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 Contents - Mar 2014AD2000 March 2014 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Lent 2014 and its practical application - Peter Westmore
Holy See responds to unfounded UN Committee attack - Peter Westmore
News: The Church Around the World
Pope Francis puts indelible mark on College of Cardinals - Peter Westmore
Whither religious education in Australian Catholic schools? - Peter Finlayson
The violence of abortion - Anne Lastman
The McCabe affair in context - Lucy Sullivan
Catholic Schools Youth Ministry Association: a new force for good - Br Barry Coldrey
Private revelations: Are they reliable? - John Young
What Jesus teaches us about prayer - Audrey English
None so blind: refusal to see the obvious - Fr John O'Neill
Books: TEN AFRICAN CARDINALS, by Sally Ninham - Michael Gilchrist (reviewer)
Books: THE WORLD OF ST PAUL, by Joseph M. Callewaert - Michael Daniel (reviewer)
Books: WHERE WE GOT THE BIBLE: Our Debt to the Catholic Church, by Henry G. Graham - Michael E. Daniel (reviewer)
Books: Order books from
Reflection: Archbishop Chaput's homily on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade - Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

"A fabulous introduction" to the state of Catholicism in Africa

by Sally Ninham
(Connor Court Publishing, 2013, 367pp, $29.95,
ISBN: 978-1-92216-886-3. Available from Freedom Publishing)

While Africa today is the fastest growing region of Catholicism in the world, most Western Catholics would have little knowledge of what is happening across that continent. Certainly, as far as this writer is aware, relatively little has been written on the subject, at least until now.

A major antidote to this unfortunate lack of information and understanding has appeared in the shape of Ten African Cardinals. It is a must read for those interested in the state of the Church around the world and in Africa, in particular.

The author, Dr Sally Ninham, has built her book around a series of interviews with leading African churchmen, including the "ten cardinals" of her book's title. Each chapter includes introductory historical background on the country concerned, an outline of the circumstances leading up to the interview, including the challenges often involved in arranging it, and finally the interview itself, which is invariably very open and frank.

Differing world views

Remarkably, the author, who is a mother of five children, was not a Catholic at the time of writing having grown up in an environment hostile to religion "with demonstrations of atheism fashionable in her teenage years". She later had her children baptised to, as she puts it, "give them the advantages of belonging to her husband's tribe while still clinging tightly to a world of non-believers".

The book, as Dr Ninham explains, "offers the interviews as they were recorded, and it tracks the process of finding the cardinals, speaking to them, and the personal impact that experience had on me. (There was a mismatch between my world view and the world of Africa, as much as there was a mismatch between my supposed atheism and the deeply spiritual world of the cardinals)."

The interviews cover a cross section of Africa's many nations: South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Mozambique, Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Congo. The names of most of the prelates involved will be unfamiliar to most readers, although exceptions to this would be Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze, retired Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and possibly Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Turkson's name was mentioned at the time of the last conclave as a possible "African Pope".

Each interview highlights the great variety of situations experienced by the Church and her leaders across Africa, as well as the contrasting personalities and attitudes among the bishops and cardinals interviewed. In most cases, the challenges facing the Church involve combinations of poverty, lack of economic development, political turmoil, civil wars, tribal rivalries and inter-religious tensions.

The bishops' comments are often thought-provoking as they shed fresh light on issues as generally perceived by the Western media. For example, when asked about Christian relations with Muslims, Cardinal Sarah of Guinea responds: "As Christians, we have to bear witness to our faith ... Yet, I also have learned so much from the Muslims. One of the things that I learned from them is their fidelity to prayer time. They give a great importance to prayer ... The positive influence between Christians and Muslims in Guinea can be mutual: we can help them with our faith and they can help us with the positive aspects that we see from their religious practice."

There are numerous insights on the African situation to be found among the views of the different prelates, whether on approaches to the liturgy, fidelity to Church teachings, evangelisation, social justice, the impact of Vatican II, clerical involvement in local politics or the difficulties of making Western style democracy work in the African context.


In carrying out her research Dr Ninham spent many months tirelessly criss-crossing Africa as well as searching out African cardinals working in various Vatican congregations. Her introductory comments, quoted at some length here, provide a useful overview of her approach to the subject and what makes Ten African Cardinals particularly important in understanding the state of the Church and its challenges around the world.

"In this book", she writes, "I describe [the churchmen] as I see them. I am a Westerner, a non-Catholic, a woman and a mother. I tried to look at them sometimes without those labels intact ... sometimes with them ... At times it was difficult. I have tried to look at them the way that I would see the men in my own life - to take notice of their passions, their frustrations, their masculinity, their strengths and particularly their patience.

"Above all I have tried not to pander to them as 'Princes of the Church'. Almost every one of them frightened me, some were kind to me, some were wary of me and what I might do with what they said. In each case I left feeling deeply impressed, hoping to honour the trust they placed in me by allowing me to record our conversations in this book.

"Africa is complicated and difficult: a vibrant continent; a vastly diverse array of tribal territories and resource potentials; an endless reserve of material wealth and human trafficking that was pounced upon and exploited from the early 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese; a continent then divided across traditional boundaries into 'nation-states' by European conquest in the 1800s, and returned to its original owners by the 1960s - in pieces.

"The march towards functioning societies over the last 50 years has been complicated for many of these new countries. Most replaced white supremacy with black tyranny within the first 15 years and doomed their peoples to a new kind of misery. Climbing out of that past has been complicated by the tendency amongst some Africans to ascribe blame to exogenous (Western) factors, and a Western tendency to misunderstand, obscure or misrepresent what we see.

"Myths, prejudices ..."

"Our understanding of Africa is laden with 'myths, prejudices, exaggerated claims, suspicions, and misconceptions about Africans whom [so many of us] seek to help and yet are so little understood'.

"As civil war sent learned and experienced foreign priests packing as well, the integrity of the continent's indigenous clergy became all the more relevant: African priests stepped without hesitation into religious leadership roles where guidance and protection in the midst of ethnic and political confusion were not only expected but necessary. Emerging into a modern yet tortured world, these young men made the Church in Africa their own.

"They combined the Gospel's central tenet - love - with the benefits of the foreign educational experiences the Church had made possible (and that broadened their world view), and they applied both to highly challenging circumstances that demanded great vision: war, epidemics, economic collapse, violent dictatorships and corruption [all] had devastating effects on their flocks."

Assessing the value of this book, an African Jesuit, Fr Orobator, observes: "This book opens a window not only on the history, nature and mission of the Church but also on the challenges and prospects of the continent of Africa. It's a fabulous introduction for those who wish to discover Africa."

This is an important need in affluent Australia where Catholic teachers and senior students would benefit from gaining a broadened appreciation of the extent and rich variety of the universal Church.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 27 No 2 (March 2014), p. 16

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