African Catholic Church Growing Rapidly

Soweto, South Africa - Mass is so crowded at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church that the parishioners spill out into the courtyard, where they huddle close to the doors to hear and be heard.

Worship here is participatory and joyous, not a staid moral duty performed amid pomp and ritual beneath the stained glass of one of Europe's cavernous and magnificent cathedrals.

The Catholic Church seems young, active and relevant, growing at a rate so explosive — with nearly 140 million Roman Catholics in Africa — that it's a vital part of today's Christian expansion.

The next pope will inherit a vibrant African flock but will also face challenges in competing with Islam and Pentecostal Christian Churches, said Archbishop Pius Ncube.

The church is growing so quickly largely because it has sought to embrace what is good in African culture rather than trying to make Africans into Westerners, Ncube said.

"There is a vitality to the church in Africa. In Europe, a Mass is simply a duty you must go through," Ncube said. "Africans like to feel they are celebrating. They want to rejoice, ululate and dance."

At St. Joseph's the priest gives the homily in Zulu and draws boisterous laughter as his examples strike close to home. With no organ, hymns are sung a cappella while the congregation and choir sways and dances.

The number of Catholics in Africa has jumped about 150 percent since Pope John Paul II ascended to the throne of St. Peter in 1978. Churchmen and academics say the growth, the fastest in the long history of the church, promises in time to change the nature of the faith.

"The Church is based on Western traditions that will come under huge pressure after the African church comes of age," said Paul Germond, who teaches comparative religion at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.

For decades Western Europe and North America have been seen as the financial base of the church even while the faithful slip from strict adherence to its teachings. Latin America, which is more than 90 percent Roman Catholic, has been viewed as a bedrock of the faith. But Africa has been seen as the growth market in the competition for souls.

St. Joseph's, parishioners say, is a model of what the Second Vatican Council had in mind when it replaced the Latin Mass with the local language and a testament to why the faith is growing so fast in Africa.

The red and tan ceramic floor tile at St. Joseph's is cracked and shattered, the white and orange walls are adorned with cheap modern prints depicting the passion of Christ and the windows are panes of white, yellow and green translucent glass in no discernible pattern.

But its parishioners appear passionately involved in the Mass.

"Since Vatican II, people can clap, dance and play the drums," said Alson Ntombela, 72, a member of the St. Joseph's congregation. "Africans are very spiritual. They like to glorify. The Catholic Church now reflects and accepts our culture."

Makhosonke Maseko, 30, a medical doctor, said he converted to Catholicism from the Presbyterian Church because Roman Catholics more than anyone else try to make religion relevant to Africans.

Ncube said when he became a Roman Catholic 45 years ago, he said there were only two or three African bishops. Now more than 80 percent of the bishops are African. Once most of the priests were Western missionaries, now Africa sends priests to Europe and America.

"Africa is a continent with a lot of troubles, with wars, strife, starvation, poverty and the AIDS crisis. That causes a lot of people to seek God," said Ncube.

He credits John Paul II with much of the success in Africa. The pope made 14 trips to Africa, more than to any other continent.

"He was a pope of the people when so many had been prisoners of the Vatican," said Ncube. "He was a blessing."

Churchmen and academics in Africa said they believe it's unlikely that the College of Cardinals, which begins voting in conclave on Monday, will choose an African pope. But Cardinal Francis Arinze, 72, of Nigeria is considered a possible contender, having risen to the No. 4 position in the Vatican at a time when fundamentalist Islamic and Protestant sects replaced communism as the biggest challenge to Catholic proselytizing.

Germond, the professor, believes the explosion of Christianity in Africa has come partly because the religion is how Africans accepted and made sense of the modern world.

When missionaries brought Christianity, they also brought education and health care. About 60 percent of the hospital beds in Congo now are in Roman Catholic facilities, he said.

"Christianity was entrenched by the education system. Many of Africa's leaders were educated in church schools and universities," said Germond.

But while the growth has been massive, Germond said it is difficult to produce precise figures.

"Africans are very pluralistic in religious beliefs. They can be Catholic and still attend Pentecostal services or go to traditional healers," said Germond.

Adapting the church to African culture is changing the nature of the faith, said Germond. For now the changes in how the faith is practiced are within Africa. But as the church's center of gravity slides south, Western traditions will come under increasing pressure.

"The church is the oldest institution in history. It manages change in a gradual way over generations," said Germond.