Laurenti Giant Magesa of African Theology

«The African Church has an immense task ahead of her: she must address as a” mother and teacher “to all the children of this land of the sun; you must offer them a traditional and modern interpretation of life; it must educate the people in the new forms of civil organization, purifying and preserving those of the family and the community; you must give pedagogical impetus to the individual and social virtues of honesty, sobriety, loyalty; she must develop all activities in favor of the public good, especially schools, assistance to the poor and the sick; you must help Africa to develop, to harmony and to peace ». These words close the historic message to the African Church formulated by Pope Paul VI in Kampala (Uganda) on July 31, 1969, at the conclusion of The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (Secam). More than fifty years have passed since that speech, which officially sanctioned the maturation of an African continental Church.

Far from any rhetoric, there is no doubt that the process of understanding and deepening what Pope Montini had formulated found an extraordinary interpreter in the figure of Father Laurenti Magesa. The writer got to know him through his works during his theology studies at the Ggaba National Seminary in Kampala in the 1980s. Subsequently, he met him in various circumstances in Nairobi in Kenya and in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where he passed away on 11 August last. Thus, one of the most significant figures of African theology leaves the scene, as the president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (Jcam), a Nigerian Jesuit, Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, has pertinently observed: «Magesa was author, co-author and co-editor of numerous revolutionary books, such as What is not Sacred? African Spirituality in which he brilliantly explored the beauty of the spirituality of the African religion and its lasting gift to Christianity as a light, not a shadow as the foolish or prejudiced intended to portray it, ignoring its true nature ».

Magesa was clear from the beginning of his path of theological reflection that the inculturation of the Gospel message represented the main way to allow the African Church to be the interpreter of the demands posed by Paul. you in reference to the “immense task” that awaits him. Father Orobator, commemorating the figure of Magesa, recalled that in his first meeting with the late theologian in 2004, he was working on the writing of a book Anatomy of Inculturation: Transforming the Church in Africa. This is the comment of Father Orobator, published on the website of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (Amecea): «he gave me the draft to read. The meaning of that essay was instant and unequivocal: Magesa had written the magna carta of African theology of inculturation. The combination of his penetrating intuition, his engaging originality and evidence-based analysis has redefined the meaning and practice of inculturation ”. Magesa was born in 1946 in northern Tanzania, along the shores of Lake Victoria. He attended primary school in Musoma and then high school at St. Mary’s Seminary in Mwanza, graduating in 1968. He then graduated in theology from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, in 1974, before earning a master’s degree and a PhD. at the University of Ottawa in Canada. From 1985 to 2000 he carried out his priestly ministry as parish priest in several Catholic parishes in his homeland in the diocese of Musoma. Magesa has published more than a hundred academic articles and numerous essays on theology. Among these stand out in particular The Post-conciliar Church in Africa: No Turning Back the Clock (2016); What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality (2013); African Religion in the Dialogue Debate: From Intolerance to Coexistence (2010), Rethinking Mission: Evangelization in Africa in a New Era (2006); Anatomy of Inculturation: Transforming the Church in Africa (2004); Christian Ethics in Africa (2002); African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (1997). He began teaching in the late 1970s in various institutions, both in Tanzania and abroad: from the Kipalapala Major Seminary in Tabora, Tanzania to the Hekima University College of the Society of Jesus in Nairobi, the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (Cuea ), Tangaza University College and Maryknoll Institute of African Studies, all also in Nairobi. He was also scholar in residence And visiting scholar at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, DePaul University in Chicago, and Maryknoll School of Theology in New York. In 2014 she also received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from DePaul University.

For those who have had the opportunity to know him personally, Father Magesa has always manifested himself as a humble theologian, free from any kind of flattery. His thought has always been current, creative and well argued, particularly appreciated by the missionary world. He refused polemics and has always cultivated a constructive attitude and respectfully respected, in a dialogical spirit, anyone who had a vision different from him. However, he was unanimously considered a master in theological reflection in Africa in various fields. In addition to inculturation and knowledge of traditional African religions, he has addressed with healthy realism questions relating to ethics and theological investigation of the figure of Christ as liberator and the role of the African church as agent of liberation. Father Magesa’s latest editorial contribution – Traveling together in service and harmony: the African Jamaa as a model for a synodal Church – dates back to last March for a volume entitled A Pocket Companion to Synodality: Voices from Africa (African Synodality Initiative, 2022). It is a pearl of wisdom centered on what Pope Francis hoped for in view of the next synod of bishops scheduled for 2023. In this text Magesa explored with wit and sagacity the meaning and practice of synodality in the perimeter of African cultures.

Father Probator rightly recalled how Father Magesa’s thought was “always lucid, original and stimulating”, and how “he practiced the art of doing theology with grace, candor and integrity. He respected his students and always remembered that he too was always a student. A man of humble behavior ». In an interview, signed by Father Renato Kizito Sesana, published in the May 2000 issue of the monthly Jesus, Father Magesa wished for something on which perhaps even today it would be worth reflecting, especially in consideration of what is happening on the international stage. «The Western Church – said Father Magesa – should first of all listen to what Africans have to say about God and Jesus Christ, listen with a mind free from prejudice, listen and learn. And then respect. Respecting the cultures of Africa, its traditions, the vision of the world and of life typical of this land: it is a great warning that puts the globalized West steeped in materialistic culture in the face of the challenge of diversity as a possible alternative, even from spiritual point of view, to a dominant model ». It is evident that Magesa’s vision has always taken into account those principles of community ethics, typical of African society, which, in the light of the Gospel, could be a useful antidote to the prevailing individualism in Western cultures of post-modernity. Here then, opening up to African theology, in this phase of the synodal journey, would be a concrete example of welcoming knowledge, against any kind of discrimination; an opportunity that the Church must not lose in front of the world. One thing is certain: Magesa now passes the baton to the young African theologians who have the task he has undertaken to make the Gospel ever more intelligible in a continent that yearns for its own redemption, recognition and sharing.

from Giulio Albanese

Laurenti Giant Magesa of African Theology – L’Osservatore Romano