the latter being a particular problem in terms of funding seminarians.

“Trying to get local communities to live in peace is a challenge,” the bishop said. “Promoting peace, justice and the rule of law is a big task for the diocese. The area is also prone to flooding and drought so we need help from charities. The upkeep of priests and seminarians—approximately £850 per annum—is another challenge. The parish communities give whatever they can. Getting priests from A to B can be difficult. We get some Mass stipends to help with this and the faithful provide them with food. Overall, it costs around £115,000 to run the diocese each year with £15,000 of that coming from an ordinary subsidy via Rome. We are currently farming coffee and macadamia nuts to hopefully provide a long-term solution to the finance issues.”

The journey to priesthood and beyond

So while this Malawian Diocese is young, there exists within it a real desire to serve the people there—as it does in the rest of the country—and, in turn, the people are longing for the faith to be brought to them too. Bishop Mtumbuka (above) felt that desire to serve too. It burned within him when he was a seminarian and continues to this day. He was given an insight into the importance of the universal Church back then having being sponsored in his studies by an Irish couple—Gordon and Patricia Allan—something he described as ‘a priceless gift to God.’

“The help given to a seminarian is incalculable,” he said. “It is a priceless gift to God. It shows that they are willing to co-operate with God in calling a particular individual to the priesthood. It is a sacred duty.”

Once ordained, the bishop expects them to heed the words of Cardinal Tagle with regards to effective communication and interaction with those that they serve in the various towns and villages. The bishop also mentioned the fact that both Pope St John Paul II and Pope Francis had a very pastoral approach and that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of the need to articulate the faith. However, he added that there is a simple manner in which to define whether or not a priest was being a good servant to his parishioners.

“If you visit parishioners’ homes and they say to you: ‘Just sit yourself anywhere,’ then you know that you have made a connection with them,” the bishop said. “If they are running around looking for a chair for you to sit on it means that a strong connection hasn’t been made as yet. I would like the priests to go out to the people on a Friday, sleep in the outstations (if they have a house) and come back on a Sunday afternoon. Making a real connection with the people is really important.”

Together in mission

So what did I take away from my trip to Malawi? Well, for one thing, it demonstrated to me that reports of the Church’s demise are not just greatly exaggerated, they’re inaccurate. The historic, continental powerhouses of the Faith itself may be shifting, but that’s the beauty of the universal Church—its strength lies in its unity. As Cardinal Tagle and Bishop Mtumbuka have alluded to, where effective communication and strong relationships exist, the Church will grow, be that in Africa (above), Asia or anywhere, so it is important to support these dedicated men and women—wherever they are called to serve—who are tasked with fostering this personal encounter with Christ and the people. They are mission.

We are mission too and Missio Scotland’s responsibility and that of our Pontifical Mission Societies partners is to make sure they have the wherewithal to serve to the best of their ability. With your help and through your support for us—the Pope’s official charity for mission—we can ensure that the Church remains strong and continues to grow.

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