Synod of Bishops 2009

Intervention at the Synod by Superior General,
Fr Kieran O’Reilly SMA
The 2nd Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops.
October 4th – 25th 2009

Your Holiness,
Your Eminences,
Sisters and Brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am a member of the Society of African Missions, an Institute of Apostolic life founded in the middle of the 19th century in Lyons, France, by Servant of God, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac. I am present as one of the delegates of the Union of Superiors General. The SMA from its foundation, up to the present, has focused its missionary activity in Africa; initially, along the West Coast of Africa and Egypt, and subsequently in Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa.


In this presentation, the articles of the Instrumentum Laboris to which I refer are #13 on Globalization, # 113 on Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and #145 which refers to International Bodies and the struggle for economic justice.

The Instrumentum Laboris notes the remarkable growth of the Church on the Continent of Africa over the past century and especially since the first African Synod, fifteen years ago. A very significant dimension of that growth has been the number of African men and women now directly involved in the ad gentes mission of the Church, both as members of recently established local missionary congregations and as members of longer established international institutes.

In this presentation I would like to draw attention to three specific areas in which International Missionary Institutes make a vital contribution to the Church’s service to justice, peace and reconciliation:

I. The ministry of advocacy;
II. Their witness to the inclusivity of God’s Reign;
III. Promoting a positive image of Africa abroad.

I. Advocacy

Advocacy is one of the most important strategies in promoting justice in the developing countries of Africa. Decisions made in the wealthy industrialized countries of the northern hemisphere, or what one might call the one third world, have enormous and long lasting impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans. It is imperative that the voice of Africa be heard at those centres where vital policy decisions affecting the lives of Africans are made.

Inspired by their faith commitment, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, and drawing from the life situations from among those with whom they minister, Missionary and Religious Congregations have formed networks to meet this challenge. I would like to draw the attention of the Synod Fathers in particular to the work of the Africa, Faith and Justice Network. This network, established over two decades ago, has two branches, one in the United States, operating from Washington DC (AFJN), and the second in Europe, operating from Brussels (AEFJN).

The particular concern of these two networks is to address issues of structural injustice rooted in European and United States policies that affect Africa adversely. The members of these networks empower one another to lobby their national political decision makers and the international centres of economic power, so as to positively influence decisions taken by the European Union and by the US Congress in favour of Africa.

The ultimate objective of these networks is to promote just and equitable economic relations between Africa and Europe (the AEFJN branch) and between the US and Africa (the AFJN branch). The methods they employ are lobbying, educating and providing information on relevant issues. Questions which the AFJN and AEFJN have worked on in recent years include water rights, seeds and medicines, trade in small and light arms, debt cancellation and European and US Agricultural Policies – all in relationship to Africa. As missionaries throughout Africa we are more than aware of the devastating effect of decisions taken in the corridors of power far from Africa and which may have serious effects on the lives of so many in Africa.

In recent years attempts have also been made to establish similar action groups in African countries but with varied success

I am convinced that these networks can better serve Africa when there is a significant contribution nor only from missionaries and religious working in Africa but also from the local particular churches in Africa. I hope that there will be a clearer, more radical and stable link established between AFJN/AEFJN and Africa. Closer cooperation between the member congregations of these networks and the local Churches of Africa will greatly enhance the effectiveness of their advocacy.

II. Witnessing to the Inclusivity of God’s Reign

As the “family of God” the Church is challenged to witness and promote the universality of God’s love for all people and the future unity of humanity. Unfortunately, ethnic, tribal and regional divisions still afflict many parts of the African continent, seriously hampering the development of its peoples. The Synod’s Working document acknowledges that these divisions are even evident in some African ecclesial communities. This context makes the witness of international missionary and religious communities both relevant and urgent. These communities now including many Africans from very different ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds – who leave their homelands to make a home among strangers. They are committed to learning new languages, to embedding themselves in the tissue of other ways of being human in cultures different from their own.

More significantly they embrace a wide range of cultural and ethnic differences within their own communities as they live and work together in the service of the Gospel. Their presence proclaims the Gospel truth that God does not have favourites, that we are all his children and our common destiny is to be one family in Him.

Every effort must be made to develop and strengthen communion and solidarity within these communities through a deeper understanding of their charisms at the service of the particular churches.

III. Promoting a Positive Image of Africa Abroad

Africa is poorly served by the mass media, which focuses almost exclusively on the bad news, thus creating a widely accepted narrative of a continent in a constant state of crisis. The ‘Aid Industry’, too, feeds on selling negative and outmoded stereotypes of Africans as helpless victims of endless wars and constant famines. Even some of Africa’s strongest advocates well-known politicians and artists, give the impression of being engaged in a messianic mission to save Africa from its people.

But this narrative of Africa as a land of hopeless, hapless victims is a far cry from the Africa missionaries and religious have come to know and love through years of experience of working for and with our communities in different geographical locations.

This is an Africa seldom mentioned in the media, the Africa of immense beauty, of open spaces and luminous skies, the Africa of ordinary people who humble us by their stoicism, selflessness and exuberant delight in company. This is not the Africa of helpless victims, worthy only of pity. It is rather the Africa of song and dance, of laughter and celebration, of energy, creativity and resilience. It is an Africa that can teach us a lot about what it means to be human about reconciliation about achieving Justice and establishing Peace despite many images to the contrary, and remind us of values that are fast disappearing from the developed countries of the world. The people of Africa must become more central to the narrative of Africa that is propagated abroad, Religious and International Missionary Institutes are ideally situated to assist this process.

Fr. Kieran O’Reilly, SMA
Superior General                                                                               8 October 2009

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