Jesus Has Found a Home Here: The Rise of Catholicism in Africa

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Catholic faithful pray in front of a cross of Jesus Christ erected by a roadside in Kakoge, north of Uganda's capital Kampala, October 18, 2015. James Akena/Reuters

Pope Francis has just concluded his first papal visit to Africa. If he wanted a popularity boost, he went to the right place: the Catholic Church is flourishing in Africa.

Each of the countries that the pope visited— Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic (CAR)—has a substantial Catholic population. According to a 2011 report on global Christianity by the Pew Research Center, Kenya has 9 million Catholics, Uganda 14 million and the CAR 1.3 million—equivalent to 22 percent, 42 percent and 29 percent of the population, respectively. And these are not isolated phenomena, cherry-picked to ensure a smooth visit for Francis: the report estimates that around one-in-five of sub-Saharan Africans belonged to the Roman Catholic Church in 2010.

There has also been an explosive growth in the number of Catholics in Africa over the past 35 years. The world's Catholic population has grown by 57 percent since 1980, according to a June report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. But this growth is not uniform: Africa's Catholic population has shot up by 238 percent in that period, compared to just a 6 percent increase in the European Catholic population. The difference is largely due to variations in fertility rates, according to the report.

Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the head of Uganda's conference of Catholic bishops, met the pope when Francis greeted the bishops of Uganda in Kampala on Saturday. Odama believes that the success of the Church in Africa is down to the tangible impact it has on people's lives in spheres such as healthcare and education. "The church has been a mother [to the African people] … It has been with the people in all their initial stages of life and in their critical conditions," says Odama.

Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, former leader of the Eastern Africa province of the Jesuit order to which Francis belongs, agrees that the practical work done by the Church has driven its growth. "More than any other religious community or faith, Catholicism has been the largest non-state provider of healthcare and education in Africa," says Orobator, currently on sabbatical at Marquette University in Wisconsin.

Another reason behind the success of Catholicism in Africa has been its willingness to be inclusive and syncretize local traditions into the broader framework of Catholic faith. Examples include churches decorated with pictures of Jesus depicted as an African, and unique liturgical styles—such as the so-called "Congolese Rite"—being approved by Rome, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"The Catholic Church is a very African institution in Africa," says Gina Zurlo, associate director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. "When people are looking at Catholicism, they can say, 'I can still be African and Catholic at the same time.' You don't have to become Western."

Father Orobator adds that today's Catholicism was built on the foundations of an appreciation of religion that was "deeply rooted in the African psyche" long before the advent of Christianity on the continent. "Christianity is founded on that bedrock of religiosity and Jesus Christ has found a natural home in Africa," he says.

Africa looks set to remain the Catholic Church's beacon of hope for the foreseeable future. The CARA report predicts that by 2040, almost one in four Africans will be Catholic, putting the continent's total Catholic population at 460 million.

A major challenge to the rise and rise of Catholicism is Africa's other big religion: Islam. According to an April Pew report, the number of both Christians (including Catholics) and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa is set to more than double by 2050. The report says Christians will increase from 517 million to more than 1.1 billion, while Muslims will grow at a faster rate: from 248 million to 670 million in the same period.

As well as proving worthy competition in the numbers game, the growth of Islam in Africa raises questions of interreligious understanding and conflict: a 2010 Pew study found that, on average, 28 percent of Christians and 23 percent of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa viewed members of the other religion as hostile to their own.

Jorg Haustein, senior lecturer in Religions in Africa at SOAS, University of London, says that the problem of seeing other religions in a negative light exists largely at the level of believers, rather than the church hierarchy. "Traditionally, mainline Catholic and Protestant churches have been good with dialogue, but there are cases where that is sometimes breaking down," says Haustein. "[At the] grassroots, people perceive the other as a threat."

While the Church is thriving in Africa, the appreciation seems to only go one way. In Rome's halls of power, Africans are barely represented. Of a total of 118 cardinals eligible to vote in papal elections, there are currently 14 from Africa, constituting 12 percent of the total. Europe, meanwhile, has 54 voting cardinals, almost half of the total. There has also never been a pope from sub-Saharan Africa: in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, there were three North African popes, and two of these were born in Rome to families of African origin.

Zurlo of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity says she was predicting an African pope at the 2013 election, but Francis got the job instead. She believes it is time for Rome to start looking more like the church as a whole. "I would love to see the diversity of the hierarchy reflect the actual diversity of global Catholicism, and that means a lot more Africans should be represented," she says.

Zurlo also doesn't believe the world's one billion-plus Catholics will be waiting very long for a pope from sub-Saharan Africa. "Maybe the next [election] is when I'll finally be right," she says. "And we'll actually get the African pope that I think global Catholicism needs!"