The demanding dialogue between faith and culture: the theological legacy of Pope Benedict XVI in Africa

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has left his mark on theological research in Africa, particularly on the issue of dialogue between faith and culture. For Father Léonard Santedi, Congolese theologian and former member of the International Theological Commission, the theological legacy of the late Pope remains relevant to Africa.

Interview by Christian Kombe, SJ – Vatican City

Father Léonard Santedi has been a theologian, professor and rector of the Catholic University of Congo (UCC) since 2016. This prolific author, former secretary general of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), is also a member of the Theological Commission international.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI left us on Saturday, December 31, 2022. How do you feel now, after the announcement of this news?

First of all, I want to say that I thank God for giving humanity the figure of this great theologian, to lead the Church as Pope, to renew evangelization. I am truly grateful to this man who gave letters of nobility to Catholic theology. I had the joy of working at the International Theological Commission. He was its first president, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, before becoming Pope. So I give a hearty salute to this servant of God who closes his eyes to the light of this world to open them to the light of eternity.

Among the milestones of Benedict XVI’s pontificate are the holding of the second Synod of Bishops on Africa and the publication of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus, around the themes of reconciliation, justice and peace. What do you remember about this event and this text? Is his message still relevant?

Absolutely. His message is more relevant than ever. You know, Pope John Paul II who, in 2004, announced the second synod of bishops for Africa. And Pope Benedict, as soon as he was elected Pope, confirmed the holding of this second African synod, which was in 2005, giving it a central and fundamental theme of reconciliation, justice and peace.

Indeed, in an Africa plagued by problems of violence and fratricidal wars, the Pope wants the Church to review its mission. He wanted this second synod, as he said, to be a new Pentecost for Africa. His desire is that the churches on the continent really put themselves at the service of the African people. Africa must become, according to its will, the “spiritual lungsof humanity that seems to be in a crisis of faith and hope.

Benedict XVI wanted it as a synod of Pentecost, a synod of hope; a hope that does not relieve us of our responsibilities, on the contrary, a hope that embraces the roughness of history, the upheavals and changes of history, but commands Christians, the Churches of Africa , to work for an Africa of hope, of faith, of charity.

And he concluded this document, Africae Munusin these words:lean in, get up, he calls you» (Mark 10, 49): Africa, have faith. Christ is calling you to stand. It is a call to carry out the work for a new Africa, an Africa of reconciliation, justice, peace; a peace which is not only the absence of war, but a peace which is the abundance of messianic goods, fulfillment, realization.

Benedict XVI on an apostolic trip to Angola

You mentioned the figure of Benedict XVI as a theologian. And certainly, one of the important themes of African theology is inculturation. What is Pope Benedict XVI’s contribution to theological research in Africa?

We can remember from this Pope that he really reflected on three theological virtues. His first encyclical letter, Deus caritas is, is a meditation on love. He reflected on hope in his second encyclical (sp salvi). And he also wanted to reflect on the faith, work that Pope Francis will do and finish with the encyclical Lumen fidei.

At the heart of this theological reflection on the theological virtues lies the work of dialogue between faith and culture, the work of inculturation. It needs work, because it is not a simple adaptation. For me, Pope Benedict XVI’s contribution to this question is to invite us to consider culture as a dynamic reality, as a force. It is to invite African men and women and theologians to consider inculturation as a demanding dialogue between faith and culture, which brings about a new birth. This dialogue incorporates bothincarnation – the Word made flesh, entering our culture, – the redemption– Passover, death and resurrection: not only accepting the culture as it is, but also being critical of it, – and the Pentecost, the dimension of creativity, creativity and invention. And in this sense, Pope Benedict XVI spoke a lot about interculturality. Thus inculturation becomes a force of renewal for the Churches and for African societies.

Following Pope Benedict, we began a movement of reflection on “faith, culture and development “. He gave us the strength to work on inculturation so that it could truly produce a new Church, a rebirth of our Africa.

Father Santedi, Benedict XVI did not go to Congo as Pope, but he went there as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, especially in 1987 for the meeting with the doctrinal commissions of ‘Africa. What memories do we have of him in the Church of the Congo?

It must be said that this visit was seen as questioning the great research movement at the African level. It is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who will come and who, perhaps, wants to clarify things, invite us to walk together. But despite this understanding, as the work continued, we saw a theologian who was attentive to all reflections. He did not slow down the movement. And so I say that there is a call to go in the direction of being inventive. Furthermore, it must be recognized, this is also what pushed the Church-family of God in the Congo to work on this inculturation at the liturgical level. There has been a movement, but it is still necessary to sit down, write the texts and finally present what is recognized as the Roman Missal for the dioceses of Zaire.

In fact, this visit has the positive aspect of showing us that inculturation is an inchoative movement, which is not yet complete, and that the dialogue between faith and culture is a dialogue that must be continued continuously, a demanding dialogue , which goes into the details, into the depth of what culture is. Because culture is always a way of living in the world and this way is not static. He is dynamic. And through dialogue with other cultures one also realizes the shadows and light of one’s own culture. So, in this sense, a person can work in his culture and receive the Gospel that becomes like leaven that permeates this culture.

It is also important for Africans to show that the reading of the movement is perhaps not well done on the other side; to show that inculturation is not a movement to destroy the unity of the Church, to make itself singular or to cut off all universality. On the contrary, I would say that inculturation is a necessity of revelation: that revelation which considers humanity in its consistency through the mystery of the incarnation; this revelation that transforms humanity through the mystery of redemption and this revelation that calls us at Pentecost, to creativity, to say what the Spirit says in our Churches.

Father Léonard Santedi, your last word.

If there is one word that I finally remember from Pope Benedict XVI, it is that he is the pope of love. Its first encyclical letter was Deus caritas is,”God is love“. This Pope will give over time, eight years of his papacy, the new breath of love as strength. He will even say the Eucharist as “sacramentum caritatis», the sacrament of love. And when he had to reflect on the social doctrine of the Church, he would talk about “Caritas in truth», love of truth. He would rightly say that this love is the essential dynamic force for the true development of each person and of humanity as a whole.

May the Lord accept this man who spent himself as a servant of love. May he receive him in his happiness, in his glory, and may the Church continue to reflect on love as strength and faith as light.

Interview with Father Léonard Santedi

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