Stan Chu Ilo – “The Church of the Future in Africa: A Path to the Praxis of Pope Francis’s Illuminative Ecclesiology in African Catholicism”

Stan Chu Ilo

“The Church of the Future in Africa: A Path to the Praxis of Pope Francis’s Illuminative Ecclesiology in African Catholicism”

Concilium 2018-4. Kirche der Zukunft
Concilium 2018-4. The Church of the Future
Concilium 2018-4. La Iglesia del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. L’Église du futur
Concilium 2018-4. La Chiesa del futuro
Concilium 2018-4. A Igreja do Futuro

Thierry-Marie Courau OP, Stefanie Knauss et Enrico Galavotti (eds)


This essay imagines the future of the Church in Africa using the reform of Catholic ecclesiology in Pope Francis as a guide. It identifies the signs of the times in the Christian mission in Africa and the strengths and weaknesses of emerging paradigms of Church life in Africa today. It proposes five steps towards the Church of the future in Africa and how the African continent will look like when it is served by a poor and merciful Church which embraces the praxis of illuminative ecclesiology.

I. The Church of Pope Francis and the theological aesthetics of illuminative ecclesiology

I have argued in a recent book that Pope Francis has introduced a new ecclesiological paradigm today through the theological aesthetics of a poor and merciful Church1. This paradigm focuses not on who the Church is but on where the Church is. The mission of the Church is to illuminate the lives of people with words and deeds modelled after the example of the Lord Jesus2. The Church can bring the light of Christ to all people (Lumen gentium [LG] 1) only by both being close to the Lord and to God’s people, especially the poor and the wounded, in their daily joys and sorrows. The Church exists to bring about a closer following of the Lord through meeting people with the logic of love and mercy at the multiple sites of human experiences, especially in ‘those unconventional modes of beauty’ (Evangelii gaudium [EG] 167, see also EG 168–169).

This new paradigm is an ecclesiology of accountability which renders praise to God by showing how the Church can be open to the diverse gifts of humanity and creation as sources of divine light in the world. It is an ecclesiology of accompaniment because it shows how the Church, through her sacraments, ecclesial life, ministries, structures, laws and relationships, can become a travelling companion to all the people of God through a missional praxis which proceeds through a vulnerable mission. It is an ecclesiology of action because it constantly examines the inner and external life of the Church in order to develop a relevant daily praxis which brings about ongoing conversion, healing and transformation of the people of God, the Church, society and creation so that the eschatological fruits of God’s kingdom can be more fully realized in history.

Pope Francis is calling the Church today to move away from an enslavement to structures and systems to a missionary reform of the Church wherein all her actions, laws, pastoral actions and relationships are driven by ‘the delightful and comforting joy of evangelization’ (EG 14–18). This can come about through a Church which ‘goes forth’ as a ‘community of missionary disciples’ to generously and boldly offer the mercy of God to the people of God, especially the outcasts (EG 24). At the core of the new ecclesiological paradigm of Pope Francis is the missionary conversion to which he calls the Church. This begins not from an essentialized notion of Church or of doctrine and self-assertions but rather from the experience of marginality of all humanity and creation in our poverty and sin where we are most in need of God’s mercy and love (EG15, 17, 25, 119–121) 3.

This emphasis on encountering people and bringing light into the lives of people and finding light in the most obscure places is at the heart of the aesthetics of this theology of Church which I have termed an illuminative ecclesiology. This is an ecclesiology which answers the question: what form of witnessing and proclamation should be found in our Churches, among Christians and Church ministers, which shows the merciful, tender and loving face of God to the world and brings the diverse faces and conditions of all of God’s people to God? I argue that in Pope Francis’s priorities and practices, which show the portrait of the Church as poor and merciful, we have indications of how the faces of all of God’s people can be reflected as in a mirror to God and how God can encounter all people, and use the gifts of all people in the Church. This theological aesthetics points to how the light of Christ is mediated in concrete human and cosmic experience and shows how our human condition is shot through with a hidden illumination which the Church can only discover through her encounter with the ‘other.’

The core of the theological aesthetics of illuminative ecclesiology is the love of God, which is encountered as first love and internal word of life in every instance of encounter with the other, especially in the experience of human brokenness. The Lord is present in every human and cosmic reality. This is an incomparable incarnational moment. The Lord has promised to be present in the Church and in history, especially in the life and reality of the least of the brothers and sisters. The answer then to the question ‘Where is the Church?’ is always to be found in the portrait of the everyday experiences of humanity and the world as touched by the hand of a loving and merciful God through the instrumentality of the Church and her members. The love of God the Father is revealed to all Christians and the Church in the midst of sins, wounds and brokenness and can be experienced as a saving light in the humble obedience and attunement of the Church to her Trinitarian origin and model.

The first truth for Christians, according to Pope Francis, is not a nameless being or truth, but a truth that has a wounded face, Jesus Christ. This incarnate love – the light of the world in the Church and in history – is prior to and the foundation and source of all being and all things that the Church teaches, professes and lives. This incarnate love, as Thomas Aquinas states, is an interior beauty as well as an interior grace (EG 37) which gives beauty to creation and defines the path of beauty for the Church. It is present in every instance of joy and pain of suffering humanity and the entire cosmos. Its presence in creation and in all of God’s people becomes the primary identifier of where God is present and the sites of God’s work in history of which the Church is a servant. Christian life is a vocation to embrace the ‘way of beauty’ (EG 167) even in the contradictions and complexities of life. The Church is called to walk the ‘way of beauty’ with humanity; this is an invitation to live in the truth by touching ‘the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it’ (EG 167) 4. The Church of the future must embrace the path of accountability, the art of accompaniment and a spiritual praxis of action through a vulnerable mission which brings integral salvation and transformation to a wounded world through memorializing in history the words and deeds of the Lamb that was slain.

II. The signs of the times in Africa

There is a general consensus among Church historians and missiologists that the center of gravity of World Catholicism is shifting to Africa and Latin America. This is evidenced in the exponential growth in the population of Catholics in the Churches of the Global South. What this means is that what is happening in these Churches may define the shape, identity and direction of the future of Catholicism in a post-Western Christianity and in post-Christian Western societies. It also means that these Churches should be given greater respect and autonomy in the Roman Catholic Church. This way, the gifts and dynamism of these Churches can flourish and their unique traditions and logics of belief and living can be used in addressing some of the contested questions about God, morality, marriage and spirituality (among others) which are highly divisive in today’s World Church.

The Christian faith is alive and dynamic in Africa and the Churches in Africa are becoming strong drivers of social change. They are also increasingly visible agents and major players in all social, economic and political aspects of African societies. Indeed, one of the signs of the times in Africa is that Churches are acquiring strong social capital and providing interruptive agency to reverse the course of an unacceptable history in many social contexts in Africa where God’s people are still nailed to the cross of poverty, suffering and misrule. In such marginal contexts, many Christians, especially women leaders and nuns, provide alternative sites of hope and belonging for women’s groups and communities who are seeking a praxis of reversal through the agency of Churches. Catholic social ministries in the areas of education, agriculture, micro-credit, peace-building or healthcare have significant impact in many African societies.

However, despite all these positive signs, the Church in Africa faces mounting challenges. Some of the questions which many African Christians are asking as we move into the future are: What is the identity of the Churches of Africa? How are these Churches contributing to or hampering the emergence of the kind of future many Africans dream of for their societies? Can African types and models of Church become influential for the revival of the faith in the West if African Churches are still dependent financially on Western Churches? What images of the Church do African Christians embrace which could be seen as ‘success stories’ in dealing with the challenges of ethnocentric and clannish sentiments in African Churches? This also applies to instances of authoritarianism among some African Church leaders, the marginalization of women, and the highly clerical and cultic culture dominant in African Churches? What message will the Churches of Africa offer to World Christianity on how to deal with ecumenical and inter-faith relations? What are specific African Christian approaches to the religious persecution of Christians in some African countries with a predominant Muslim population, and how should Christianity relate to other cultural subjects, faith traditions and people on the margins in diverse societies in order to promote human and cosmic flourishing and the reign of God?

My contention here is that any realistic vision of the future of the Churches of Africa will require understanding the two contending narratives which define what has often been called the ‘African predicament’: the crisis of the post-colonial state in Africa and the crisis of post-missionary Christianity in Africa. These two crises give rise to contending cultural and socio-economic currents which are at play in Africa’s search for her own version of modernity. These two crises can help to understand the cultural processes in religious narratives in Africa with regard to the exponential growth in the Christian population in the continent, the rise in African Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, the challenges and limitations of political and religious leadership in Africa, religious fragmentation and religious competition; as well as the permeable and multiple religious loyalties and the persistence of cultic clericalism and the patriarchal marginalization of women in African Catholicism and more widely, in African societies.

These are also key for interpreting the challenging socio-economic conditions under which the majority of Africans live which are determining the life outcomes for millions of people. All these are emerging as people, ethnic and religious groups form social, religious and political alignments in the competition for power and interests to meet the perceived deprivation which arises from the inchoate social compact in most African countries amidst the specter of poverty and structural violence. This is the bigger picture through which one can read both the so-called religious extremism in some parts of Africa, as well as the migration and humanitarian crisis which face millions of Africans in many parts of the continent. It can also help us to understand questions about poverty in Africa, the so-called prosperity gospel movements and the quest for healing and miracles in Churches.

III. The Church of Africa: A road map for the future

How can the Churches of Africa meet these challenges and opportunities amidst the exponential growth of the Christian faith in Africa? I propose five steps. The first is the development of a dynamic Catholic identity. Second, the development of a dynamic Catholic intellectual tradition. Third, the emergence of Catholic leadership which will help address the challenges facing the Church in Africa and influence the evolution of Churches in Africa in birthing African Christians who are strong in both manifestations of faith and works of faith. Fourth, addressing the social context of Africa where religion has become in many cases a means for problem-solving rather than a channel for intimate relationship with God, human beings and nature, a medium of integral salvation and human and cosmic flourishing. Fifth, the emergence of a true Catholicity in the wider Church which treats the Churches of Africa in the Catholic tradition as mature and adult Churches and not some ecclesial colonies dependent on the Church of Rome. 

The first question relates to an ecclesiology of accountability, which gives praise to God for the gifts, which God has given to Africa. This is particularly with regard to the challenge of inculturating the Christian faith in Africa. The goal here is that the African who embraces the faith should find in it an integrative and coherent force for answering the myriad questions about what to believe, how to believe and how to live. Most scholars believe that the presence of a ‘double conscience’, ‘schizoid faith’, ‘swinging faith’ and ‘permeable religious affinity’ among many African Christians raise fundamental questions about the nature of conversion in African Christianity5. What are Africans converting from and what kind of faith and ecclesial life and structures are they embracing? What is the before and the after of conversion from African Traditional Religions (ATRs) to Christianity in Africa? This is particularly relevant with regard to the loose and experimental religious affinity in limit situations in the daily life and faith of many African Christians. This has given rise to a persistent culture-lag because the official faith of the Church in her teachings is sometimes at variance with the actual faith of African Christians and their internalized sources of validation and authentication of faith at the specific level of personal, cultural and communal self-understanding.

The Church of the future in Africa must work hard to realize the vision of the First African Synod on the urgency of inculturation in Africa in order to bridge the gulf between official and actual faith (Ecclesia in Africa 59). African Catholic bishops at the Synod also committed themselves to build the Church in Africa into self-sufficient communities of faith (EA 104) and to promote the cause of justice and peace (EA 112–114). This will require, as the First African Synod proposed, ‘respecting, preserving and fostering the particular values and riches of Africa on one hand, while ‘bringing Christ into the very center of African life and of lifting African life to Christ’ (EA 127).

The second challenge is that of the Catholic intellectual tradition. How are people socialized into the faith and how do African Catholics document models of faith, spirituality, morality or social ministries which are emerging features of the presence of the Church in Africa? What forms of Catholic life, spirituality and morality are emerging in Africa as a result of the presence of the Catholic Church which are transferable wisdom traditions which can help Africans to read the signs of the times? How do African Catholic scholars and pastors ground the understanding of Christian humanism, theological anthropology, Catholic social teaching among others through the Catholic heritage and vision as lived and celebrated in Africa today in conversation with Africa’s rich intellectual and social justice traditions?

Deepening the faith in Africa will require the growth of the intellectual heritage of African Catholicism within the ever-expanding structure of the rich African intellectual heritage in dialogue with the enduring Catholic intellectual tradition. This entails a ceaseless search for how the Catholic faith – founded on the revealed truths of the Gospel and tradition – can be mediated through cultural knowledge, cultural artefacts and cultural behavior autochthonous to Africa. I propose that this situation—the slow pace of the inculturation of the faith and the Gospel in Africa—should not be a source of grief but should be seen as signs that the Christian faith is going through a process of trial and formation in Africa. These are the painful birth pangs of a faith in transition from its missionary captivity to assuming its own voice, place and relevance in African religio-cultural and social history.

The third challenge is leadership. The recent crisis over the rejection of a bishop in Nigeria and the assassination of bishops in Cameroun and Kenya within the last few years all point to a troubling development in how ecclesial office and the exercise of authority in the Church are perceived. Some questions to be considered by the Church in Africa with regard to reforming the leadership in the local Churches in Africa are: How are leaders chosen in our Churches? Should the nuncios and officials in Rome be the ones who determine suitable candidates for episcopal offices, rectors of seminaries, heads of religious orders and Catholic social agencies in Africa? How do we raise future leaders in Africa through the Church? How do clerics and the religious exercise their offices in the Church in Africa? How credible and prophetic are the lifestyles of our Church leaders and the laity in various positions of leadership and what difference does their faith make in their witnessing to God through the positions which they occupy? The Church of the future in Africa must embrace a conscious and deliberate evangelical strategy for the leadership training and mentoring of the laity, the religious and the youth who stream to our Churches in Africa. She must work hard towards producing ethical and transformative servant leaders whose leadership will be a model and testimony of the decisiveness of good leadership for the future of the Church and society in Africa.

The fourth step is the need for a truly prophetic Church in Africa that is a poor Church for the poor in Africa. The future Church in Africa must always bear the marks and wounds of the suffering peoples of Africa in her proclamation, witnessing and ecclesial life. The two African synods spoke strongly of the need for the Churches of Africa to give hope to Africans by embracing an option for the poor (EA 139, 113, 70, 68–69, 44, 52; Africe Munus 25, 27, 29, 30, 84, 88–90). The greatest pastoral challenge facing the Churches in the complex social context of Africa today is how to proclaim and enact the praxis of hope to the poor in the cycle of inexcusable poverty which batter God’s people in Africa. How can the presence of the Church in Africa become a point of light to bring about social transformation and abundant life in Africa? How can the Churches of Africa stand up against the dictatorship in some African countries, failed governments and institutions and the exploitation of the poor masses of our people? How do the Churches of Africa account for the rich human and material resources of the continent which are being exploited by African elites, religious and political leaders who are sometimes complicit in the international structures of exploitation which have kept Africa in thralldom for many centuries?

The Church of the future in Africa must speak through her words, ecclesial life, preaching and witnessing from within the chaos of the lives of many Africans who are still nailed to the cross. It must be a Church of accompaniment, an eye witness to what is happening to God’s people and a travelling companion with the people of Africa, especially those on the margins. The decisiveness of this will be reflected in ecclesiologies which grow from the cries of the people and their living faith. It must give birth to new forms of liturgy, proclamation and witnessing which are translated into pastoral actions, performance and praxis of social transformation for human and cultural fulfilment as essential to integral salvation and the reversal of the unacceptable trajectory of history in Africa.

IV. A new communion between the Roman center and the African margins

The fifth challenge is the emergence of true Catholicity in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Some of the questions which emerge in this regard are: Can the African Churches develop their own path to the future without being hampered by Roman supervision and control? When can the Church in Africa stand on her feet without her bishops and priests streaming to Europe and North America in search of financial help and of pastoral and administrative guidance from Rome? The Church of the future in Africa will need a new communion between the Roman center and the Churches of Africa. This will require living fully the teaching of Vatican II on the ecclesial status of local Churches and local bishops. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen gentium (23) teaches that there is an intimate, inseparable and mutual relation between the universal Church and the local Churches. The question then is how this plays out concretely in the relationship between Rome and the dioceses, national episcopal conferences, religious and lay Roman Catholic movements and institutes of consecrated life in Africa. Pope Francis’s teaching is helpful here in understanding the right balance between Rome and the local Churches in this relationship.

Pope Francis uses the image of a great orchestra to describe the Catholicity of the Church:

This is a beautiful image illustrating that the Church is like a great orchestra in which there is a great variety. We are not all the same, and we do not all have to be the same. We are all different, varied, each of us with our own special qualities. And this is the beauty of the Church: everyone brings their own gifts, which God has given, for the sake of enriching others. And between the various components there is diversity; however, it is a diversity that does not enter into conflict and opposition. It is a variety that allows the Holy Spirit to blend it into harmony6.

Francis also taught that the Church ‘does not have simply one cultural expression’ but rather it is in the diversity of peoples within the Church that we experience the gift of God and genuine catholicity (EG 115–116). He therefore calls for the acceptance in the Church of ‘differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice’ which are reconciled ‘by the spirit of respect and love’ and which help the Church grow in her understanding and application of the ‘riches of God’s Word.’ (EG 41).

What Pope Francis teaches here is a guide on how the ecclesiology of Vatican II can be fully realized with regard to the status of local Churches. In an illuminative ecclesiology each local Church must be seen as a point of light which mirrors the common light which shines in the whole countenance of the Church through the Lord. This was already advocated in a different theological context before and immediately after Vatican II by future Pope Benedict XVI. Writing in the 1960s and 70s, Joseph Ratzinger challenged the ‘universal claim of the Pope’ and ‘post-Constantinian patriarchal principle’ which confused apostolic succession and primacy of the Pope with centralized administration ‘tied up with political and geographical data.’ He called for a clear distinction between episcopal theology in terms of the prerogatives of local bishops and papal theology in terms of apostolic succession, primacy and the handing on of the tradition. In this light, he argued that there can be ‘a unity of faith and communio’ between local Churches and the Pope wherein the Pope maintains the power to give ‘binding interpretations of the revelation given in Christ whose authority is accepted whenever it is given7.’

Following from this insight, it is no longer necessary that the future Church should have a uniform liturgy, uniform canon law and the uniform appointment of local bishops by Rome, a uniform educational curriculum for all local Churches determined by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and a uniform pastoral plan and administrative structure. Indeed, I agree with Ratzinger that it is possible now to begin to think of the possibility of an African patriarchate. Such a patriarchate could cater to the ancient Coptic Churches of Africa, the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic traditions in Africa, among others. The future Church of Africa should be untethered from its Roman yoke as a way of bringing to fullness truly African ecclesial traditions which can enrich the universal Catholic family only in the realized catholicity of the Church. Such an African patriarchate will be able to find contextual pastoral approaches and innovations to such questions as inculturated African liturgies, criteria for priestly and religious lives, marriage and family life, healing ministries in the Church, witchcraft and other unresolved pastoral challenges in Africa today, some of which are not even mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law.


A key ecclesiological principle for a vision of the future Church is one that Pope Francis gives in Evangelii gaudium (222–225) which states that ‘time is greater than space.’ It is a principle which invites the Church to ‘accept the tension between fullness and limitation.’ Pope Francis invites the Church to be more concerned with ‘giving priority to time’, by patiently developing processes through openness to history, diversity, dialogue and synodality in the search for a missional praxis which can address the hunger of the world rather than trying to occupy or dominate spaces of power through self-assertion. This is an approach which can guide pastoral discernment, accompaniment and action in terms of being open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit (Gaudete et exsultate [GE] 41) and long-term pastoral witnessing which builds up people and institutions. It requires fidelity to concrete human and cultural experiences in evangelization through ‘attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes, and concern for the long run’ (EG 225).

The implication of time being greater than space is that the Church of the future should be open to embracing local processes in this era of World Christianity as a way of embracing the effulgence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the surprises of God. This challenges the Churches of Africa to embark vigorously and courageously on the path of reform. In order for this to happen, there is the need for greater space and freedom for local Churches in the Roman Catholic tradition. I am convinced that now is the time to release the primary energies of African Christians and Churches so that they can confront the peculiar challenges and limitations facing Africa, using her own spiritual and cultural resources in communion and co-responsibility with the Church of Rome8. The Churches of Africa must not become slaves to the past or victims of an idealized future. The Church of the future in Africa can best serve the universal Church by being a servant of God’s people in Africa and by being an agent in the liberation of our people from all that prevent them from enjoying the abundant life which emerges when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.


This essay looks at what the Church of the future in Africa could look like in the light the missionary reform of Catholic ecclesiology in Pope Francis. It also explores what World Catholicism will look like in such a future where African Catholics and churches are playing a significant role in shape the identity and mission of the Universal Church. Using the illuminative ecclesiology of Pope Francis as a guide, the essay looks at the present challenges and features of the Church in Africa. The essay concludes by laying the theological foundation of a roadmap for the Church in Africa. Such a Church, it will be shown will be an agent in reversing the unacceptable trajectory of history in the continent by being a poor and merciful Church fully involved in the mission of bringing about the fruits of the eschatological reign of God in both Africa and the world.


Stan Chu Ilo is a research Professor of Catholic Studies, African Studies and the World Church at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, USA, where he coordinates the African Catholicism Project. He is the President of the Canadian Samaritans for Africa and the 2017 Recipient of the Afro-Excellence Award for Global Impact. His most recent book is A Poor and Merciful Church: The Illuminative Ecclesiology of Pope Francis and the entry in the Oxford Handbook on Ecclesiology on African Roman Catholic Ecclesiology.


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  1. See S. Chu Ilo, A Poor and Merciful Church: The Illuminative Ecclesiology of Pope Francis, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2018.
  2. Pope Francis, “Address to the bishops of Cameroon on their Ad Limina Visit”, 6 September 2014,
  3. See C.M. Galli, ‘The Missionary Reform of the Church According to Francis: The Ecclesiology of the Evangelizing People of God’, A. Spadaro and C.M. Galli (eds.), For a Missionary Reform of the Church: The Civiltà Cattolica Seminar, New York: Paulist Press, 2017, p. 24–30.
  4. Ilo, A Poor and Merciful Church, ibid., p. 90.
  5. See, L. Magesa. Anatomy of Inculturation: Transforming the Church in Africa. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004, p. 148-155; P. Odozor, Morality Truly Christian, Truly Africa. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014, p. 165-175.
  6. Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014, p. 34.
  7. K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, The Episcopate and the Primary, vol. 4, New York: Herder and Herder, 1963, 57–59; J. Ratzinger, Le nouveau peuple de Dieu, Paris, Aubier, 1971, p. 68–70.
  8. See the 1974 “Declaration of Bishops of Africa and Madagascar on the Promotion of Evangelization of Co-Responsibility and Promotion of Research on African Theology at the 4th Synod of World Bishops”, T.T. Tshibangu, Le Concile Vatican II et l’Eglise africaine : mise en oeuvre du Concile dans l’Eglise d’Afrique (1960–2010), Paris, Karthala, coll. Epiphanie, 2012, p. 129–132.