Encounters between Catholics and Protestants in Africa was the theme of an Ecumenical Conference held in Nairobi recently. The conference was organised by the Nairobi-based Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa (JHIA). The Ecumenical dialogue brought together over twenty Protestant and Catholic academicians and an audience of over sixty participants. The week-long conference was designed as part of the larger commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther.
Organiser of the conference, Jesuit priest and Director of the JHIA, Fr. Festo Mkenda told Vatican Radio that although the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther was a mostly European affair, it has had wider and far-reaching implications on Christianity in Africa.
“It occurred to me that nothing much was being done in Africa (to commemorate the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther). People felt, ‘well, the Protestant Reformation in 1517 was really a European affair.’ For me that was wrong. It was wrong because the Protestant Reformation shaped Christianity in ways that will never be reversed. Christianity, today, whether Catholicism or of any other form, has been shaped by the Protestant Reformation. .. so we Christians in Africa are actually heirs of what happened in 1517. The third wave of Evangelisation in Africa started in the 19th Century with Protestant missionaries who came to Africa. Quickly Catholics warmed to the idea and also came to Africa. With that, there was that competition that has continued to mark African Christianity,” said Fr. Festo who is an expert in African Political history.
He says Africans have always known Christianity in its varied form because of the Protestant Reformation. The Nairobi conference was thus an opportunity for Protestants and Catholics to reflect on that experience of encountering one another over the centuries on the African continent.
Fr. Festo emphasised that the meeting was an appreciation of the history of Christianity on the continent encompassing both successes and challenges. The papers presented examined encounters from various perspectives in a cordial spirit of Ecumenism. He expressed satisfaction with the quality of papers presented as well as the discussions that ensued after every paper. The papers presented will be published in book form in order to make them available to a wider audience.
Set up in 2009, at the instigation of the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa is fast becoming an important centre and a required port of call for researchers of history in Africa. From initially being Jesuit-centred, the vision and centre have since expanded.
“Our vision had to become broader to embrace not just Jesuit history and Christian history in Africa … Actually, we now embrace African history, cultures and traditions, African religions and that includes Islam because Islam is part and parcel of African culture,” said Fr. Festo.
(Fr. Paul Samasumo/ Rose Achiego, Vatican Radio)