National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Kevin Hartigan
-- NCR photo/A Jones
Resilient church weathers storms

The interview really took just one fundamental question: Tell me about the church in Africa. Kevin Hartigan’s enthusiasm for the subject needed no further prodding.

“You’ve no idea the pride we have being Catholics, when you show up in besieged towns like Cubal [Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa]. They really are like living saints, these people are -- the sisters who wouldn’t leave during the siege. Keeping their spirits up, keeping programs going, their hospitals immaculate. Totally cut off from the world -- repair work on land mine victims, on convoy victims. It was like the television show, MASH -- just surgery all day. I was there Christmas Eve, 35 people brought in, an anti-tank mine hit their truck.”

Hartigan is Catholic Relief Services regional director for Central Africa (Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea). He was on a spring whistle-stop tour of the United States, taking the African continent and a PowerPoint laptop show into Catholic homes and churches.

“Or in southern Chad, the Jesuits, in the ultimate backwater, run a high school! People send their kids down from the capital. Really groundbreaking stuff. The Congo Brazzaville bishops brought together the bishops of former French Equatorial Africa for that [2002] statement on the oil industry in Africa [appealing to the West -- ‘the oil companies are based in your countries’ -- for solidarity]. Quite risky,” he said. “The bishops are essentially becoming the dominant voice in a weak civil society. They’re getting involved in terms of corporation responsibility and management issues. This is new terrain for the church, explaining the oil, how it works, how much money is coming into the country, where it’s going. Calling for transparency in two of the most corrupt countries of the world, Cameroon and Nigeria.”

Hartigan talked of prospects for peace in war-torn, failed states such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the church’s social infrastructure is practically holding the nation together.

“You’ve got people [Catholics] working in missions that have been looted eight or nine times, and they just start again from scratch. The clinics are still running, the schools are still running. I would say the church’s resilience means there’s always a kind of hope.

“These African churches need the solidarity of American Catholics, like Americans have given to Latin America. Americans don’t realize how many Catholics there are in Africa. They don’t realize the church is enormous and fast growing. They wouldn’t understand unless they visited, and some are beginning to. That all this, in addition to the [African church] being a religious institution, in many countries means they are basically holding together the tenuous social fabric and sociopolitical systems, trying to weather the storms in these countries.

“There’s baggage, where the church was the official church of the colonial power -- Mozambique was the worst, had a policy of ordaining no native clergy. That’s faded. The Vatican has moved in a fairly short time to Africanize the entire clergy, the entire hierarchy. What a privilege we feel to be working with these local church partners in these really difficult places. It really is overwhelming.”

Hartigan lives the story. Twelve years in Africa, all but three (they were spent in Angola) in Central Africa. He had one more talk to give. Then it was back to Kinshasa. Back to anonymity in a continent of 700 million -- except not anonymous to those African Catholics he feels privileged to work with.

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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