Bishop Clemens explains the significance of the Congress


During Bishop Josef Clemens’ visit to Yaounde in Cameroon for preparations for the Pan-African Congress of the Catholic Laity, he gave an interview in which he spoke of the significance and aims of the Congress. He emphasised that the African continent was very much in the heart of the universal Church.

The visit took place at the end of January (see the picture gallery). The purpose was to motivate the organisers based in the Vatican and in Cameroon and to advance in the logistical organisation of the Congress. Bishop Clemens was accompanied by Rafael Nava Ureña from the Pontifical Council for the Laity. They met the apostolic nuncio Most Rev. Piero Pioppo, the president of the bishops’ conference of Cameroon, Most Rev. Joseph Atanga, the archbishop of Yaounde, Most Rev. Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot, the rector of the major seminary, Rev. Philippe Mbarga, the rector of the Catholic University of Central Africa, Rev. Richard Filakota, and the bishop of Ebolowa, Jean Mbarga, who is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. They visited the venues of the Congress, the cathedral of Yaounde and the minor basilica Queen of the Apostles of Mvolyé, and they made contact with the people who would take care of the organisation at the local level.

Professor Silvia Recchi of the Catholic University of Central Africa accompanied Bishop Clemens and Mr Nava to the venues. Her interview with Bishop Clemens is on the website of the Redemptor Hominis Community to which she belongs. We include it here in our translation.


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An interview with Bishop Joseph Clemens

By Silvia Recchi*


Your Excellency, welcome to Cameroon. Could you tell us about the purpose of your visit to Yaounde?

I have come to Yaounde for preparations for a Pan-African Congress of the Catholic Laity. The Congress is an expression of the support of the universal Church for the Church in Africa. The theme is “Being witnesses of Jesus Christ in Africa today”, and it will be held from the 4 to 9 September 2012. It takes place within the framework of activities of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Cameroon was chosen for the event because it has the structural and social conditions that can facilitate its organisation. I am here to look at the logistics and to work with the local Church in initiating preparations for the Congress. I met the president of the national bishops’ conference, the bishops who are working in collaboration with our dicastery, and all those involved in organising the Congress. I was happy to be able to transmit the greetings and blessings of the Holy Father with whom I spoke on the telephone before leaving. He expressed his special affection for Africa. Benedict XVI asked me to be sure to communicate all of this.


What motivated the Pontifical Council for the Laity to decide to hold this Congress?

The ides came after the experience of a congress for Asia held in Seoul in September 2010, and which was undoubtedly a great success. We then thought of Africa. Some feel that it is abandoned, but in fact it is not. The Church regards it as a continent of hope. For this Congress, Northern Africa will not be included because the ecclesial problems there are different from the rest of the continent. The Congress is intended to be an extension, so to speak, of the Pope’s journeys to Africa. It should not be limited to the event that takes place over a few days, but the talks and interventions should continue to be studied and discussed afterwards. There are four basic documents that form the background reading for the Congress. These are the exhortation Christifideles Laici (1988) which is the Magna Charta for the lay apostolate and has much to offer in our times, the encyclical Redemptoris Misio (1990), and the two exhortations that followed synods on the Church in Africa Ecclesia in Africa (1995) and Africae Munus (2011). It is also an opportunity to read again the addresses given by Benedict XVI during his visits to Cameroon and Angola in 2009 and Benin in 2011. The Congress will concentrate on the role of the lay faithful and the importance of their committed presence in Africa. We want to invite people who are able to listen, reflect, actively participate and later transmit to their ecclesial communities the results of the Congress. The participants will be joined by a number of cardinals, bishops and priests in a sign of ecclesial communion.


What message can you give the lay faithful of Africa at a time when the continent is facing numerous social, cultural and religious challenges?

The first point to emphasise, in my opinion, is a renewed awareness of the deep significance of baptism and the dignity of baptism. Baptism is not simply a ceremony, a rite, an honorific title or a family tradition. It is something that brings about deep transformation. By means of baptism we become new human beings. We need to “decipher” the elements and rediscover its dynamics and consequences for Christians living in Africa. Baptism also creates a life of relationships with others, a community of believers that goes beyond ethnic groups, national borders and cultural differences. It makes us members of a large family. To use an image dear to the African faithful, we belong to God’s Church-family. We must discover the depth of this grace in daily life.


Our community “Redemptor Hominis” is engaged in the parishes that have been entrusted to us. Our pastoral ministry gives special attention to the religious education of the lay faithful. We have, for example, a parish school that gives instruction in the deepening of a life of faith. Here we often have to contend with a culture that can take a “magical” approach to the sacraments. They have to understand, not only the “ex opere operato” of the sacraments, the grace of baptism, but also the “ex opere operantis”, the commitment that derives from this for the faithful.

Education in the faith for the laity is of capital importance, and it is one of the ways to rediscover baptism. The more we really know, the more we can understand the meaning of our Christian identity and the more we become “free”. When magic is pervasive in the outlook of a certain culture, it is a kind of slavery that is caused by fear. Correct instruction helps people to understand the sacrament of baptism (and also confirmation and the Eucharist ...). It frees us from being conditioned and from fear. Education in the faith is undoubtedly an effective medicine against mistaken interpretations. It helps the lay faithful to take on their baptismal dignity with responsibility.


Africa is a continent of youth. The age group between 15 and 24 years of age are over 20% of the African population. 42% of the continent’s inhabitants are under 15. These young people live in situations of great precariousness. What does this mean for the future of the Church?

We have to invest in youth in spite of all the difficulties. We must accompany young people and let them understand that they must use this favourable time to concentrate on their education – human, scholastic and professional – and in building up their future. We must transmit hope to them, for hope is stronger than any adversity. Africa is a continent undergoing much change, and many new possibilities and opportunities are being opened. Globalisation is irreversible everywhere including Africa. We must be prepared to be part of it with our Christian identity. Young people should not lose hope in the possibility of a better world, nor should they feel that life and commitment have no meaning. They should put effort into their education and into forming their character, and into building their relationships in families, groups and society.


You are involved in the organisation of World Youth Day. From your experience, what do you think it can really give to young people?

World Youth Day has to do with the faith education of young people. I find that the method used, that of catechesis given by bishops during the event, is very effective. Young people have the opportunity to ask questions and to be involved in a personal experience that could mark their lives. World Youth Day is organised around a central theme that helps them think about their faith and their lives. A very important part of the event is the presence and the talks of the Holy Father, as well as the experience of the catholicity of the Church which allows them to meet young people from every continent. They find that they are all together in making plans for the future, in their hopes and ideals, and in their desire to live meaningful lives according to evangelical principles. World Youth Day is a sign of hope that shows that other ways of living life are possible and do not have to be meaningless and to slavishly follow the fashions of society. At World Youth Day in Cologne, the first WYD in which I was directly involved, some representatives of the Protestant Churches spoke of their admiration for this courageous initiative on the part of the Catholic Church. The idea of World Youth Day came to John Paul II. It corresponded fully with his personality. Even in advanced age he maintained a positive, and youthful, outlook on life.


You have mentioned your personal friendship with the Holy Father and you have transmitted his special greetings. You worked with Cardinal Ratzinger for nineteen years. As well as being pope and a great theologian, what else do you admire in him?

What really amazed me when I was working with him was his attitude to life. He took life very seriously. This attitude could be seen in various ways. As bishop and then cardinal, for example, he always prepared himself well before any liturgical celebration. You might think that this man who is so prepared and highly educated could lead any celebration without any difficulty. He did not approach it like that. Whether it was a meeting with five religious in private or with five thousand people in public, he prepared them equally well. He was always careful to refer to the liturgical readings of the day. He was not content to give general reflections, but rather he took care to find what the scriptures were saying to us on that day to lead us to reflection and also to conversion. He was also serious in listening to other people, to those addressing him, with great attention and respect. His capacity to listen has always impressed me. I was often surprised to see how he took notes and jotted down his reflections. Moreover, he was very responsible in the way he used time. He made his weekly and monthly plans with precise objectives and with great discipline. Sunday for him was a “different” day. Indeed, Sundays had to be different, beginning with the more solemn celebrations of the Mass. It was also the day when he played the piano and took long walks in the Vatican gardens. He also gave time to reading. He read a great deal, not only theology books, but also works of literature. He followed developments in philosophy and the new directions of thought in our times. All of this for me was a school of life. I also dealt with his publications for many years: books, articles and interviews ad extra. This was also very enriching for me. The time spent at his side showed me the importance and responsibility of superiors in their role as guide, leader and example for others. The lay staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were full of admiration for their “boss” who tried to live according to what he preached to others. Joseph Ratzinger, in my opinion, over and beyond what he is today, has always been a great teacher of life.


Silvia Recchi, a member of the Redemptor hominis Community, after graduating in Political Science, received her doctorate, summa cum laude, in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, with a thesis on the consecrated life. She is teaching at the Catholic University of Central Africa (Yaounde - Cameroon) with the title of Emeritus Director of the Department of Canon Law. She is a legal consultant for the Conference of Major Superiors in Cameroon and for the ACERAC (Association of Bishops’ Conferences of Central Africa). She is the representative for Africa at the International Consortium “Canon Law and Culture”. She is on the editorial board of the journal “Quaderni di diritto ecclesiale” and author of the commentary to the canons on institutes of consecrated life in the Codice di Diritto Canonico Commentato (by the editorial board of "Quaderni di diritto ecclesiale"), Ancora, Milano 20093. She has published numerous articles in specialised journals on canon law and on the consecrated life.

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