Title:The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III

Editor: Aghbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ

Publisher: Acton Publishers, Nairobi, Kenya

Number of pages: 272

Year of publication: 2016

Price: Kenya Shillings: 1,800 (US $18.00);; P.O. Box 74419-00200, Nairobi, Kenya

This book can locally be purchased at:

Keswick Bookshop

Bruce House, Kaunda Street

P.O. Box 1042

Nairobi, Kenya 00100

Telephone: 020-2226047                                                                  

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Hekima University College
Jesuit School of Theology (off Ngong Road)
P. O. Box 21215
Nairobi, Kenya 00505

Telephone: 020-3860102

Cellphone: 0734-201288/0722-201288

Reviewer      : Francis Njuguna

The Catholic Church in Africa is looking ways of being Christian today. One of the ways being advocated, and in a particular by some Catholic theological scholars, is to initiate and promote Conversation or Palaver Theology to articulate this move. A most effective way of pursuing this move is by organizing theological debates, from where new theological books on various issues are being worked on.

A good example is a three-year theological program where theological debates have been organized and materials for new books have been published under the theme: “Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa (TCCRSA).” A number of Catholic theologians/scholars have already participated in these debates, some of whom have had their contributions published in books and journals.

The book under review: The Church We Want: African Catholics Look to Vatican III is one such outcome.

The book contains 19 well researched and structured essays that are treated under three distinct sections, namely: The Francis Effect and the Church in Africa; Critique of Theological Methodology and Ecclesial Practice; and A Church That Goes Forth with Boldness and Creativity.

In his introductory message to the new book, Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, SJ, the book’s editor, emphasizes: “In this process of envisioning Vatican III, rather than giving free reign to the imagination to run wild, theological ideas are expressed and debated in a respectful process of mutually enriching conversation.”

This, he stresses, is the principle for the selection of the book’s essays. The adoption of the metaphor of Vatican III points perceptively to the future horizons of path that open up for the church. According to him, “If in fact Vatican III happens, the church would be well served to consider these initial conversations as a useful catalyst for, and preliminary elaboration of, the task of the theological inquiry and a more incisive understanding of the identity and mission of the church in the twenty-first century.

In his essay entitled: Beyond Vatican II: Imagining the Catholic Church of Nairobi I, Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey, MM recommends the use of the Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as a new way of being Christian in the Catholic Church today (pages 198-211).  “As we evolve an agenda for Vatican III — or Nairobi I — or any venue in the world let us journey ahead together and let us be bold and creative,” the Maryknoll missionary priest of many years of pastoral service in Africa and renowned promoter of SCCs in Africa underlines.

Our process or method should be open, flexible, inculturated, contextual, collegial, decentralized, and inclusive, a “big tent” approach to the changes and development in the Catholic Church as a World Church according to Healey. Whether be it (alphabetically) Eucharistic (Communion), family, governing, lay leadership, liturgy, marriage, pastoral ministry, ordination, restricting, or SCCs, it is obvious that one size does not fit all. We need “devolved” authority structures and decisions-making processes,” he emphasizes. Different pastoral practices will develop in local committees “from below” in different countries and cultures according to him. He emphasizes the teaching behind one of the famous African proverbs to the effect that, If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together. The same proverb is popular in Western countries according to the author.

“These theological conversations and searches for pastoral solutions are not just for Africa but that they are important for the World Catholic Church,” Healey underlines. “Specifically some of these issues are relevant for the Catholic Church in North America and Europe. Three examples are the married priesthood and the Eucharist; formation, marriage and the priesthood; and restructuring, lay ecclesial ministries, SCCs, and family ministry.”

African Christian Conversational Theology is both the name of a process or method of theology and the name of the type of the content of theology (like liberation theology) according to Healey. “As we walk together, we continue to integrate African process or method and African content,” he has underlined. This African process or method, the author affirms, focuses on conversational, active dialogue, intensive listening and learning from each other (described as “listening in conversation”) and consensus. He stresses that the African content focuses on inculturation and contextualization starting with the concrete, practical experiences needs of the African people on the grassroots level. On the SCCs and their active involvement in the promotion of this now advocated Conversation or the Palaver Theology, Healey reminds that SCCs are today proving as quite a new way of being (becoming) church and as well as a new Pastoral Model of Church.

“The rich experience of the Church in Eastern Africa, especially that of the pastoral, parish –based SCCs, is contributing to the church in other parts of Africa and the World Church,” the author stresses. According to him, SCCs offers a pastoral model of church integrally connected to the structures and ministries of the parish. This helps local Catholics feel that “they are the church” and more responsible for church life and decision making (thus having “ownership” in the church).  “Experiments of pastoral restructuring have taken place in Eastern African dioceses such as Same Diocese in Tanzania.”

Research in Africa shows that there are over 180,000 SCCs in the Catholic Church in the nine AMECEA (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa) countries.  Over 60,000 are spread out in Tanzania, while over 45,000 are spread out in Kenya. “Since 1976 SCCs have been a key pastoral priority in Eastern Africa as a “New Way of Being (Becoming) Church” and a “New Pastoral Model of Church,” Healey emphasizes.

On page 190, the author quotes Pope Francis who  reminds us that pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says, “We have always done it this way. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structure, styles and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory. I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear. The important thing is not walk alone, but to rely on each other as brothers and sisters, and especially under the leadership of the bishops, in a wise and realistic pastoral discernment.” (No. 33 of The Joy of the Gospel).  

Other essays in The Church We Want can also stimulate our thinking and pastoral practice in Africa to be bold and creative.

Francis Njuguna

Nairobi, Kenya