The 244 senior Roman Catholic clerics from Africa meeting in Rome this month are confronting the problem of priestly celibacy on the continent, according to some sources close to the Vatican - writes Luigi Sandri.
High on the agenda are reconciliation, justice and peace at the Special Assembly of the Synod of the Bishops of Africa that Pope Benedict XVI that opened in Rome on 4 October. It is a meeting which will last three weeks.
The first gathering of the body took place in 1994. Since that time the church has seen rapid growth in Africa.
Monsignor Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the synod of bishops, told journalists: "Out of 943,743,000 inhabitants in Africa, the number of Catholics is 164,925,000, namely 17.5 per cent."
"This figure is very significant if one considers, for example, that, in 1978, at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the number of African Catholics was about 55,000,000", Eterovic said.
The synod, created by Pope Paul VI in 1965, is a special general assembly for the Catholic bishops and senior clergy from Africa. A Vatican official told Ecumenical News International that its goal is not to make church policy, but to give "counsel" to the pontiff.
Speaking to the bishops and priests, the Pope underlined that Africa "is keeping an invaluable treasury for all the world: its deep sense [of] feeling towards God".
Benedict noted that Africa "represents an immense lung for humanity", but he added that this lung can fall sick, because "colonialism, which ended on a political level, has never ended" and "practical materialism, relativism [and] religious fundamentalism can hurt it".
The Pope reaffirmed his commitment to the "family founded on marriage", which he said can develop only if it is based on faith in God.
Benedict did not allude to the problem of clergy celibacy in Africa, but, according to Nigrizia, an Italian magazine published by the fathers of Comboni, a religious congregation founded in the 19th century that has missions in Africa, this "delicate question" could be discussed by the synod.
Nigrizia says that in Africa there are many priests who stick faithfully to celibacy but added that in many African countries, cultural factors make acceptance of the "Tridentine priest", or celibate priest difficult. .
"Many people know that today the phenomenon of priests and bishops having family is widespread in Africa," the magazine said.
It added that in May 2009 the Pope pressured two bishops to resign in the Central African Republic because they had wives and children.
At the same time priests in two dioceses defended their bishops and criticised the Vatican decision, the publication stated.
"These scandals oblige those responsible in the church to ask themselves about the exactness of the model of the priest and of the pastor coming from the Tridentine Reformation. It is a model which has its advantages and which gave great results. But is it a model valid everywhere and for all?"
The challenge of African clerical celibacy has been highlighted by Emmanuel Milingo, the former archbishop of Lusaka, in Zambia, who in 2001 challenged the Holy See by marrying.
Although he later repented and abandoned his wife in 2006, Milingo went back to her and has frequently defended his actions publicly. The Pope excommunicated him.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]