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Working with traditional African religions

For countless centuries the traditional cultures have profoundly influenced the spirituality of Africa. Mpay Kemboly, a Congolese Jesuit, explains the meaning of the Christian encounter with these beliefs and the involvement which the Society of Jesus has for years had in this domain.

faithhealingedBefore treating the question of dialogue, let us first describe in summary fashion African traditional religion.African traditional religions originated in a continent that has a millennial history and great diversity. These religions are what carry us Africans forward and what we carry deep within us. They determine our way of being in the world, our way of relating to beings, to things, and to words.

The roots of traditional religion

The roots of African traditional religion is are so significant in mystical confraternities, diverse religious movements, and Africa's independent churches that all of these can be considered in different degrees to be mutations or survivals of the traditional African religions. Some archetypes of the African traditional religions are present in African-American religions.

The African traditional religions are numerous, but they can be categorized according to the aspects which they have in common. They are present to a greater or lesser degree in Africa, in the Americas, in Europe, and wherever else African peoples live.


It is with these religions that the Church of Africa has been in dialogue since the beginnings of Christianity. We will treat here the recent forms this dialogue has taken, influenced by the Second Vatican Council and the synodal assemblies for Africa held in 1994 and 2009. As regards the Society of Jesus, we make mention of General Congregations 34 and 35.

Interculturation as a form of dialogue

Thus Church of Africa gives priority to inculturation as a form of dialogue between Christianity and African cultures or religions (Dialogue et Annonce, 45; Ecclesia in Africa, 59; Africae Munus, 36). Thus the African Church is involved in a great deal of theological and pastoral exploration, some of which is worth noting here.

  • The "Congolese rite" of the mass was approved by Rome in 1988. In this "rite" the priest sometimes wears a leopard skin during mass, which shows that he is the guardian of his community, one who is already initiated, and a master of spiritual initiation and discernment of spirits. Adoration is thus experienced as also a type of body language.
  • The Church of Burkina Faso created the Moore ritual of the sacraments of Christian initiation, based on the rites of passage and initiation of the Mossi culture. Similarly, the Church of Nigeria has Chirstianized the ceremony of giving a name to the Christian new-born, using for inspiration the traditionMaskedal Yoruba model. Also in Nigeria, the traditional Igba Ndu rites of the Igbo tribe have been Christianized as a way of restoring personal and social relations when they enter into crisis.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cardinal Malula (1917-1989) began a religious congregation, which was given canonical status in 1967, in order to form religious who were authentically African and truly Christian. African garb was adopted as the religious habit, and the religious formation drew inspiration from African initiation tradition. In 1975 Bishop Matondo Kwa Nzambi, CICM, (1932-2011) created the Bilenge ya Mwinda movement, using the traditional Ngbaka intiation as a model for forming young persons passionately committed to Christ.
  • The Center for Study of African Religions was established in 1967 at what is now the Catholic University of the Congo. Abbot Barthélemy Adoukonou set up the Sillon Noir in 1970 with a group of Catholic intellectuals in Benin. It is a bold project which draws on the traditional initation of the Aja-Fon culture of Benin and Togo. (Editor's Note: Sillon Noir is a movement of inculturation which seeks to present the gospel message more effectively to the people of God by linking it to the ancestral African traditions.)

The Society of Jesus takes a modest part in this dialogue through various ministries. We mention here only some of the more outstanding Jesuits involved.In Cameroon three names stand out. Fr. Engelbert Mveng (1930-1995) worked to promote a type of African religious life that drew inspiration from traditional African religions, and he also created Christian art based on African motifs. Fr. Meinrad Hebga (1928-2008) was on the front lines of the combat against evil and its various manifestations. Fr. Eric de Rosny (1930-2012) also involved himself in the struggle against evil by entering into dialogue with traditional African therapy.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Fr. Boka di Mpasi (1929-2006) founded the theological journal Telema in 1975 and engaged in African theology. Worthy of note are the research and the teaching carried out at the Jesuit faculty of philosophy of St. Peter Canisius de Kimwenza. Fathers René De Haes (1923-2005), Léon de Saint Moulin, and Johan Allary have contributed to the works of the theological school of Kinshasa and to the dynamism of the Church of Kinshasa.

In 1970 Fr. Nghenzi Lonta elaborated theW'athu rule of Christian life. Fr. Matungulu Otene (1946-1999) eagerly sought to make religious life coherent within the context of Black African spirituality. Fathers Alain van der Beken and Hubert Van Roy have assembled materials on the culture of the Yaka people.

Fr. Claude Summer has long been involved in research and teaching about the ancient culture of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Linking through culture

priestrobesedIn Magagascar, we can point out four Jesuits. François Xavier Tabao (1927-1999), bishop of Mananjary, attempted to inculturate the faith by using his talents as a musician and a composer. Fr. Adolphe Razafintsalama (1930-2000) created a complete vocabulary indispensable for Malagasy anthropology and worked at developing an inculturated Christian theology of ancestors. Fr. Robert Dubois has carried out major research proejcts in a region hardly exposed to Christianity. Fr. François noiret, like Fr. Dubois, studies and teaches Malagasy anthropology.

In Réunion Fr. Stephane Nicaise is currently engaged in study of and dialogue with Creole religion, while Fr. Arul Varaprasadam, founding member in 1999 of the Group for Interreligious Dialogue, dialogues with Christians of that island who are of the Hindu tradition.

Inculturation touches on a lot of important issues

Very few young Africans are following in the footsteps of the illustrious Jesuits already mentioned. Fr. Ntima Nkanza (DRC) searches out African ways of doing Christology and develops an understanding of the quest for the divine in Africa. Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator (Nigeria) draws on African literature and symbolism to create a relevant African theology. Fr. Ludovic Lado (Cameroon) studies the ministry of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in its struggle against the world of sickness and darkness. He is also a keen observer of the pradoxes of the African cultures. Fr. Lusala (DRC) studies the prototypes of local African religions in the light of Christianity.

All the above-mentioned efforts are in large part the result of the process of inculturation. This effort has not only involved litrgy and culture, but has touched also on other important questions. The work must be continued at a deeper level in order to reach the hearts of persons, communities, and cultures and confront them with the radical newness of the Gospel, even to the point of reaching different levels of irrationality and lack of awareness within us.

Besides, it is in the crucible of this paradigm of inculturation that other forms of dialogue with the traditional African religions take place, above all the interpersonal dialogue and the dialogue of life within families.

A need exists to understand the different aspects of these religions.

The dialogue with traditional African religions is not an easy task, especially at the level of theological exchanges and religious experiences. The difficulty has to do with the nature of these religions and other factors, such as the tendency of many people to reduce all traditional African religion to certain esoteric aspects that are disconcerting, or to demonize it completely. Some persons engaged in this work are so insanely desirous of an intimate knowledge of these religions that they run the risk of becoming deluded and disenchanted.

Other Christians, aware of these risks but similarly reducing African religion to its obscure features, become terribly frightened of engagement and cut off all contact with the religions. Some people are simply ignorant of these religion, while many others seem to be quite uninterested in them and so discourage or ridicule those who do show interest. As a result, the adherents of some traditional African religions or the members of African religious movements or mystical confraternities accuse African Christians of treason.

Understanding these religions needs a certain temprament

It is therefore important that those who are interested in dialogue with the traditional African religions be knowledgeable, virtuous persons who exercise good judgment and know how to discern spirits. They should work in teams to provide themselves with mutual supervision and to give greater visibility of their apostolate. In view of this, we plan to organise soon a pan-African meeting of Jesuits engaged in the dialogue with African religions and cultures.

We hope the Society of Jesus will prepare and encourage more young African Jesuits to acquire the formation needed for this ministry of dialogue. The creation of a multidisciplinary center of African studies in the near future or the establishment of a specialized program in African religions and cultures in our institutions of higher learning would help the Society of Jesus to make a valuable contribution to this dialogue.

We also hope that the Society of Jesus, especially in Africa, will become ever more convinced that the African traditional religions are alive in a good portion of humanity. It certainly would not be just to ignore this humanity, since God is also carrying on a permanent dialogue with it (GC 34, 133). Indeed, "interreligious dialogue is na essential element of our mission today" (GC 34, 137), including in Africa.

Mpay Kemboly

By Mpay Kemboly, S.J.
Kimwenza, Democratic republic of the Congo.
(Translated by: Joseph Owens, S.J.)

About Mpay Kemboly http://sjweb.info/jesuitvoices/episodes/JV129_20100914.mp3
http://www.kemboly.com/fr_profile.htm

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