THE OFFICIAL OPENING SPEECH
7TH PLENARY ASSEMBLY OF THE CATHOLIC BIBLICAL FEDERATION
Tanzania Episcopal Conference
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Africa
June 24 to July 3, 2008
By: Hon. Pius Msekwa, Former Speaker of the Tanzania Parliament,
***currently Vice-Chairman of the Ruling Party (CCM)
Hon. Pius Msekwa
Distinguished Representatives of the member Institutions of the Catholic Biblical Federation,
Invited Guests, Brothers and Sisters in Christ
It is indeed a great honor and privilege for an ordinary layman like me, to have been invited to perform an official opening function of the 7th Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Biblical Federation. I was very pleasantly surprised by that invitation, and I am absolutely delighted to be here.
Let me start by joining your official hosts for this Conference, the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, in warmly welcoming all our foreign guests to Tanzania in general, and to Dar es Salaam in particular.
From Lebanon to Dar es Salaam
I am aware that your last Plenary Assembly, which was the 6th in the series, was held in Lebanon, the land of the Bible, the land which was visited by Jesus Christ himself; and the land where the Gospel was preached by the first Ministers of the Word of God.
From Lebanon, you have come to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Tanzania is a land of peace, free from both political instability and social or religious conflicts. And Dar es Salaam means ‘the haven of peace’. This combination should provide a very appropriate setting for your deliberations on the theme of this Conference, which is ‘the Word of God –source of reconciliation, justice and peace’.
I am happy to join hands with all other men of goodwill, in praying for the success of this Conference.
Feeling Inadequate to the task
Hon. Pius Msekwa
However, before I proceed any further, I must first of all make a confession, regarding two personal inadequacies which afflict me as I stand here before you this morning. These are:
First, my inadequate knowledge or actually ignorance, regarding the existence of the Catholic Biblical Federation.
I must humbly admit that for me personally, and I suspect, for many other Tanzanians like myself, this is the first time ever that we are being exposed to the existence of the Catholic Biblical Federation and the excellent work which is being done throughout the world by this high-profile Organization. I am thus heavily disadvantaged by this ignorance.
But then, this helps to underscore the significance of your decision to hold the current Plenary Assembly here in Tanzania. This decision has fortunately enabled many of us here to get o know what we did not know before, namely, the important mandate which was given to you ‘to implement the directives of the Second Vatican Council concerning Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church’, and to learn about your unequivocal commitment to this noble mandate.
This newly acquired knowledge will certainly enable those of us who were previously unaware, to now participate meaningfully in assisting to carry forward your work towards the realization of your objectives.
Secondly, I wish to recognize with humility, my own inadequacy as a lay member of the Church, having to address such a distinguished gathering of Church dignitaries consisting of Cardinals, Bishops, Priests and other learned persons, who have vastly superior knowledge, wisdom, and accumulated experiences than myself in matters relating to the teachings of the Church and the Word of God.
Hence, I must confess that I felt a little apprehensive and nervous, at the prospect of speaking before this eminent Assembly. But now that I am here, I will do the best I can.
After these preliminary remarks, let me now proceed to carry out my assignment of officially opening this Conference, by saving a few words in relation to its specified theme, which is “the Word of God – Source of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.”
Addressing the theme of the Conference
The Conference program shows clearly that you have very serious, substantial, and professional tasks to be performed during the week of your meetings here. It shows, for example, that the Conference is scheduled to make a sociological analysis of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace; and also assess reconciliation, justice and peace in the light of the Word of God. It shows further that there will be a full session on ‘exposure to the African context’, including an encounter with the local Church.
Let me therefore say a few words regarding this agenda…
I expect that the Conference will examine in detail how the ministers and servants of the Word, in collaboration with the members of the Laity, should design our response of turning to the Word of God as the vision of our lives; but above all, as the source of divine power. The Spirit and the Word can overtake us and empower us, as happened in the case of the Apostles, provided we allow the Word to have a claim on our lives and on the life of the Church. The emerging power of the Word can be felt only in an obedient surrender, like that of Abraham and of the Apostles, whose ministry we regularly contemplate as we read the Word in the Acts of the Apostles.
For example, there is the question which was posed by Pope Paul VI in Evangeli Nunciandi, asking ‘what happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful influence on man’s concurrence’? This question still continues to challenge us. We do know that God’s Word is creative. It is the Word of power for renewal and transformation. Our task therefore is to seek ways of making the Word of God the source of energy in the heart of the Church and the whole world. This will bring about a change of consciousness, a change of behavior, and a change of structure. All of this is part of the mission of the Church, for all activities of the Church are, in one way or another, the ministry of the Word. The Church has the Word right at the center of her mission.
The Word as the source of life
How can we experience the Word as the source of life? Without the light and grace of the Spirit, the Word will not generate the energy needed for the transformation of life and society. Hence, prayer, accompanied by hard work, should become the hallmark of the ministry of the Word. At this moment in history, we should listen to the pressing invitation of the Word of God for a deeper conversion and deeper evangelization of our vision, our attitudes and our behavior towards other groups in our Society, be they religious, cultural or ethnic groups. But we must give special consideration to the poor, and all those who are victims of exclusion and discrimination in our Societies. Reading the Word of God should lead us to inner transformation, because the Word of God comes to us with its power to impel us to live in solidarity, namely in union and communion. It is only when we feel the irresistible power of the Spirit that we can become effective instruments of transformation.
Creative ways of proclaiming the Word
We have to reiterate our commitment to a self-critique of our way of reading scriptures in the Church, either individually or collectively, by asking ourselves the following pertinent questions:
Do we facilitate the power of the Word to have an impact on the problems of Society? Have we, perhaps unconsciously, used the texts of Scripture to legitimize attitudes of superiority or discrimination, or violence, against others? Fundamentalist and purely spiritualistic interpretations of the Scripture have become a growing phenomenon in almost all Churches. The Biblical Pastoral Ministry has an urgent task of countering a sectarian and fundamentalist reading of the Word of God, an approach which builds walls of separation and discrimination. The Word of God in Sacred Scripture releases its power only if it is read properly. In fact, the Bible itself teaches us the option for reading it properly, and for living the Word of God. Selecting the correct options will enable us to remain faithful both to the original message, and to the people to whom it is proclaimed as good news.
The situation in Africa
This Assembly is being held in Africa, and one of the sessions of this Conference is listed as ‘Exposure to the African Context’. This indeed is quite appropriate. It is appropriate because it is completely in line with the theme of the forthcoming Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, which is scheduled to be held next year, 2009. Its theme has already been specified by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to be ‘The Church of Africa, in service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace’. For that reason, I beg your indulgence to spend the next few minutes talking about Africa, in the context of this conference.
The current major challenges in Africa
One of the major challenges in Africa today is the comparative lack of success in both the political and economic fields of human endeavor. This is partly attributable to the multi-ethnic composition of the African States. For ethnic pluralism is often the cause of tensions within the States of Africa. The question here is: How can this pluralism be transformed into a positive, constructive factor, and not one which leads to divisions and rivalries? In some African States, persistent social tensions impede progress, and lead to political disturbances and even armed conflicts, for example when peace is sometimes confused with tranquility imposed by force. There is also the challenge of the temptation to keep power for overly long periods in the hands of one person as Head of State and government, often to the detriment of the economy and good governance of the country concerned.
Another major challenge is the influence on African States by external factors. While it is true that almost all of the African States lived through a long and sad history of exploitation at the hands of colonialists; it is also true that the factor of exploitation did not terminate with de-colonization. It still endures even today in different forms, including the crushing burden of international debts, the unjust trade practices, and the severe conditions imposed by World Bank sponsored programs of structural adjustments.
In addition, there is the challenge of dishonesty on the part of corrupt government leaders who, usually in connivance with domestic and foreign private interests, divert substantial national resources to their own private ends by transferring public funds to their private accounts in foreign banks.
Therefore, the question here is: Given this sad state of affairs, How can the Church in Africa assist in devising ways and means to encourage honest politicians to protect public funds from misuse and embezzlement?
The Church in service to Reconciliation, Peace and Justice in Africa
Africa provides us with both the positive and the negative aspects regarding the issues of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.
On the positive side, there are many splendid and encouraging efforts of reconciliation in a number of the countries of Africa. The monitors and promoters of these efforts are often persons or groups who are deeply committed to, and motivated by, Christian values of love and forgiveness, as enlightened by the Biblical notion of justice. But Africa also provides examples of the negative aspects, which include the absence of justice and peace caused by the presence of hatred, of the desire for revenge, and of endless human conflicts. Those who have absorbed the teachings of the Church do understand clearly that the Church’s mission is to proclaim the news of salvation, a salvation that fees man, (the entire man) every man and in every way: spiritually, physically, morally, culturally, economically and socially. This is the mission of the Church – Family of God in Africa. All members of the Church are called to this task, whatever their situation or circumstances in life.
Some Specific Aspects
But apart from those general tasks, there are certain specific aspects which require specific attention. And these should be carefully noted. The first is in relation to the concept of mutual respect and acceptance of each other. One guaranteed remedy against the deadly virus of discrimination is a strong conviction and adherence to the culture of mutual respect and the acceptance of human equality. This requires a break from the negative forms of solidarity, that is, those which originate from overemphasis on the individual’s ethnic group, or tribe.
The second aspect is in relation to reconciliation and forgiveness. With regard to the concept of reconciliation, it is important to note that in the light of the South African post-apartheid experience, the term “reconciliation” has acquired the limited meaning of ‘the elimination of animosity, or an end to violence’.
It is obvious that such a narrow meaning does not necessarily include the re-establishment of peace in the hearts of men. Forgiveness refers more to the internal work within a person, to heal the ‘wound’ in him and regain peace. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “there can be no peace without justice and no justice without forgiveness”. This is because human beings are sinful beings.
The responsibility of the Church in this regard is to direct its pastoral activities to the task of bringing those who are at fault to a process leading to conversion and recognition of their errors or crimes; and to help the victims generously offer their forgiveness.
The third aspect is poverty and violence. Poverty is in fact the most central issue, for poverty is a recipe for unrest. Violence is oftentimes caused by poverty. It is an indisputable fact that life for many ordinary people living in this Continent is an appalling state while at the same time there is no hope that the situation will normalize any time soon. It has been said that ‘a hungry man is an angry man’. In many areas, especially urban areas, where people don’t grow their own food, and yet have no regular employment, there is a very high level of nutrition deficiency, which in turn impedes healthy growth and tends to propel such angry people into violent acts against others.
Violence and Peace are Cultural Entities
We have already observed that violence is oftentimes caused by poverty, as a reaction to growing social isolation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. But obviously, the real solution to violence is not to be found in social justice alone. Violence has also a cultural element in it. Hence, efforts must be made to create, or recreate, a culture of peace among people. Both non-violence and peace are cultural entities. Therefore, they must be built, or taught and learnt.
Peace requires the ministry of the Word of God because peace is primarily a gift from God. If the Church has the vocation to be the sign and sacrament of peace, She must be involved in educating people on how to achieve peace. And this is indeed what was done by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in his message on the occasion of the World Day of Peace in January 2007. Among other things, Pope Benedict said: “If it is true that peace is both a gift from God and a task because peace between individuals and peoples, (that is the ability to live together and to build relationships of justice and solidarity), calls for unfailing commitment on their part; it is also true and indeed more so, that peace is a gift from God. It is an aspect of God’s activity made manifest both in the creation of an orderly and harmonious universe and also in the redemption of humanity from sin. We are thus called upon to understand that peace is a task which requires individuals who live together to build relationships of justice and solidarity.
Africa’s Economic Plight
In April 2008, the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, expressed profound optimism about the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and notably Goal 1, which relates to fighting against poverty. With regard to Africa, he stated that ‘primary school enrolment has increased significantly in a number of African countries, while in others, immense progress has been recorded in the fight against malaria; while economic growth is averaging 5% across Africa alone.
But as the UN Secretary-General was selling the positives of the fight against poverty and the achievements of MDGs, the effects of the unprecedented world food crisis were already starting to hit developing nations, especially African countries, where the prices of almost all food crops increased significantly and chronic food shortage were recorded.
Unable to make ends meet, populations in some of these countries started rioting against the soaring food prices and food scarcity. Consequently, some governments started panicking as the food situation threatened the political and economic stability of their jurisdictions.
Yet all efforts seemed to yield very little results. It is now estimated that over 100 million people have fallen into poverty over the last two years, as a worldwide food crisis washes out the progress which had been made in the fight against global poverty. It is also estimated that some 800 million people are suffering from hunger, the vast majority of them in developing countries; and further that over 24,000 people die each day from the effects of hunger.
This Challenge requires an African Solution
Unfortunately, going by the experience of previous crises, some African leaders have always waited for externally conceived and driven solutions. But in fact, such external solutions are often un-adaptable to realities on the ground and more often impractical.
Considering that Africa possesses immense natural resources, it is obvious that with the required political will and an environment of hard working populations, food production in Africa should be sufficient and enough to feed her people. Perhaps a gentle push from the Church is needed, and if given, it certainly would be immensely helpful.
The Role of The Church’s Evangelizing Mission
For the Church in Africa, the connection existing between her evangelizing mission and human promotion should be an inseparable bond between her vocation and her mission, because the salvation in Jesus Christ which she proclaims, concerns man in his entirety. As was stated at the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar in Kinshasa in 1984, “to evangelize is to develop man in all the dimensions of his vocation as a child of God”. This bond is made concrete in relation to human promotion, such as education, health, aid to the needy, development projects, defense of human rights and good governance.
The Question of Good Governance needs Special Emphasis
It is His Holiness Pope John Paul II who said that “the greatest challenge to achieving peace and justice in Africa consisted in the good administration of public affairs, in the two interrelated areas of politics and the economy” (ref. Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa). His Holiness continued: The suffering of the African peoples is, to a great extent, linked to bad administration in these two areas. This is a major challenge to evangelization in Africa.”
There is no doubt at all that bad governance is the source of injustice and conflicts. It is adequately highlighted in the social teachings of the Catholic Church, and was given appropriate emphasis in the encyclical letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI which is titled: “On the development of Peoples”; that the Peoples major aspirations are for freedom from misery; greater assurance of obtaining sustenance, health services, education, an increased share of responsibility through meaningful participation in the decision-making process; and security from situations which violate their personal dignity. There are just too many examples of undesirable consequences arising out of bad governance. The sources of poverty, human suffering, instability, civil war, and unresolved conflicts, can easily be traced back to bad governance.
In my considered opinion, the Church has a clear obligation to actively address this fundamental issue of bad governance wherever it occurs, because it is directly harmful to the existence of peace and justice among the people of God. This issue is obviously closely associated with the healing role of the Church, more specifically, healing in its relation to politics, the economy and culture.
We learn from the Bible (ref. Luke 9:6; Mark 16:15-20) that ‘Christ heals and sends us to heal others, not to transmit spiritual goods only, but to save the body along with the soul.’ This means that the tasks of healing are not limited to the religious sphere alone; they also include and presuppose the political, economic and cultural spheres. The Church should therefore bring a kind of ‘healing’ also in the political environment.
In the footsteps of Jesus as a Healer, the Church must commit herself to healing Africa from all the evils which are suffocating the Continent, including, in particular, the evils of bad governance. Like John the Baptist, the Church must speak the truth to those in power. Because the Church as messenger will not be blamed for the bad news and should certainly not be cowed by Nagasona’s argument in this second century story:
The King said: Venerable Nagasona, will you converse with me?
Nagasona replied: If your Majesty will speak to me as wise men converse, I will. But if your Majesty speaks with me as Kings converse, I will not.
The King asked: How then do the wise men converse, venerable Nagasona?
Nagasona replied: The wise men do not get angry when they are driven into a corner. But Kings do!
The Africa We Want and Pray for
Despite all these challenges which Africa faces in the building and maintenance of peace and justice, the Word of God can still unite us in peace and solidarity, and in respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the human being, who is created in the image of God. The scourge of violence and death which is raging in several places on our continent is caused primarily by the absence of the requisite values, and the systems to protect them. It is absolutely essential for Christians in Africa to constantly strengthen the foundation of our faith, our Christian values, and above all, our relationship to God. The Africa that we want is that which is conscious of its unity in diversity, and of the richness contained in its vast natural resources.
The Africa that we want and pray for is that whose leaders will be guided by a vision and a mission of creating strong, peaceful, and truly democratic modern States, capable of attaining the high levels of social and economic development which the developed countries of the world have achieved.
Since Christ made the Church ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world’, the contribution of the Church in building and maintaining such modern African States is of vital importance. She must preach to the leaders of Africa to become the instruments of transformation of their Societies. The Church can contribute greatly to the achievement of reconciliation, peace and justice in Africa by promoting integrated human development and inter-religious efforts for justice and peace.
God bless Africa. God bless Tanzania.
Ambassadors of Christ
Before concluding my statement, I wish to make a request to your Conference, which is that this Conference should please accord special recognition to the superb work and commitment of the Laity in the Church here in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. Members of the laity are playing a very crucial and significant role and are providing a major source of hope for the local Church. The meaning and importance of the laity’s presence is to be found not only in their increasing responsibility and participation in the Church’s activities, but also in their growing awareness of the nature of the Church’s mission.
I wish therefore to recommend that advantage should now be taken by the Church to transform these reliable Christian lay communities, into real instruments of reconciliation, justice and peace in Africa and the whole World.
Distinguished Delegates and Invited Guests, I thank you sincerely for listening to my statement. May God bless all the deliberations of this Conference.
I now have the honor and privilege to declare open, the seventh Assembly of the Catholic Biblical Federation, which is being held here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
encoded by: Star del Mar – CLFC-Cebu
copy provided by: Jeannie Lee – USA
published by: Doms Ramos, SVD – PHN
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