National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  Posted July 16, 2003

Their own values, their own voice will change the equation

By Arthur Jones

Franciscan Fr. Michael Perry, the foreign policy advisor on African affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, became interested in Africa when a group of Belgian Franciscans from the Congo visited Quincy University where he was a student. That was in the mid-1970s.

By the early 1980s, Perry, a member of the Order of Friars Minor, who has a dual degree in philosophy and history and a master’s in mission theology from Catholic Theological Union was in the Congo, in Katanga, then called Shaba.

The people and the mining economy “were actually humping along pretty well at that time, ‘83-’85 were the highest years of production for copper and cobalt primarily. A very dynamic period.”

And today? asked NCR.

“Today there’s nothing that works. The mines no longer function,” he said. “There is a little interest from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Some Asian groups tried to come in and they had to leave. Fundamentally the economy is basically dead.”

A decisive turn toward Africa

Perry joined the bishops’ conference in February 2000. “The decisive turn toward Africa came with (former Boston) Cardinal Bernard Law, he wanted Africa to assume a new place, a new role, in the U.S. Catholic church’s response to global solidarity.

“Catholic Relief Services played a tremendous role in helping to shape and create a kind of a space in the conference for the decisive turn towards Africa,” he said. Starting in 2002, activity was stepped up in three areas:

  • Catholic Relief Services looking at development assistance and emergency assistance from a justice-based approach to drawn up much more closely in line with Catholic social teaching.
  • More attention to the different sets of issues -- typically health, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria – and helping the church and the peoples of Africa develop responds to these issues and to emergency health crises.
  • A continued role in the issue of Africa’s debt crisis. “The Catholic Church played a tremendous role in shaping the discussion that tried to deal with countries that found themselves increasingly made poorer and therefore not able to honor their debt arrangements with the World Bank or the other multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors.”

Perry said the creation of a department for policy and strategic initiatives within Catholic Relief Services helped strengthen the advocacy and lobbying capacity of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

The immigrant church

Tangible results of the bishops’ 2002 document A Call to Solidarity with Africa, he said, include the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, particularly pastoral care for migrants and immigrants.

There is recognition, he said, that “the Africans who have arrived (in the United States) are beginning to play roles not only by their physical presence but by leadership roles they’re beginning to assume within Catholic communities in the United States.”

Perry lives at St. Camillus parish in Washington D.C. where there is a very large African contingent. The church has two Masses in French, one on Saturday evening, one on Sunday, for the French-speaking African community. Perry does not underestimate the value of African priests working on contract in U.S. parishes in terms of strengthening U.S.-African bonds and understanding.

Increasingly, he said, parishes, diocesan groups and newly formed justice groups want to engage on Africa issues. “Catholic groups are asking how can we do it and with whom and under what present conditions.”

Reflecting on the historical connection, Perry said, “Africa has always been with the United States from the very beginning. Africa came in the first ships. … Africa contributed to the building of the nation, unfortunately mostly through slavery.”

Open market issues

“Africa has always been contributing, whenever we needed precious resources,” he said. “Africa continues to play a role because we still depend on its resources. Africa is always there. The whole area of trade is an area of serious concern. While we demand that they open their markets, we seem to be closing our markets or … preventing Africa from being able to participate,” he said.

For oil particularly, Perry said he sees increasing pressure for Africa itself to develop strategies and guidelines to set trade conditions. Success though will “depend on the increased pressure of groups like Global Witness and Transparency International and the Catholic church working with (African states),” Perry said.

“The issue is not transparency. The issue, bottom line is: What will give the people of the different nations of Africa the opportunity to be able to experience life in its fullness? To be able to get out of poverty, be able to experience the quality of life, the life they deserve … and how to achieve that.”

Perry concluded, “African governments themselves, with the support of base organizations (the Catholic Church and others) will begin to address those issues collectively, together. They are going to bring their own sense of values and their own voice to try to change the equation, if you will, for a new possibility for themselves.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, posted July 16, 2003

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