It offers a very significant role to lay people, particularly through small Christian communities
Father Wilbert Gobbo (Photo: Lucie Sarr/LCA)
Father Wilbert Gobbo, a Tanzanian theologian, philosopher, religious missionary in Africa and research director at the Catholic Missionary Institute for Africa (ICMA) discusses the particularities of the churches of East Africa.
In this interview with Lucie Sarr of La Croix Africa, he tells us about the churches in Burundi, Rwanda, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania and Sudan.
La Croix Africa: What are the common characteristics of the East African churches?
Father Wilbert Gobbo: The East African Church is not very clerical. It offers a very significant role to lay people, particularly through “small Christian communities,” or what we refer to in West Africa as “basic ecclesial communities.”
Lay people do and direct everything in these small communities, including baptisms, marriages, etc.
It is true that these communities initially emerged from a decision by the bishops. However, they also place lay people at the heart of their pastoral approach.
The small Christian communities meet every Saturday. They pray, they pay their subscriptions. People know each other and provide mutual support.
Members visit the sick, help people affected by misfortune.
So pastoral aspects take priority in the churches of East Africa.
Moreover, the Church also greatly emphasizes the quality of lay formation.
What are the challenges that the East African churches face at present?
The principal challenge is in relation to the various currents of Christianity that exist. Our primary concern is to learn how to help Christians who are not very involved in the small Christian communities to resist such currents.
There are also dangers of religious syncretism. One bishop rightly said that “in Africa, it is possible to have 50 percent Christians, 50 percent Muslims and 100 percent animists.”
Next, there is the challenge of ensuring holistic development for humankind, particularly by helping the poor.
I have often observed how people from the well off social classes tend to abandon the churches.
It is noticeable that in several East African countries the bishops do not hesitate to intervene in the political arena. Is this their role?
The Church is not apolitical. Although it is not a political movement, the Church nevertheless always has a political dimension.
Since Christians live in communities involving the possibility of political abuse, it must not remain neutral.
However, there is certainly a need to identify the right way to speak of politics because a poorly placed word may negatively affect the faithful.
What action is the East African Church taking in the area of inculturation?
In East Africa, Charles Nyamiti is one of the deans of the theology of inculturation. He has even looked at inculturation within the Holy Trinity.
The East African Church tries to promote inculturation while avoiding syncretism or even mixing with pseudo-theologies, which often emerge from cultural aspects that are incompatible with the Catholic religion.
That said, the East African Church remained quite Roman for many years. However, it has tended to become less classical with the development of small Christian communities.
As a concrete example, we can see that there are choir children at each Mass who dance during the offertory procession.
But the bishops are a little hesitant to push inculturation any further.