Synodality in the African Church Avant la Lettre

Synodality is an unusual word, which has been made popular by Pope Francis. The root is the more common word “synod” made popular since Vatican II, especially with Pope Paul VI who inaugurated the synod of bishops in our modern Church. We should remember, however, that synods and synodality have been a constant traditional aspect of the Church’s life among the Eastern rite churches. We have also been hearing about synods from our other Christian denominations especially the diocesan synods of the Anglican bishops.

In the Catholic Church today, however, until now, "synod" has almost exclusively been associated with the synod of bishops with its regular meetings in Rome, often concluded by an Apostolic Post Synodal Exhortation, which summarizes the work of the synod. With these, we are now largely familiar. By focusing attention on the idea of synodality and even calling a synod on synodality, Pope Francis wants to push the idea of synod even to a much higher level of our Church consciousness. We are still to see where the process is leading. But already the attention to synodality is making an appreciable impact.

Even Pope Francis himself has often admitted that the idea of synodality is not new in the Church. Even without the precise terminology, the life and experience of the young churches in Africa show these facts. It is upon this that I want to present a few scenarios.

1. The Missionary Era

The extraordinary expansion of the faith in Africa, in the last two centuries, gives us some interesting lessons in this regard. When we talk about the missionary era in Africa, the emphasis is almost always on the foreign missionary coming from Europe. This is indeed a well-deserved emphasis, because they did a lot of serious work, thanks to the grace of God. But we should also not forget that the bulk of the work of evangelization under the missionaries was done by the African people themselves. This includes the classical catechist, the teachers, the Church community leaders, prayer leaders, and others, who in one way or the other, sought out converts and formed them into Catholic Christians. They carried the burden of the work of evangelization. They made most of the first contacts with prospective converts. They organized new communities of faith, teaching basic doctrine and leading in prayers. Most of the time, it is after such groups have been brought together, that a self-appointed catechist leader goes in search of a priest, a European missionary, who may be more than hundreds of kilometers away. It is then that the sacraments are brought to the group, especially baptism, Eucharist, Penance, and Matrimony, all of which would have been prepared by the lay leaders of the Church.

This was often a slow process over many years. Such groups, brought together first by lay people and then later given over to the foreign missionary, soon became one of the many outstations covered by the priest. The catechist is the necessary right-hand man of the Priest, without whom he would be totally ineffective. The catechist translates and interprets the message of the pastor. Please note that the catechist does not only translate what the missionary says. He also interprets it in a language and in forms that people can easily understand. He is the necessary link between the pastor and the people.

Almost all of the early outstations have now become thriving parishes, and many of the earliest parishes are now dioceses. The early converts were mainly younger people—teenagers and young adults—since the elders did not easily accept the Christian faith. Many children were also recruited, especially through the Catholic school system. Bishop Shanahan, CSSp, of Onitsha in Southern Nigeria, is famous for adopting the school system as a powerful method of evangelization. Pagan parents gladly sent their children to school, to learn the white man’s ways and they did not object if the children embraced the white man’s religion. Most adults remained attached to their traditional religions. They rarely accepted the social dislocation that conversion to Christianity often entailed, in an environment where religion and socio-political life formed one integral reality.

The elders and the chiefs who converted to Christianity had to give up many things on which their entire life rested. It was a real metanoia—a change of heart. These communities were largely organized along the lines of traditional society in the form of male and female, adults, youths, and children, leaders and followers. The missionaries did well not to interfere in their internal organization. The missionary ensured doctrinal and spiritual guidance, which was generally accepted and respected.

In this system, there was an appreciable level of economic autonomy. The people mobilized resources and supplied labor, to build appropriate pastoral structures, like village churches, schools, and living quarters for the priest, catechist, and teachers. They also raised the funds to maintain the pastoral agents mentioned above. It was not lavish, but it was adequate. After all, they themselves, the people, enjoyed a very low level of life in terms of clothing, housing, and food. In fact, the pastoral agent had a level of life a bit higher than that of the flock.

There was no talk about synodality in those days. But the reality expressed synodality in terms of consultation, subsidiarity, solidarity, and unity of purpose. Most decisions were taken locally. The bishop was often far away. And, as for the pope, it was as if he was living way off in heaven. Every section of the faith community played its own role for the good of the community under the overall supervision of the pastor. In the absence of local clergy, all pastors were white missionaries generally of the same race and nationality as the colonial officers with whom they were accorded and enjoyed high regard and respect. Very often, there was good rapport and collaboration between the two; namely the missionary and the colonial administrator. But there were also many instances of conflicts and discord, especially when colonial policies clashed with the interest of evangelization.

2. The Early Kabba Catholic Church: A Community in Synodality

To illustrate all that we have said above, I will now briefly describe the Catholic community in which I was raised. When I was born, in January 1944, my town of Kabba had become one of three parishes in the northern peripheries of the diocese of Benin. The other two parishes were Okene and Lokoja. These three parishes were also politically cut off in the then-northern region, while the rest of the diocese of Benin was in the then-western region, which was in southern Nigeria. The priests were Irish missionaries of the Society of African Missions, SMA. For us, the epitome of the missionary in our parish of Kabba was Rev Fr. J. R. Duffy, who himself was a Scottish man. He made it clear to all who cared to listen, that he was not Irish. That he was Scottish, therefore British, bestowed on him some degree of dignity in colonial circles, which his Irish confreres, including his Bishop, P. J. Kelly, did not enjoy. Fr. J. R. Duffy concluded his mission in Kabba with an honorific British imperial title: OBE, Order of the British Empire.

The Kabba Catholic community in the early 1950s was smaller than the Anglicans, the only other major Christian denomination in our town. This ratio was soon reversed after the Canadian Holy Ghost Fathers took over our parish from the Irish SMA, following the creation of an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, which was called the Prefecture of Kabba, covering the then-northern colonial Province of Kabba. It is today the State of Kogi, and the dioceses of Lokoja and Idah. This new jurisdiction was placed under the pastoral care of Monsignor Auguste Delisle, CSSp, of the Canadian province of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

The parish community was largely organized under the leadership of the laity, following the traditional age grade system. By 1953 for example, the men were arranged in the following companies, each with a saint name, from the oldest group to the last group of young adults. There was St. Anthony, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Joseph, and, finally, St. Patrick, which was the last. The women had their own group from the oldest to the youngest as follows; Sacred Heart, St. Lucy, Charity called Egbeife, St. Theresa, St. Veronica, and St. Elizabeth. Each group had a leader who was called Baba Egbe (the father of the group among the men) or Iya Egbe (the mother of the group among the women). The fathers and mothers of these associations came together to form the church committee, which in turn was headed by a parish Baba Egbe and also a parish Iya Egbe, father of the parish and mother of the parish. The committee met every weekend to discuss and decide all matters affecting the welfare of the parish. The committee operated under the overall supervision of the parish priest, to whom it deferred, especially in matters pastoral. The Baba Egbe was in regular contact with the parish priest to ensure a smooth relationship. Like the traditional chiefs, the Baba Egbe, once chosen, served for life, unless he lost his title as a result of grave moral scandal.

My late father, Bartholomew Osho Onaiyekan, held the title of the parish Baba Egbe in Kabba from 1938, as a young leader among a group of pioneer Catholics, until his death in 1995 at the age of 91. As a young boy, I grew up under the heavy aura of being an “Omo Baba Egbe”, son of the parish father. It was impressed on me that I am not expected to misbehave like other children.

In terms of synodality, the system made sure that everyone worked together, syn-hodos—male and female, young and old, everyone having a say. The children had their own forum in school or in parish activities. It is interesting to note that the reforms of Vatican II caused a major disruption in this traditional system. A laity council arrangement was introduced, which stressed periodic, democratic elections of lay leaders. This was different from leadership by permanent appointment on the basis of gender and age grades. The two systems are still running parallel in the Kabba parish community even today.

The local clergy soon began to emerge until the situation today, when all the clergy are local, with no more foreign missionaries in the diocese. The arrival of local clergy with no language barrier with the people has also affected the organization of the parish community. The parish priest now heads a parish pastoral council, made up of leaders from different parish organizations, with the age grades and gender distinctions still to some extent respected. There is also the major factor of changing village demography as urbanization has drawn away from the village community, a great number of people young and old, male and female. The parish priest and the lay leaders are facing the challenge of necessary re-adjustments.

3. The African Ecclesiology of Basic Christian Community (BCC)

Some weeks ago, the AMECEA bishops celebrated an important Golden Jubilee, which did not attract much world press coverage. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of the pastoral option of Basic Christian Communities in their region of Eastern Africa. It was an option that spread to the rest of Africa, and beyond. It was a response to the challenge of large parishes with very few priests with marginal and superficial contact with their flock. It stressed the fact that the Church is basically the gathering of the people of God, in prayer, worship, and listening to the word of God in scriptures, and witnessing in solidarity and charity to the needs of the people. This goes to the original Old Testament idea of the People of God, the Qahal Yahweh, gathered in worship.

The BCC made the Church accessible to the faithful in the smaller groups where they live and work. They gather according to the African traditional group meetings, to socialize and discuss the issues that concern the community. This pastoral option has been found to be very effective for building the Church as the Family of God, gathered around the Eucharist. It took the form of efficient zones in the urban areas and living communities in the rural settlements.

Each BCC is to a large extent autonomous, with its leaders and division of tasks and responsibilities. It organizes regular prayer sessions at times attended by the parish priest, but mainly on its own. It is a privileged forum for catechesis and continued formation of the faithful in the reading and study of the word of God in the scriptures. Life issues are also tabled for discussion for the social uplift of the people, guided by the social teachings of the Church.

The parish, under the ordained ministers, continues to be the basic structure of organization of the diocese under the bishop. The Sunday Mass in the parish center continues to be the Eucharistic reference point for the parish community. However, the BCC is the effective point of contact with the people where they live and work. It is clear that the Church of the AMECEA region had every reason to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the BCC.

I believe that we have in the BCC the main elements of what we now refer to as “synodality.” It facilitated solidarity, listening, and learning from every level of the parish community, which journeys together in spiritual progress. The Spirit has been moving the Church in this direction. I can see the present emphasis on “synodality” strengthening the efficiency of the BCC.

The idea has gone well beyond the AMECEA region. It has been found useful in other regions of Africa too. My experience in Nigeria is that the BCC system has not acquired much popular acceptance. But I believe this is because our parishes already have similar units like the BCC, in the forms of our classical outstations, and church organizations in the big urban parishes, built around pious and ethnic associations. I still believe however that we would have much to gain if we looked more carefully at the experience of our AMECEA brothers and sisters in this regard. I expect that the coming synod on synodality will also be a good opportunity for the African Church to showcase what the Spirit has been doing among us in the BCC.

4. The African Church at the Synod of Bishops

The Synod of Bishops, as restored into the Church by Pope Paul VI, has been an important feature of the life of the Church since after Vatican II. Pope St. John Paul II, in his long pontificate, made the synods a major instrument for expressing episcopal collegiality, cum et sub Petro. He vividly enjoyed the one-month sessions of the synod at the Vatican, and his attendance was always regular and punctual.

By the goodwill of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, (CBCN), I have had the grace of participating in no less than seven synods, starting from the Synod on the Laity in 1986. I am therefore in a position to affirm that the bishops of Africa took the synods very seriously. The synod rules gave every episcopal conference at least a voice at the synod, either through its delegates or by papal appointment. This is a world forum where everyone is equal, and when every contribution carries weight on its own merit. It is not like the United Nations, for example, where some nations are more equal than others. The African Synod Fathers were generally top-quality prelates who served our continent very well. It was clear that they always prepared the synod well at the grassroots level, and the delegates spoke well for the local churches from which they came to Rome. The time for interventions at the synod hall was strictly limited to five or seven minutes, and everyone tried to make the best use of this great opportunity to talk to the whole world, and to the universal Church, with the pope himself in attendance.

For the African delegates at the synod, they were in a gathering of elders and sages, where every word was weighed and properly articulated. We felt respected, listened to, and taken seriously. At the end of the synod sessions, Africa always had her three members in the fifteen prelates Council of the Synod Secretariat that continued the work of the synod, and helped the Holy Father to prepare the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. We really felt the “effective and affective collegiality” of which John Paul II often spoke. I believe this is also among those things that “synodality” wants to promote.

5. The Special Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops for Africa

The sessions of the First Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa (First African Synod, for short). which took place in 1994, took about ten years to prepare. Before this, there had been two special assemblies for Europe and Holland, which did not raise much global interest. But the “African Synod” did—the expectations were exceedingly high.

We need to recall here, however briefly, the debate over an African Council, which started much earlier, soon after Vatican II. The issue was first raised, not in ecclesiastical circles, but among some French-speaking African intellectuals, mainly living in Europe and the Caribbean. Their main medium of expression was the then-famous journal called Presence Africaine. Their concern was that Vatican II did not address the burning issues that affect Africa. This according to them was because Africa was not well represented at the Council, where most of the bishops representing Africa were foreign missionaries. This impression was to some extent valid, but not completely. It is on record that many missionary bishops from Africa spoke well on behalf of their people. In any case, they started making a case for a Council for Africa, which would deal with African concerns by Africans.

Subsequently, some African priests and theologians took up the issue, until it reached the level of the bishops, again mainly in the French-speaking community. The critical moment was when the Bishops’ Conference of the then Zaire, now Congo, under the indomitable Cardinal Malula, and the then young bishop theologian Laurent Monsengwo, adopted the project and presented it to the Holy Father, John Paul II, during an ad limina visit to Rome. The project was a major agenda at the plenary assembly of SECAM held in Lagos in 1984, my first outing in SECAM. It generated very heated debate, again mainly among French-speaking bishops (especially Malula of Kinshasa versus Doseh of Lome), and no clear conclusion was reached.

It turned out that Pope John Paul II saw some value in the project. A confidential survey was conducted among all the bishops of Africa, with a result that did not support the idea of an African Council. The pope decided that the African Church needed to meet and reflect together about the Church in Africa. He thus settled for the formula of a “special assembly of the synod of bishops.” This was announced, and a fifteen-member Council was put together, through the Synod Secretariat, in which I was a participant. Thus, was set in motion the preparation for the first “African Synod.”

A trend of rumors was spread around at that time that the African bishops wanted a Council, and the Vatican imposed a Synod on them. This is far from the truth. On the contrary, it was Pope John Paul II who rescued a beautiful idea that would have died a natural death had he not intervened in the way he did. The synod became a huge success. The late Cardinal Ian Schotte, who was for many years Secretary General of the Synod of bishops, often said that of all special regional synods, the African Synod was the best in terms of preparation, celebration, and follow-up. Ecclesia in Africa of John Paul II, the papal document, that followed that synod, is still now a valid point of reference for the pastoral orientation of the Church in Africa. In my opinion, that synod event was one of the best expressions of the spirit if synodality in our modern Church, especially in Africa.

The second assembly of the synod of bishops for Africa took place in 2002. Again, it was at the initiative of the same Pope John Paul II, who called for it during the last months of his life. It was left for his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, to confirm the synod and give the go-ahead for the preparation to continue. It was almost ten years after the first session. A survey was launched with the African bishops on whether we should have a second session. The view of the bishops of Nigeria was similar to most other conferences, that we have not yet finished implementing the first synod and that it was not yet time for another one. Whatever may have been the result of that continental survey, the pope made up his mind and called for a second assembly. With the papal decision, with the specific theme of peace and reconciliation in Africa, it soon became clear to most of us that indeed we needed another session. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the last ten years, especially in terms of peace and security in many new theatres of war and conflict in some parts of Africa. For example, there were serious concerns in West Africa and in the Horn of Africa. It was also useful to review progress where such had taken place. The session zeroed in on the fourth chapter of Ecclesia in Africa on Justice and Peace. Pope Benedict summarized the synod in the Africae Munus document. The synod also published its own message, which is worth reading along with the papal document.

These two special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops for Africa made deep impressions on the Church in our continent. They took us on an ongoing journey of faith and witness, in the ever-evolving development of the life of our people. The continental configuration of the bishops’ conferences of Africa, the SECAM, and the regional groupings of the same body, kept the inspirations of the African Synod alive across our continent until now. It is with the same enthusiasm that the Church in Africa has embraced the movement for synodality launched by Pope Francis.

6. The Synod on Synodality

The synod session underway in Rome is a synod with a difference. While synods, both ordinary and extraordinary, normally have a theme, this synod has been dedicated to the examination of what the synod is. It is not surprising that it has created some perplexity in many quarters. With no specific theme, some people seem to see it as a forum where everything will be discussed, including the very nature of the Church. All kinds of ideas and proposals have been flying around, generating concerns and anxieties among those who are more used to a Church with clear and distinct ideas, and fixed positions. They are therefore looking at the coming two-year synod event with some amount of trepidation.

The Church in Africa, however, has prepared well for this synod and I have the conviction that our delegates at the synod are going with calm serenity. Whatever the mass media may be throwing around, the African Church has worked out some clear positions and identified the priorities we expect the rest of the universal Church to take on in our present turbulent world.

Since the pope announced this synod some two years ago, the Church in Africa has got herself fully involved in its preparation, in line with the directives from the Synod Secretariat in Rome. The synodal experience started at the local level, from the parishes and dioceses to the national episcopal conferences, all preparing reports to Rome through the continental body, SECAM. From the reports of the local churches worldwide, the Rome secretariat drafted a “Document for the Continental Stage” which was dispatched back to the local churches.

SECAM set up a Continental Team for the Synod on Synodality, which comprised bishops, clergy, religious and laity, including experts in various fields, all coordinated by the secretaries of SECAM and of its regional conferences. This group of about thirty persons met twice, in Accra, Ghana in December 2022 and in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2023. Two consultants from the Rome secretariat joined in this process. The task of this group was to prepare a formal continental consultation. This took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March 2023 in an event called the African Continental Synodal Assembly (ACSA). This assembly brought together 209 participants from all over Africa, comprising all levels of the Family of God in Africa: cardinals, bishops, clergy, male and female religious, and laity, men, women, adults, and youth. It was indeed a continental synodal assembly, which promulgated a formal statement called: “Document of the African Synodal Continental Assembly. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.” It is a comprehensive document useful for anyone interested in how the Church in Africa is participating in the Synod on Synodality. It is also a vademecum for all our delegates at the synod.

The document is systematically laid out under twenty intuitions, six pertinent questions, and eight urgent priorities. From this text, it is clear that the Church in Africa has deep intuitions, pertinent questions, and urgent priorities to present to the universal Church at the synod aula. As examples, here are some of the issues raised in the document.

  • The Church in Africa has always lived out synodality from the time of the Second Vatican Council
  • We prefer the image of the Church as the family of God rather than that of the tent of Is. 54:2, which is associated with the warfare, refugees, and displacement tragedies in Africa
  • It is good to listen, but it cannot be for its own sake
  • We need to harmonize synodality with evangelization, and inclusivity with conversion
  • Opening to new ideas needs to be guided by clear principles
  • Urgent questions and priorities are raised on issues concerning the family, the unjust world economic order, the burden of Africa, true inculturation of the liturgy, women and youth in the Church, and ecological justice in the spirit of Laudato Si’

It is significant that the document was signed by the three principal officers of SECAM. These are Cardinal Ambongo of Kinshasa (President), Bishop Muandula of Xai Xai (First Vice-President), and Fr. Rafael Simbine Junior (the Secretary General). It is clearly a SECAM document. It is noteworthy too that it was “unanimously adopted” at two levels, by the “African Continental Synodal Assembly” on March 5 and later by the “Bishop delegates to the African Continental Synodal Assembly” on March 6. It seems to me that this highlights the important fact that for us in Africa, this event is still a synod of bishops. It is further noteworthy that while Cardinal Ambogo signed as “President of SECAM,” Bishop Muandula signed as “President of the African Synodal Team,” and Fr. Simbine signed as “Moderator of the African Synodal Team.” These details say a lot about how the Assembly understood the process of “Synodality” celebrated in Addis Abeba, and which our delegates have carried with them to the Rome assembly.


By way of conclusion, permit me to make a few personal observations.

The synod of bishops as we have known it since Vatican II, has been the product of Pope Paul VI. In the meantime, certain rules and regulations have been laid down to guide its procedure. These rules include who participates, who votes, and what is the level of confidentiality. All these can change, at the discretion of the pope. Pope Francis has done nothing so far beyond his papal authority. We should not be surprised therefore if some rules are changed for good reasons.

By calling a synod on synodality, Pope Francis is drawing attention to the need for all in the Church to walk together, listen to one another, broaden the forum of discussions and dialogue, and bring the Church up to date with the demands of our contemporary human relations and inter-communications. This is indeed a good thing for the Church.

There are dogmatic limits to change in the Church, of which Pope Francis is aware. We cannot begin to doubt the promise of Jesus to Peter that the gates of hell shall never prevail against his Church. At every Mass across the world, a special prayer is said for Pope Francis. Such a barrage of prayers cannot go without effect. I believe that the pope will be protected from misleading the Church of God. But this does not stop the pope from raising issues that agitate the minds of people, encouraging frank discussions and listening to different voices. In this regard, I often advise people to try to learn the language of Pope Francis. Sometimes people misunderstand him, especially the secular media, which always seems to be looking for some clamorous news. When I see some things in the media, I always wait to read from authentic sources, which invariably clarify the issues for me.

God is doing something great in our continent of Africa. Governance, the economy, and the state of insecurity are all major concerns. But the Spirit is blowing as he wills in the Church, we see this especially in the Family of God in Africa. The faith of the people is sincere and vibrant. God is generous with vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. We do not know for how long this will continue. But for as long as it lasts, we praise the Lord and celebrate his goodness to us. The synod is a privileged forum to showcase what the Lord is doing in our midst and invite the rest of the Church to celebrate with us in collegiality and synodality.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was originally delivered at the University of Notre Dame as lecture entitled, "Synodality in the Church: An African Perspective," sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life. Our sincere thanks go out to Fr. Paulinus Odozor and John Cavadini for making this reprint possible.

Featured Image: The installation of Abp. Kaigama as Abp. of Abuja ; Source: Website of Archdiocese of Abuja, Fair Use.


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John Cardinal Onaiyekan was Archbishop of Abuja from 1994 to 2019 and was made a cardinal in 2012.

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