Sierra Leone: The Enduring Challenges of the Catholic Church in the Country

Jallomy — Forgiveness, reconciliation and restitution are key elements in the character and nature of the Catholic Church. We are taught to believe that the Catholic Church is universal in character and as such its applications and practices have universal acceptance and relevance. Today, more than ever before, the Catholic Church is challenged by the reality and permanent nature of change; and this is understood by the current papacy to the extent that reforms now being driven are sounding strange and shocking to the traditional segment of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is phenomenal, decisive and abrupt in driving the process of change in the Catholic Church. He is taking the risk, many will say, to drive change in a largely predatory religious arrangement. Pope Francis is simply being wise by deeply understanding the changing global trends. He thinks that the only thing that is permanent is change and that stemming the tide of change can potentially and dangerously be counterproductive.

The Catholic Church has been in Sierra Leone for several decades and deeply rotted in the socio cultural lives of the people. The foot prints of the Catholic Church are obvious and visible on the sands of religion, education, health and livelihood opportunities. In a broader sense, the interventions of the Catholic Church help to consolidate our nationhood.

The Catholic Church in Sierra Leone is in transition. Today, we have four Dioceses in Sierra Leone: the Makeni, Freetown, Bo and Kenema Dioceses. Each of the four Dioceses with the exception of Makeni has a local and/or indigenous bishop. The Makeni Diocese has an Italian born bishop serving in the capacity of a care- taker bishop.

While the process of transition from Italian and/or expatriate bishops to local or indigenous bishops have been smooth and manageable in Freetown, Bo and Kenema; the same cannot be said about Makeni. The reasons for this are various and varied but fundamentally obvious and understandable. According to statics of 2014, the Diocese of Makeni has a total of 61 Diocesan and religious Priests as well as 40 female religious and with 25 Parishes. The Diocese of Makeni was first established in 1952 as an Apostolic Prefecture of the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo. Ten years later in 1962, it was elevated to a Diocese with Bishop Augustus Azzolini as its first Bishop.

On January 07 2012 Pope Benedict xv1 accepted the resignation of the then Bishop of Makeni, Bishop Biguzzi when he reached the age limit of 75 years. Bishop Henry Aruna of the Diocese of Kenema, in the East of Sierra Leone, was chosen as new bishop of Makeni. Bishop Aruna was however not able to make his entry into the Diocese of Makeni for obvious and understandable reasons.

The reasons for the rejection of Bishop Henry Aruna as stated are many and varied but not far-fetched. What need to be cleared are the negative interpretations of the events. It is not about tribe or tribalism. It is not about region or regionalism. It is not about politics or political affiliations. Fundamentally, it is about fulfilling a basic Catholic Social principle of subsidiarity. It is about responding to the overwhelming preference of the affected congregation. The localized self-reliant church can be sustained if we enthroned the local of the locals. The composition of the Episcopal conference was already over saturated by one ethnic group and this was scary to the Makeni Diocese. This can be understood in a country with deep ethnic divide.

The entire transition was terribly mismanaged and questioned the ability of the Catholic Church to manage internal conflicts and resolving issues that are mostly interest based. The dust has settled but the problem remains large and can be best described as a festering wound.

Reconciliation remains a critical and enduring challenge of the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone. The leadership transition in the Makeni Diocese has ignited a division and a major crack in the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone.

The new Bishop Natalio Paganelli is struggling to have his feet firm on the ground. He is the symbol of reconciliation and should lead that process. The question is whether he has the chemistry of leadership to lead such a desired process. Already, he is starting on a bad note by dismantling effective existing structures established by his predecessor. Natalio is in the highly questionable process of hounding out the young and dynamic Director of Caritas Makeni: a young man who graduated Caritas Makeni from obscurity to prominence. We are watching.

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