The Catholic Church has been in the spotlight for some time in many parts of the world. The recent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the United States and the rousing welcome he received from the American people shows that the church he leads still has a place in many people’s hearts.
Though the Catholic Church has come under many challenges and scandals in recent times, there is evidence that many people still find hope and salvation in the teachings of the church.
It is telling that despite coming under a lot of criticism like the sex scandals that have rocked the church in the United States, the Pope could be well received there, a country seen to be moving towards evangelical churches that have proved a major threat to the mainstream churches which have traditional roots in many countries and more so secularism.
The Church (both Catholic and Anglican) remains relevant to the lives of many people in most of the developing world, especially Africa. This is in sharp contrast to the empty pews that have become the hallmark of churches in most of Europe.
Many Africans remain deeply loyal to the church, unlike Europeans who seem to find religion as represented by the church to be of no relevance to their daily existence.
However, it is also worth noting that seminaries, the training ground for priests who form the foundation of the church are increasingly finding it difficult to get young people to enroll in Africa.
This is a pointer to where the church may be headed. It had been hoped a few years ago that Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria would become the Pope after the death of Pope John Paul II.
This would have been seen as an important step in recognizing the central role of Africa in the church, most especially as other continents move away from the church and religion altogether.
Instead, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, was elected Pope despite the fact that Europe, where he hails from, is no longer a bastion of the church, let alone religion.
The church seems to have been relevant to people’s lives when it played the role that should have been played by the state in many parts of the world. In many African countries, the role of the church in providing social servicesin education and health by setting up top class schools and hospitals, endeared it to many.
This phenomenon was not only witnessed in Africa but in many other parts of the world. Many church leaders including priests have been influential in shaping world events both positively and negatively.
In Rwanda many clergy in the Catholic Church got involved in the 1994 Genocide, something that served to alienate many people from the church and also paint a bad picture of the institution. What is beyond doubt is that the church remains an important component in the lives of many people.
But how long will this remain so? It has faced lots of challenges: from both scientific advancement which has led many people to do a double-take about the teachings of the church, to the later day evangelicals who have spread from the United States to other parts of the world.
One of the drawbacks that have forced many people to embrace the evangelicals and the Pentecostals is the rigidity and conservativeness of the mainstream-traditional churches, especially the Catholic Church.
The failure to reform the church and allow priests to marry or to have women on the pulpit, have also served to weaken the Catholic Church rather than strengthen it.
For the church to remain relevant, it is important to allow the mushrooming of lay ministries within the mainstream church.
Other issues like opposition to birth control and any other form of contraceptives seem to be out of touch with the realities of the time.
The church, having played a significant role in many parts of the world despite some mistakes, has got to go back to the drawing board in order to remain relevant, most especially to a generation of young people who find most of its teachings old fashioned and of no particular importance to their daily lives.
I see the importance of the church from the perspective of providing social services, a role it has played alongside the state in many parts of the world.
However, like many other religions, some of its teachings are hard to validate scientifically. This will also be key to the future direction of the church.