An African Catholic leader visiting Columbus in late September said the chief concern among bishops of his continent who will gather at the Vatican in October involves maintaining the unity of the church in the midst of ethnic disputes in several nations.
"This is something that cuts across national borders and affects all of us in Africa, even if we aren't directly involved," said Cardinal Peter Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana.
"Our ethnic differences are a good and beautiful thing, which God bestowed to show how his image can be seen in many ways," he added. "They're nobody's 'fault,' yet they have become a great stumbling block hindering the cohesiveness that needs to exist in the church."
As examples, Cardinal Turkson cited disputes in Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria and Kenya that together have resulted in the deaths and forced resettlement of millions of people.
"Politicians have made use of this to further their own ends and to cause division, creating a tremendous challenge to our efforts as Catholics to be part of one great family in the strong tradition of African families," he said in an interview with The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Columbus Diocese.
The cardinal said that, during the Synod of Bishops for Africa at the Vatican Oct. 4-25, the African bishops also planned to spend considerable time discussing relations between Muslims and Christians on the continent.
"Historically, Islam and Christianity have existed peacefully alongside each other, but the last few decades have brought to some places a type of Islam different than what we're used to," said the cardinal, who will be the synod's recording secretary. "This is a more aggressive form, one which seems to have more of a spirit of competition than cooperation and wants to make its presence known through building mosques that say 'We're here.'"
Cardinal Turkson, who at age 61 is Africa's youngest cardinal, said relations between the two religions in his own nation always have been cordial, and he anticipates they will remain that way.
He said the church throughout Africa also is facing a challenge from evangelical Protestants who are trying to recruit Catholics to join their churches. This situation also exists in the United States, where he said it's not unusual for people to leave the church after coming from Africa as Catholics because they find an evangelical church which has made an effort to appeal to them.
"This is not something to bemoan," he said. "It's actually a healthy situation which provides us with an opportunity to better discover how we should respond to these efforts."
He said it shows that Catholics need to go beyond the "notional Christianity" of intellectually accepting the church's teachings to a deeper form of faith characterized by a personal conversion experience.
"When I talk about the need for conversion, I don't want to scare people," he said. "Not all of us have a dramatic conversion experience like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
"For most of us, conversion comes as it did to St. Peter, in a way where sometimes you stumble and sink, until one day you realize you have found the Lord," he said. "That was how my conversion experience occurred. It resulted in a decision to make more and more room in my life for grace, for the presence of the Lord."
During his Sept. 19-22 stay in Columbus, Cardinal Turkson took part in a prayer service and two Sunday Masses at St. Anthony Church, including the monthly Mass celebrated by the central Ohio Ghanaian Catholic community in the Twi dialect of the Akan language of Ghana. About 200 people from central and southwest Ohio attended the Mass.
He also met Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and other city officials at City Hall and was honored by the City Council at the Ghanaian Mass, with the council president, Mike Mentel, presenting him a framed certificate and symbol of Columbus. In addition, he spoke to students at the Pontifical College Josephinum and took part in an hourlong live interview on St. Gabriel Radio.
"A lot of things are happening I didn't expect," he said. "I thought this would be a quiet visit, but it seems my presence is being shouted from the rooftops. That's how my life has changed since becoming a cardinal."
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