Cameroon: Purview of the Harvest and Challenges before Bishop Michael Bibi, Catholic Church as Buea Diocese Fêtes New Shepherd

The Catholic Church in Africa faces brutal competition and a disturbing legacy as they grapple with an existential dilemma and stark evolutionary challenges in an increasingly digital, progressive, knowledge-based, and open inclusive society. It is therefore in the backdrop of shifting socio-political, economic, and cultural paradigms that the newly consecrated Bishop and former Apostolic Administrator of the Buea Diocese Michael Bibi is taking the shepherd’s relay staff from Bishop Emeritus Immanuel Bushu. 


While congratulations and encomiums are flowing into the new Bishop of Buea for earning the trust of the Holy See, this writer, Catholic Christian, and keen observer of the Church opines here that the mother of the universal Christian Church in the Buea Diocese, Cameroon and the world is and has been at an existential crossroads for some time now, beset as it were by several challenges.


Bishop Michael Bibi looks set to face the daunting challenges before him


Among the immediate challenges facing the new Bishop is making the Pioneer Diocese of Cameroon a leading example in actualizing the work of Christ. This constitutes the sacred mission of the Catholic Church which the gravitas required by the long-drawn socio-political crisis bedevilling Cameroon has made even more urgent with economic hardship battering the agonizing masses surrounded by an abysmal moral and spiritual crisis. The crisis is especially strong among the political, security, and the clergy elite, all scrambling and clawing for a bigger piece of the pie in total contradiction and violation of their fundamental ethical and sacrosanct callings and responsibilities to the people and ultimately to God.


Another equally urgent challenge will be going beyond the creation of parishes as a counter-offensive measure by his predecessor to contain the aggressive onslaught of a door-to-door and bus-to-bus miracle peddling prosperity scam pushing, radical and aggressive religion economy driven by an unhinged Pentecostal movement that has birthed Christ-like avatars, all-knowing and all-seeing Men and Women in Christian robes and garments, more wolf than shepherd preying on desperate not so innocent sheep that won’t work for or walk to the greener pasture or promised earthly paradise of their true potentials. This can be done by grounding and recommitting the clergy back first in their sacred vows of celibacy, chastity, and frugality and then to community proximity life especially the consolation of the sick, psychosocial, and spiritual support of the afflicted and victims of the ongoing armed conflict in the diocese, the promotion of works of charity in favour of displaced and struggling persons be they catholic or not. 


To achieve this the clergy and assimilated orders, parish councils, and Christian groups must exemplify the teachings of Christ and the values of true Christianity, humility, compassion, solidarity, service to humankind and depart from the cancerous quest for power, positioning, and wealth which is in the views of many a Christian today, responsible for the weakening or outright loss of faith in many catholic Christians in particular and Christians across the spectrum in general. This fundamental missions of the church should encompass and embrace the educational, health, and livelihood challenges of Christians by rendering access to schools, hospitals, and professional training affordable to the common family and not make them the preserve of the elite who by self-perpetuating their family lines only exacerbate social tensions and injustice and stoke the fires of revolt and disconnection with the Church and Government as a whole leading to violent conflicts and civil wars. (Huge mobilization at the consecration of Bishop Michael Bibi)


The recent wrangling over the Catholic University Institute of Buea (CUIB) is illustrations of some of the administrative, managerial and legal dysfunctions stemming from disrespect of laid down and mutually agreed to rules of engagement and institutional statutes that are likely to undermine the good works and educational output of the Church and bleed her of more faithfuls if they are not contained and handled in a manner that strengthens catholic institutions, glorifies God and blesses the families and children who seek knowledge and empowerment from that and other Catholic sanctuaries of learning.


All these challenges should be approached by the incoming Bishop from the perspective of continuity in the Church’s sacred mission picking up from where his predecessor Immanuel Bushu whose focus on the spiritual building of the Christians’ and the orientation of the clergy essentially towards spiritual duties, promoted an inclusive and participatory management culture that was greatly appreciated by the lay Christians whose involvement, opinions and influence grew with the Church even as they took up positions of responsibility within her operational and middle management rungs. As fragile as this kind of dynamics can be, it stimulated and increased their sense of commitment and brought about a mutually enriching commitment between the laity and the Church that radiated through Church activities which presented opportunities for Christians not only to belong and participate but to enjoy the fruits of their collective endeavours and labours. 


The new Bishop could and should build on this delicate dynamic and balance to advance the mission of the Church and push the Diocese towards greater inclusion and participation for better spiritual outcomes. This supposes that the clergy in general and the priests, in particular, should be made as a matter of priority and urgency to rededicate themselves to their fundamental spiritual tasks of service to God, People, and Community wherever duty calls and be less inclined to canvass and scheme for mundane and urban administrative and managerial positions, a practice which seems to be on the increase in the priestly ranks and is fueling frustration, disengagement, discontent, and discrimination even among the priesthood while the Christian community feels left out and ignored thereby becoming vulnerable to despair, manipulations, anti-Catholic rhetoric and attack from extreme evangelicals and what Bishop Bushu has not hesitated to describe as sects and cults. 


Again, and by means of exit argument and advisory, the Catholic Church as a whole and the Diocese of Buea will not be able to overcome these existential challenges if her shepherds do not rededicate themselves and the Church to the pursuit and proclamation of Truth on which this columnist premises this opinion paper, an opinion widely reflected in his engagement and conversations with lay Christians and Church officials. Truth that brings relief and relief to people from an unpleasant or painful experience as did Jesus in his time and life, speaking truth to Roman and Jewish religious powers. 


Bishop Bibi settling down finally as Bishop of Buea


Bishop Emeritus Immanuel Bushu aptly captured the urgency and profundity of the sanctity of Truth in The Post Newspaper Issue No 02110 interview of July 20, 2020, when in response to a question about the opportunity and relevance of the launching of reconstruction in the North West and South West Regions following four years of a senseless, ugly and dirty war, he said, “When you do what is not the truth, it always crumbles. It does not matter how long it goes, it always crumbles”. He went on in that response to draw a parallel between the attempts by the Roman empire, a world superpower at the time to wipe out the Jews in 70AD whose blood filled the streets of Jerusalem with those made by the government of Cameroon to the Former British Southern Cameroonians but Jerusalem and the Jews survived and thrived and are today among the most powerful nations on the planet because they were vindicated by truth and history as was the justness of their cause even in the eyes of God. Pope Francis says in this regard “There is no justice when there is inequality”.


This is the kind of stance the Church in Cameroon and globally, learning from her very grave mistakes over slavery, colonization, homosexuality in the past, should muster the spine to take towards power whatever its nature and origin. Her credibility going forward greatly depends on it and the Church must be seen to be working and standing up for the Truth and the suffering masses, as indeed was Jesus Christ himself. Pope Francis has often spoken on issues of peace justice, reconciliation, and ecological sustainability that some African countries are facing as illustrated by his recent dispatch of his Secretary of State to Cameroon with a message of peace that left many with an after taste of expectations to be met that has been variously interpreted by both parties in the armed conflict with the local church notably the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province (BEP) coming under attack by pro-independence groups for spinning an alternative narrative to the august visitor to please the government.


These Buea Diocesan challenges align with the continental and global challenges of the Catholic Church whose history is fraught with morally disturbing and often shocking episodes. Take Africa for example with the world’s third-largest Catholic population, after the Americas and Europe. Nearly 1 out of every 5 Africans – 19.2% – is Catholic. The Pew Research Centre expects the number of African Christians south of the Sahara, including Catholics, to double by 2050. These statistics, however, need to be understood against the background of the church’s long history in Africa and the current challenges Catholicism faces in the continent. Expanding dramatically under European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church’s roots in Africa go back to its earliest days. Christianity emerged in Africa among first-century Jewish communities in Alexandria, Egypt. Many early, influential church figures were North African. After the Islamic conquest of North Africa – from 634 to 711 A.D. However, Islam grew faster than Christianity, making it the region’s dominant religion. Muslim traders then took Islam across the Sahara Desert to West Africa and over the Indian Ocean to eastern Africa.


The later arrival of Catholic missionaries on the western, central, southern, and eastern coasts of Africa spread Christianity across the continent. Because Catholic Portugal, and later France, expanded the trans-Atlantic slave trade, both priests and slave merchants followed in their wake. African Catholics and European missionaries nonetheless protested against the slave trade. Even though the Vatican condemned slavery in the 1680s, many bishops and priests already possessed slaves, and the Vatican itself enslaved Africans to man its ships. The Church’s complicity in Africa’s subjugation only intensified in the colonial era in the 19th and 20th centuries as the Church opened parishes, pioneered schools and hospitals across the continent, often with the encouragement of colonial authorities who prescribed a hidden curriculum for the schools.


Catholic missionaries worked mostly in European languages, contributing to the continent’s linguistic and cultural colonization. In fact, colonization and evangelization occurred in lockstep. The Portuguese colonized Mozambique; the French, Madagascar; and Britain, after the initial French occupation, Mauritius. Catholic missionaries also criticized colonialism. In 1971, for example, authorities in Mozambique, still under Portuguese rule, expelled a Catholic order for criticizing the colonial regime for preventing missionaries from properly serving Mozambicans.


Elsewhere on the continent, during Africa’s transition from colonial rule to independence, from the late 1950s to 1980, many priests supported emerging ethnic and nationalist movements like Monsignor Albert Ndongmo and the UPC in French Cameroon and Bishop Abel Muzorewa of the United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe formerly Rhodesia.


The long-term outcomes of these Catholic-backed independence movements have been mixed.


In what was to become Zimbabwe, for example, bishops supported the resistance against white-led Rhodesia from the 1960s to 1980. In Malawi, Catholics in 1994 helped unseat the repressive president, Hastings Banda, and establish multiparty democracy. Again in many French-speaking African countries, bishops served as neutral mediators who led national conversations between autocratic rulers and civilians throughout the 1990s, often achieving democratic reforms. In Cameroon today the clergy on both sides of the linguistic and cultural divide have espoused clashing views on key issues unable like the country to heal her divide to make her neutral peace broker and arbiter in the armed conflict. 


To many Africans today, in the wake of independence and the church’s support for it, the Catholic Church has distanced itself from its colonial past to become an institution associated with socio-political reform, education, and health care. This accounts in part for its substantial growth in Africa as a whole. Yet, the Church faces new challenges. In 1970, Pentecostals represented less than 5% of all Africans. They now stand at 12%, a significant shift. In Mozambique alone, Pentecostals are the second-largest Christian community.


Islam is growing faster in Africa than in Christianity. By 2050, African Muslims south of the Sahara are expected to increase from 30% to 35% of Africa’s population.


The battle for souls is also a struggle for statistics, enmeshed in the changing loyalties of the world’s largest Christian church, and to curb the rise of Islam and Pentecostalism, she must up her game in the sphere of evangelization and conversion and baptism and move away from passive reliance on catholic families to surrender their progeny to the church at birth. While sticking to time tested spiritual and moral values, the church must in her engagement with the world and its peoples factor the digital paradigm shift to which she must apply a result-oriented pastoral management model which truly empowers lay Christians, brings them closer to their priest more often and in greater number thanks to information and communication technologies especially in the COVID 19 times and in the future. She must also be seen to be tougher on deviant behaviour within the clergy and grow her commitment to community service and participation as in her early days in Africa ensuring that communities are impacted by the good works of the church in communities everywhere today where the quality of life is threatened by lack of water, electricity, poor hygiene and sanitation, environmental pollution, generalized unemployment and lack of road infrastructures leading even to churches thereby immersing the Church in the community that should own the outcomes of the good works of her work with the Church.


NB: The original caption of this article has been altered by the editorial team of Timescape Magazine.