In a meeting with representatives of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) on Saturday, Pope Francis reminded his hearers that the future is in the hands of the young, who need to be protected from “new and unscrupulous forms of colonization,” such as the reckless pursuit of riches, as well as “fundamentalism and the distorted use of religion.”
Francis’ words followed on the heels of one of the most violent months in recent African history, with the Islamic jihadist group Boko Haram killing as many as 2,000 people in a single day, along with continued violence in the Central African Republic and Sudan.
Francis called for a united effort among the bishops, since SECAM was conceived “to provide a common response to the new challenges facing the continent, allowing the Church to speak with one voice.”
The antidote to religious fundamentalism, as well as other forms of ideological colonization, the Pope said, is to be found in education, and especially through training the young in critical thinking. “The most effective way to overcome the temptation to give in to harmful lifestyles,” Francis said, “is by investing in education.” Education can help overcome a widespread mentality of violence, he said, and the “greatest need” is for a model of education “which teaches the young to think critically” and helps them grow in moral values.
The Pope urged the bishops to streamline pastoral structures, since “large bureaucratic structures approach problems in the abstract and risk distancing the Church from people.” Francis insisted on the “necessary to maintain the simple ecclesial experiences available to all.”
The Pope also touched on a worrisome “trend towards the breakdown of the family” in African society. He said that the Church needed to invest in initiatives “to strengthen the family,” which is the “primary way of peace.”
Pope Francis underscored the bishops’ responsibility for “promoting respect for the law, so as to ensure that the ills of corruption and fatalism may be healed.” Corruption is rife in many parts of Africa and is considered one of the main impediments to development.
According to Vice President of Botswana Ponatshego Kedikilwe, the African continent “has and is still suffering from the deadly disease of corruption,” and “the countries of Africa have a special responsibility to take the fight against corruption to another level.”
In Nigeria, democratic presidential elections have been postponed for six weeks, supposedly to allow for the stabilization of the northern part of the country, which is being ravaged by Boko Haram.
Ekemini Eyita, a Nigerian PhD student, said that “the biggest problem in Nigeria is that corruption has infiltrated all areas of society, especially in government.”
A Nigerian entrepreneur who preferred to remain anonymous said the elections should be held, regardless of Boko Haram. “It is a ploy,” he said, “to keep [President Goodluck] Jonathan in power, and this frustrates me.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.