VATICAN CITY — In the past century, Roman Catholicism has grown faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, leading to calls during recent papal transitions for an African to head the church as pope. At a seminary in Rome where many Africans study, there are different ways of seeing that success.
Students at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Santa Croce, are learning canon law.
Like many universities in Rome these days, Santa Croce has more and more priests and seminarians in its student body from the developing world, especially Africa.
As the level of education there increases, Kenyan John Martin Onyango says people are thinking more about the deeper meaning of life.
“And everyone tends to get a bit more interested in some of the eschatological questions: where am I coming from, and where am I going to,” Onyango said.
Paschal Okonkwo recalls that Irish missionaries brought Catholicism to his native Nigeria:
“For me, it's the evolution of history. The Catholic faith was first received by Europeans and they have lived it for many years, and you know the history goes up and down," Okonkwo said.
A century ago, fewer than one percent of the world's Catholics lived in Africa, while 65 percent were in Europe. Africa's share is now 16 percent, while Europe's is 24.
“The church's expansion in Africa has been truly breathtaking, but is it the kind of success that can be replicated here in Europe and in America?”
Jesuit priest Thomas Reese says Africa today is like Europe when it was first Christianized.
“Africa is doing very well now, but what happens when it's modernized? What happens when the enlightenment hits there, and there's malls and cable television and all of these other things and people are more educated?,” Reese said.
He expects faith could falter.
“If that's the case, we'd better solve the problem in Europe and the United States before it hits Africa, so that we have some solutions that will work there,” Reese said.
But Okonkwo believes it will be different in Africa...
“Because in Africa man is intrinsically religious," Okonkwo said.
African Catholics' worship style is colorful, but it hews to the orthodoxy of the Vatican. Many Catholics believe it has the power to reinvigorate the rest of the church.