Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
April 2, 2001
African cardinal sees role for the West
Tanzanian challenges Western world to hold fast to Christian values
SPECIAL TO WCR
CALGARY — Western churches, who first sent forth missionaries to other parts of the world a century ago, still have a significant role to play despite their diminishing strength, an African cardinal told a group of Calgary Catholics last week.
Churches in the West must help young churches in developing countries maintain their Catholic identity in the face of globalization and religious pluralism, said Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, archbishop of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.
Likewise, churches in the developing world can help Western churches grow and thrive again, he told a Lenten parish mission at Holy Spirit Church.
"The young churches in mission countries are very grateful and proud of the Christian influence received through the mediation of western missionaries," said Pengo, who, during his March 26-28 mission, applauded the work of Canada and Canadians in his east African country.
"They (churches in developing countries) must be helped to continue feeling proud of that inheritance in every way possible," said Pengo, whose archdiocese of 880,000 Catholics sits on the coastline of the Indian Ocean.
Pengo was invited to Canada for his weeklong visit at the suggestion of a former Polish missionary to Tanzania who now pastors a church in Calgary.
Catholic missionaries first evangelized the country of 35 million during the second half of the 19th century. As well as planting the faith, missionaries and their supporters provided money to build churches, rectories, convents, schools, hospitals and other facilities, he said.
Pengo is a part of that missionary inheritance. His grandparents were evangelized in the early 1900s and the cardinal grew up in a parish village in the western part of the country.
When he was young, Pengo asked his mother the meaning of his first name, Polycarp. She explained that Polycarp was a Christian bishop and martyr.
How do you become a bishop? Pengo asked his mother.
By going to seminary and becoming a priest, she explained.
Ordained in 1971, he was named bishop in 1978 and was made a cardinal in 1998.
As for becoming a martyr, he laughingly says, "I'm not praying for that."
Tanzania is about one-third Catholic, another third is Muslim and the rest of the population is either Protestant or follows traditional spiritual beliefs.
The Christian churches work closely together and until about a decade ago, lived quietly alongside their Muslim neighbours. But in recent years there has been a resurgence of Muslim activity in the country, seeking to gain power and control, said Pengo.
At the same time, missionary activity is dramatically different from earlier in the century. Because of the decline in vocations in the West, few missionaries are being sent from Western churches.
"Slowly, the move is going in the opposite direction because vocations to the priesthood and the religious life is on the increase in the young churches," he said.
During an interview, the cardinal expressed hope that in the not too distant future missionaries from Africa can begin to help revitalize the Western Church.
On the other hand, the few Western missionaries who remain in Africa are aging rapidly.
In order to avoid becoming a "burden" to young churches, aging missionaries almost invariably return to their country of origin upon retirement, said Pengo, who is 56 years old in a country where the average life expectancy is 52.
While Pengo understands the feelings of the retiring missionaries, they have failed to understand the feelings of the people they served for so long.
"In the Third World, as a whole, old age is not a burden," he said. "Rather it is a big honour."
When missionaries decide to return to their native countries, they are refusing an honour that indigenous people want to bestow on them, said Pengo.
Further, the faithful in those young churches have been taught to believe that being "catholic" means being at home wherever the Catholic Church is found.
By returning home, retiring missionaries imply that they were never "at home" in the mission lands, he said.
Unfortunately, material assistance has been reduced simultaneously with the reduction in Western missionaries.
Conversely, clergy from developing countries who serve in Western churches are perceived to be seeking better economic conditions rather than helping to evangelize westerners. That perception is untrue, he said.
Instead, it must be recognized that churches in the developing world still require considerable financial support from the West, said Pengo.
In addition, the cardinal said he finds it strange that the West makes every effort to be open to foreign values but ignores its own Christian tradition.
"By this strange attitude, the West is not only injuring itself, it is also doing incalculable damage to the whole work of evangelization in the young churches of mission lands," he said.
"While religions like Islam are pushing very strongly into our societies, at times utilizing the most unacceptable means such as religious fundamentalism and terrorism supported by rich Arab countries, Christian communities are finding less and less support, even moral support, from Western Christian communities," he said.
Pengo hastens to add that he does not advocate confronting Islamic fundamentalism with Christian fundamentalism.
Nevertheless, the West's tendency to ignore its own rich Christian heritage is self-destructive, he said. "Christianity has great values with which to enrich the world today and tomorrow."
In their youthfulness, young churches in the developing world require a model to look up to in order to realize that self-identity, he said. "Where else would they be expected to search for the needed model if not in the countries from which their first evangelizers came?"
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