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What Africa Can Teach Europe (Part 2 of 2)

Bishop Amédée Grab Evaluates Symposium

ROME, NOV. 24, 2004 (Zenit) - The first-ever Symposium of Bishops of Africa and Europe, organized by the Council of European Bishops' Conferences and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, was held here Nov. 10-13.

In Part 2 of this interview with us, Bishop Amédée Grab of Chur, Switzerland, president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, reveals some of the proposals made during the meeting, in light of the challenges posed to evangelization in Africa.

Part 1 of this interview appeared earlier this week.

Q: More than discussing the help that Europe might offer Africa, this symposium intended to develop new ways of collaboration and new forms of communion with that continent. In your opinion, what is the contribution that the African continent can make to the Old World, from the human point of view and that of evangelization?

Bishop Grab: There was much discussion on this, especially in the working groups and the results have not been reported yet for lack of time. The communications of these groups will also be included in the symposium's minutes.

The topic was central to the discussions, not so much to idealize this new missionary era, in which Africa sends us priests, while among us they begin to be in short supply, but rather to recognize its limits and see its difficulties. On the part of Europe, there is recognition of the profound generosity and contribution that arriving Africans can give.

At first, some thought they were coming to enjoy less hard conditions of life, but then, with the passing of time, thanks to the ministry of the priests open but rooted in the faith and full of zeal, people realized that this contribution could revitalize many pastoral environments.

On Saturday, a Nigerian religious spoke very clearly about this, suggesting also that the presence of African religious in hospitals and homes for the elderly be intensified, to bring the freshness and sincerity of a profoundly Christian contribution.

It is important that this motivation not disappear. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja said it recently on Italian television, when he affirmed: it is true that many people struggle for justice, struggle for the defense of human rights, but if I do so as a Christian I must say that I do it by the mandate of Jesus Christ, to bring not only the elements for the solution of human problems, at rational and operative levels, but to proclaim the Gospel. Therefore, I think that many Africans can give back to Europeans, at times somewhat exhausted, this vision of the faith, this enthusiasm for Jesus.

Q: Hence the meaning of the words of encouragement of the Holy Father, during the Audience in the Vatican, in which he invited participants to cultivate "personal contact with Christ," in the light of the Year of the Eucharist, and in the ever renewed missionary thrust that this Sacrament implies.

Bishop Grab: Yes, he has said this numerous times. For example, it is very clear in the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," and later, he explains it beautifully in the Apostolic Letter "Mane Nobiscum Domine."

He repeats it on every occasion, as he did to the bishops at the end of the symposium in an audience that no one will forget, because not all have the opportunity to see the Holy Father often. Together with the 70 or 80 bishops, there were also 80 lay people who participated in the works of the congress, in addition to those who worked in the secretariats.

And many were very moved, either because it was the first time they met with the Pope or because they saw with what clarity of thought, with what conviction, he said these things.

Q: What are the issues that were not addressed or that remain in abeyance for lack of time?

Bishop Grab: It was impossible to address all the issues because Africa is very diverse, so when African bishops meet all together, they often try to do so in Rome.

I remember that, eleven years ago, when the Pope mentioned the special assembly of the Synod for Bishops of Africa, indicating Rome as the meeting place, there were reactions of disappointment in Europe: they could not understand why all activities were being centered in Rome, while it would have been better to hold the assembly in Africa.

However, it is much easier for the African bishops, if they are many, to meet in Rome than any other place in Africa. Therefore, the diversity of situations did not arise in these days of symposium. Allusions were made, for example, in a working group. A bishop of North Africa said that, his situation was not reflected in the things that were being discussed.

Of course a Bishop who has the responsibility of several hundred Catholics, in one diocese, amid three million Muslims, does not live as one in Rwanda or Nigeria.

Then there was an effort not to insist on what could be problematic as it would have been out of place compared to the enthusiasm of this assembly, which is also reflected in the final statement.

No European bishop would dream of writing at the end that there are African priests who come among us to study and that afterwards they don't return because they have no courage. And no African bishop would have dreamt of expressing reproaches of paternalism or authoritarianism against some European missionary in Africa, or things of that nature.

There is no desire to speak of these things -- in part because they have been surmounted by the progress made by the young Churches in Africa and because of the renewal of the Europeans' mentalities after the Council --, although there are always difficulties. Moreover, anyone planning a great project does not wash his hands of local problems, which must be discussed and resolved.

Q: I learned that there were spontaneous discussions during the breaks.

Bishop Grab: Yes, the talents and gifts displayed and contributed were varied! It was very good that the African bishops brought us a bit of the spontaneity and joy of their continent and peoples, in the midst of so many difficulties. For us, who often are too serious or distrusting, it is wonderful to see brother bishops so open to joy and patience.

My final assessment of the symposium, despite the exhaustion, is one of profound happiness, because it is a sign of the love of the Lord and because the atmosphere in which we met in the moments of prayer, reflection, and at meals times, was really what we wanted.

Q: Do you have a personal experience to share, connected with Africa, or some report that especially impressed you?

Bishop Grab: I know Africa through what I read and hear, and I have contacts with our missionaries, with those who have returned.

For example, in my diocese, a priest, who died a year ago, had directed seminars and given classes for 40 years in Africa, and wrote an entire treatise on the religious history of Africa.

There are some life experiences that have affected me. Ten years ago, after the fratricidal war of Rwanda, a young religious came to see me, asking for help, and he told me simply how he had seen with his own eyes the killing of all his relatives, and his ten brothers and sisters. He was the sole survivor.

To have in my house a young man who had witnessed the violent and horrible death of some 15 people taught me a lot. And what most impressed me was his determination to persevere in the faith of Christ and the fact, which I observed, that he had forgiven completely.

There are those who might judge Africans as smiling and carefree people, because they don't perceive tragedy as the European formed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and others. The African sees the tragic character of events but is also able to forgive.


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