A few years ago the Missionaries of Africa came to help celebrate the centenary of our parish school. Every parishioner I spoke to at the time was struck by the reverence shown by the African Missionary students as they danced the book of the Gospels to the lectern to the sound of drums. Other Masses that I have attended with African music and dance were also accessibly prayerful. So I was disappointed to read some of what Sister Freda Ehimuan describes in this article; a mismatch between Christian faith and practice in Africa. She reports that:
For the African, worship is the expression of feelings (negative and positive) toward the Divine, in different ways and through various media. Since worship is the expression of feelings, songs, dance, drums and incantations are significant to African worship. Physical expression is important in African worship; even if the person remains motionless, they may be crying, or making sounds from their throat. Without these expressions, Africans think that their worship is not deep enough and that it lacks the ability to reach God. They go through the rubrics of worship without experiencing an internal impact.
She describes one mismatch below:
A bishop has been speaking against dancing in the church for many years. One day he got a donation from some organization to build a pastoral center. He was so full of joy that right there on the altar he began to sing and dance. All the parishioners were so surprised that they spontaneously danced with him. Of course, he stopped when he realized what he was doing! When some Africans — who feel that they are civilized and too dignified to dance in worship — are shaken by incidents or experiences, their true nature comes out. Physical expression is their natural way of expressing faith whether they deny it or not.
I urge you to reflect on the article in the light of the recent posts about reforming the liturgy. Not just to ‘tut, tut’ at the missionaries whose predecessors had insufficient understanding of African cultures: they laid the foundations people like Sister Freda can build on today. But also to wonder what a truly local expression of faith would look like in your home town. What would you like to see happening in our celebrations? Read all of Sister Freda’s article here. (from Global Sisters Report, National Catholic Reporter, 12 July 2021.)
Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.
José Maria Cantal Rivas is a Missionary of Africa working in Algeria. During a sabbatical year he took a qualification as a Life Coach and is putting it to good use among young people. It is not his task to preach with the immediate intention of ‘Christianising’ his students, but to be a witness to Christ’s empowering love among them. Fr José Maria sees his work as a form of inculturalisation – getting alongside the people he is sent to bring the Good News to. He tells about his experiences in the article from which this post is extracted; the link below is to the French language original. How can we be Christ for young people in our own community?
‘My “students” come to realise that very often it is they themselves who are the chief obstacles and brakes impeding their own happiness. They have mentally forbidden themselves the right to imagine that their daily life could be different.
‘Many people seem to think that happiness will arrive one day in the post, in just one delivery, and when the parcel is opened, they will find happiness, all “ready to wear”. Very few are aware that to be happy, like body building, needs time to be given up to it; needs perseverance and discipline, as well as clear priorities and passion. There’s no other way!
The course is given in French and Arabic. Wherever possible I try to use examples, videos, personalities, literature from their Arab-Muslim culture: firstly to avoid any suspicion of proselytism, but above all to confirm that what I propose is practicable and compatible with their culture.
A short presentation by the Algerian women’s Paralympic basketball team, even if the sound quality is poor, has more impact that an excellent video from a similar team from a northen country!
Africa in general is changing and it seems to me that it’s good to know how Africans themselves, with their rich culture, face up to changes such as the spectacular rise in the numbers of women at university and in the world of work; the influence of the internet, demographic changes, new forms of social organisation, spiritual longings divorced from religion, urbanisation and so on.’
When Christians begin to realise the nature of symbolism as used in religious thought, we become more cautious of speaking about false gods. The more we appreciate symbolism, the more we realise how all religions tend to worship the one God.
It was this that prompted Rahner to ask: are all nations saved through Jesus Christ; or whether Jesus is not the universal saviour. His answer is simple. If only those are saved who acknowledge him by name, he cannot be the universal saviour. Yet we believe his is the focus for everyone. He says without acclaiming Jesus by name, many are in fact his followers, because they are doing the will of the Father – working towards universal reconciliation. He points to Jesus saying in the Gospel it is not those who hail him as Lord who enter the kingdom – but those who do the will of the Father.
Matthew 25 presents the Last Judgement, in which those who have cared for the sick, the hungry and imprisoned are called to the kingdom – and those who do none of these things are not – whether they recognise Jesus as Saviour or not. Not only the Hindus and Buddhists but lapsed Catholics and Communists – are called forward before Church-goers.
Salvation is not a reward for reciting the creed correctly – it is the inner fruit of life, love and welcome to all without exclusion.
Feeding the 5,000, from Ethiopia, Missionaries of Africa, Rome.
Thank you, Austin, for this and all your contributions to Agnellus’ Mirror and for keeping alive the connection between the Franciscans, the blog, and the City of Canterbury. Peace and all blessings!
We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were mistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.
Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.
The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.
It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.
Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.
Maximus, a 4th century bishop of Turin, saw preaching on charity as a medicine to cure sick souls. It could instil a commitment to inner renewal among the pagan country-folk in territory around his city. His sermons on Christ as the crucial sacrament taught awareness of the resurrection as enlivening for all areas of experience. He wanted superstitions connected with New Year’s festivities, a kind of Ouija board factor during the Kalends of January, to be overcome by Christ’s saving energies.
For more educated listeners, Maximus like to explain ways in which well-known stories from their pagan cultural past could be a first step towards a fuller appreciation of the gospels. He treats Homer’s story of Odysseus having himself bound to the mast of his ship as a symbol of Jesus Christ being tied to the Cross. Homer said that Odysseus sailed within reach of the Sirens singing, and the destructive temptation this brought with it, and was fully aware of the risk to his life. Now Scripture spoke about Jesus as “tempted in every way that we are,” yet he did not sin. His steadfastness overcame the temptations. The world was saved through the pitiful wood of the Cross, as people put it in the early Church. Like a rudder or a mast, it carries believers forwards to eternal rest, after Christ has been face to face with death.
We are able to have our hearts disentangled from the world’s snares because we trust the daring voyage of Christ.