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African Catholics Point to Different, Deeper Reasons for Religious Boom

FILE - A mass in memory of Nelson Mandela takes place at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 2013.

The Catholic Church may be losing members in parts of the world, but you wouldn’t know it by attending a packed service at Soweto’s Regina Mundi church.

The cavernous interior of South Africa’s largest Catholic church can accommodate up to 7,000 people — and many Sundays, it makes good on that space. The crowd is a mix — from sleeping babies and excited teenagers to tired mothers and beatific, smiling grandmothers.

As Pope Francis prepares for a historic visit to Africa, he is sure to be warmly welcomed on the continent where the ranks of Catholicism have swelled dramatically.

Dramatic growth

Since 1980, the church has grown a whopping 238 percent, according to a study released this year by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The study says Africa is now home to 198 million Catholics — up from 58 million in 1980.

That growth has eclipsed other regions — especially Europe, where the Catholic population has grown just 6 percent in that same time.

The study attributes the huge difference mainly to fertility. Simply put, the African continent runs circles around the rest of the world in terms of population growth.

But population growth doesn't tell the whole story, said the Reverend Reginald Anthony, who leads South Africa’s largest Catholic church, Regina Mundi in Soweto. He said the appeal of the Catholic church is how well it meshes well with Africans’ deep spiritual beliefs and faith in outside forces.

“There’s an ongoing connection in Africa with the spirit world and with God,” Anthony told VOA News after a recent three-hour Sunday Mass.

“So evangelization through the Gospel has simply deepened that, in many cases. There’s also the other side, that people are not as materialistic and secularized as the Western world and so that means the dependence on God for sustenance, for existence, for meaning is still very much at the heart of people in Africa.”

'Free-spirit church'

Parish Council member Lydia Mashaba is contributing to the church’s boom in more ways than one — she’s an active evangelist, and she’s about to welcome a grandchild into the church.

She said the church’s popularity in Africa is actually based on something that happened decades ago with the Vatican II conference, which, among other things, decreed that services could be given in local languages. At Regina Mundi, Anthony speaks to the congregation in English and in isiZulu.

“The Catholic Church has always been following the Vatican I,” Mashaba said, referring to old guidelines that required services to be in Latin.

“And therefore, it has always been difficult for the people to follow the language ... and now that the church has opened its windows, we are drum-beating, we are in Africa, it’s a free-spirit church,” she said.

But the youth, as always, are hungry for more. Young parishioners at Regina Mundi said they are pleased to see their ranks growing, but they would like to see even more growth.

Pope Francis delivers his message inside the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore during his visit to Florence, Italy, Nov. 10, 2015.
Pope Francis delivers his message inside the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore during his visit to Florence, Italy, Nov. 10, 2015.

Pope's coming visit

21-year-old parishioner Tsholofelo Legodi lamented that she sees fewer young people in the pews than she does at parties.

“I feel like we we can do better than this,” she said. “But I’m really happy with that’s going on right now because people are coming through to church unlike back then, I think. So slowly, but surely, I hope we get there, and just fill up churches, you know.”

In a way, the African church may hamper its own success by drawing in young, free-thinking members. African Catholic leaders recently have questioned what they perceive to be a softening of church values — notably, views on homosexuality — with South Africa’s Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier accusing his liberal European peers of betraying the “essence of the faith.”

As Pope Francis prepares to make a historic visit to the continent, all Catholic eyes will be on him. And many hope that this pope, known for his upbeat message, will join his voice with Africans’ joyful, hopeful, boisterous rhythms — instead of just preaching to them.