At a meeting with America's Roman Catholic leaders, Archbishop Simon Ntamwana of Burundi recounted an all-too-familiar litany of African woes: Crushing poverty. War. AIDS.
Africa needs help from U.S. Catholics tackling all those problems, he said. But that's not all. He was just as concerned about getting assistance to meet the spiritual needs of his continent: Catholicism is exploding there, he said, as it is throughout the developing world.
''Africa is a very young continent,'' Ntamwana said at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''We want the world church to pay attention to our youth.''
The bishops, who gathered last week in Washington, took time from their talk of diocesan budgets, liturgy and other issues critical to the American church to consider the challenges to Catholicism in Africa and Asia.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., proposed that American dioceses move toward holding a regular collection for Africa, calling the continent ''the poorest in the world, but also potentially the richest in terms of the future of the church.''
The central African country of Burundi is 70 percent Catholic. Its neighbor, Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is 50 percent Catholic.
Overall, Africa has more than 130 million of the 1 billion members of the world church. The numbers on the continent are growing even as church membership is shrinking in many parts of Europe.
''These are crucial times for the life of the church and the peoples of Africa,'' McCarrick said. ''Opportunities missed now may never come again.''
Ntamwana was among a delegation of bishops from Africa that included Cardinal Frederic Etsou, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Congo, and Bishop Nicholas Djomo of Tshumbe, Congo.
''Our laity is extremely active,'' Djomo said. ''We are blessed with an abundance of vocations. Our churches are filled to capacity each Sunday.''
Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Saigon, Vietnam, who was installed just last month, led a group of clergy from Asia home to more than 107 million Catholics.
More than 5 million Catholics live in Vietnam, making the religion the nation's second-largest after Buddhism, and Man said the number is growing significantly every year.
Man said his country desperately needs Vietnamese translations of religious books to help train local clergy and laity.
Etsou, of Congo, said his Kinshasa archdiocese has created a program that trains lay people as administrators to help run the growing number of parishes.
But he said his country also needs Bibles translated into native languages and improved education for ''agents of evangelization.''
The church in developing countries faces competition from Islam and evangelical Protestantism, and a pope from one of those areas could help Catholicism throughout the Third World.
With Pope John Paul II's health in decline, many in the church have speculated about a number of ''papabile'' candidates from Latin America and Africa, though, following tradition, none of the Asians, African or American bishops at the Washington conference would voice an opinion about whom the pope's successor should be.
However, Man of Vietnam said he thought it was important to someday elect a Third World pope. He hopes the next pope will ''pay attention to Asia and help the Asian people to do their pastoral work and evangelization.''
Third World cardinals comprise about 38 percent of the College of Cardinals, which elects the pope, the same as in 1978 when John Paul II was elected, according to the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.
Latin American cardinals comprise about 17 percent of the 135 voting-age members, while Asians and Africans are just under 10 percent each, Reese said.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the church inevitably will have a pontiff from the developing world. ''The influence of those countries is tremendous,'' he said.
But he said nationality was less important than pastoral skills.
''Our Catholic people are looking for a pope like John Paul II to be a real pastor, a real shepherd of souls who understands their needs,'' Mahony said.
Ntamwana, of Burundi, agreed. He said choosing a Third World pope ''is not a preoccupation for us.
''The African church is not interested in the person who is going to be the pope. What we wish is a man who will really attend to African problems,'' Ntamwana said. ''We are forgotten by the more advanced nations, but every year, through the church, the pope remembers us as part of the world which has to be helped, which has to be understood.''
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