By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) celebrates its fifty-first anniversary on 2 August this year.
The continental symposium is a common forum for Bishops in Africa and Madagascar to voice their respective opinions on matters concerning the Church on the African continent.
Founded in 1969, SECAM was born of the wish of African Bishops during the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) to create a structure to bring forth the African vision to the universal Church.
Ahead of this year’s event, SECAM First Vice President, South Africa’s Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Umtata, spoke to Vatican News in an interview. He shares his reflections on SECAM Day and the role of the Church in Africa. Bishop Sipuka is also the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC)
Bishop Sipuka said the annual celebration of SECAM Day provides the opportunity to create more awareness about the forum and its activities among the faithful.
At the same time, it is an occasion to “invite the laity to pray for the continent as a Church in its evangelizing mission.”
According to SECAM’s recently-released message for the occasion, the day is “set aside for all members of the Church-Family of God in Africa and the surrounding Islands to thank God for the gift of mother Africa, for the gift of one another and for the gift of the Christian faith.”
“It also provides an opportunity to pray for the well-being of SECAM, for the spirit of unity, communion and solidarity amongst the Bishops, the clergy, the religious and lay faithful.”
Especially in this time of Covid, Bishop Sipuka said, we need “solidarity of prayer, mutual concern and support where it is possible through resources, finances and other means.”
Normally, SECAM Day is marked on 29 July, the anniversary of the day the forum was founded in 1969. However, because the day is an occasion to further inform people about the existence of the forum, celebrations are usually shifted to the following Sunday when 29 July falls on a weekday.
51 years of engagement
Highlighting SECAM’s engagements on the continent, Bishop Sipuka explained that the forum is active in a wide range of concerns affecting the Church.
As regards evangelization, he said that the SECAM Bishops noted how much the faith has grown in Africa compared to other continents during last year’s Jubilee celebrations in Uganda.
Evangelization has, in turn, resulted in an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. “Over eighty percent of the Church in Africa is led by African Bishops,” Bishop Sipuka remarked.
The Church is also very visible in social engagement. In some countries, “the Church has more hospitals and schools than the state,” he said.
Also, the Bishops’ forum has a Department for Evangelization as well as a Department of Justice and Peace which engages directly with political, social and environmental matters, among others.
On the political front, Bishop Sipuka said SECAM has made interventions to bring about peace in unstable countries on the continent. He pointed out that SECAM currently has an observer’s seat at the African Union (AU). There the Bishops try to “influence discussions about Africa.”
Aims of SECAM
In all of these, Bishop Sipuka continued, the Bishops’ forum has prioritized the idea of making “identity as communion” a central character of its presence and ecclesiology on the continent.
“We are one Catholic Church and I think that this must find its expression in concrete ways,” he said, “at the universal, continental, regional, national and diocesan levels.”
“We need to express this unity of the Church – even if it is only symbolically,” he added.
Bishop Sipuka listed a second key element that SECAM represents: the principle of subsidiarity.
He explained that in the 1960s when SECAM was formed, Africa was in the process of becoming independent from colonial countries. “There was a sense of Africa taking its future in its hands,” he said. And this led to “a desire to give expression to the local leadership that was emerging” as more African Bishops were getting ordained to replace foreign ones.
According to the Bishop, SECAM was formed “to affirm the subsidiarity element of leadership: that Bishops in Africa are taking responsibility in leading the Church forward in collaboration with the universal Church.”
A third and no less essential part of SECAM’s purposes is to “encourage a contextualized understanding of faith, theologically speaking,” he said.
Responding to a question about the ongoing health emergency in Africa, Bishop Sipuka underscored the importance of the Church’s role as an agent of hope.
“The Church needs to engage with authorities and governments to find effective ways of mitigating the effects of Covid,” he said.
Pastorally, the Church is “to make people aware that in spite of this situation, God is present,” he said, adding that “we need to bring a message of hope that God is with us and we will pull through this.”
“The Church also needs to be part of the discussions about economic reformation,” he said pointing out that this pandemic has laid bare the economic inequalities in the world. “This situation now gives us the providential time to raise questions so that in the future, when such tragedies occur again, not so many people will be so negatively affected.”
Bishop Sipuka concluded by appealing to the baptismal obligations of the faithful to “be brothers and sisters and do what they can in terms of assisting and supporting each other” amid these trying times.