Ghana: Interview with Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle
On the bones of the missionaries
The Catholic Church in Ghana is over 125 years old, and making the transition from missionary church to one which is truly Ghanaian, in which the Bible and faith is expressed in many local languages. The transition is ongoing with many challenges to be overcome.
Mark Riedemann: Your Excellency, the refrain of the missionaries was: “That Africa must be evangelized by Africans”. Can one say this is a reality now in Ghana?
Bishop Buckle: Pope Paul VI, in 1969, at the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, said: “You must have an African Christianity.”
Mark Riedemann: Is this happening in Ghana?
Bishop Buckle: Very much so. We have 19 dioceses in Ghana, and all the bishops are Ghanaian. In fact there are dioceses in Ghana with a 4th generation of Ghanaian bishops. The last foreign bishop left Ghana in the early 70’s.
Mark Riedemann: What was the importance of these early missionaries to the Ghanaian Church?
Bishop Buckle: We thank God for them. In 1880, the SMA Fathers (The Society of African Missions) were the first to come to the south, Elmina near Cape Coast. They started the evangelization gradually along the coast and northwards.
Mark Riedemann: …. Against great physical suffering, for these Europeans to come to Ghana.
Bishop Buckle: Ghana in those days was called the graveyard of the white man. Many died of malaria within 6 weeks to 8 weeks of their arrival. But we must thank God for the persistence and perseverance. The missionaries kept coming. The fathers came. The sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA) came in 1882. They accompanied the fathers, gradually to evangelize the south. In the north, the SMA, who descended from Ouagadougou, in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, and settled in 1906 in Navrongo. They started to evangelize the northern part, gradually descending into the middle of the country. If you look at the statistics of Ghana, there is roughly about 1400 priest, and about a thousand are Ghanaians.
Mark Riedemann: …. so it’s a good foundation?
Bishop Buckle: Yes. We have about 800 sisters, religious of whom half or more are indigenous. They are Ghanaian. We have about 600 religious brothers. More than half are also Ghanaian.
Mark Riedemann: Becoming a Christian sometimes means abandoning some one or more of these traditional aspects. Where and How is the Church trying to find a balance in this regard?
Bishop Buckle: We’d have to admit that from about 1880 to about Vatican II the mentality was that everything traditional was pagan and very demonic, and was not good. Thanks to Vatican II where the Church has allowed us to appreciate the values in our culture. We are now beginning to realize that there is a lot of similarity. For instance, the rites of our people. I come from Accra; they have a rite for outdooring of a child when the child is born. They outdoor the child on the 8th day…
Mark Riedemann: What is that?
Bishop Buckle: That means giving a name. They bring the child out to the public. A name is given and is normally the name of an ancestor who had lived a good life. It is believed the ancestor will protect the child. The child becomes to belong not only to his or her parents but of the entire clan, and is responsible towards the child. This is a beautiful rite. In fact, I had to do my doctoral thesis on that to show its similarity to baptism, through which a person is born anew into the family of God and given a name, which identifies him or her with Christianity.
Mark Riedemann: There are some elements of traditional religion that the Church has to redress like polygamy and issues like this. How does the Church work with the local and the traditional cultures to try and address these kinds of problems?
Bishop Buckle: Not only for polygamy, we also have very violent widowhood rites and other rites that we are now trying to deal with.
Mark Riedemann: What would be some examples?
Bishop Buckle: When a women’s husband dies, she is maltreated, and she is subjected to some form of cruelty and cases she is driven out of the house.
Mark Riedemann: …. because they thought that somehow she was responsible for the death of her husband?
Bishop Buckle: In some situations it was so thought, in other cases it was some sort of shock therapy for her to get over the pain of having lost her husband. There are very positive aspects and negative aspects. Because of human wickedness sometimes the negatives have overshadowed the positive. Above all the good rites, as you say, polygamy, for instance, where a man married 2 or 3 wives, had children; they all farmed with him. They acquired property together; the kids were more or less farm hands and everything. Now, the difficulty of Christianity has been to tell the man: send 2 of your wives away, send your children away…
Mark Riedemann: What do you do?
Bishop Buckle: What do you do? Just like Abraham, in the book of Genesis, send away Hagar and her son Ishmael, and if you look back you admit that some of the present problems go back to those who trace their origins to Isaac or who trace it to Ishmael. It’s very sad we have been caught up in the church; we have to deal with this particular situation.
Mark Riedemann: Practically, a man comes to you to become a Christian, to be Baptized, in a polygamous relationship, has 4 wives. How does the church respond to a situation like this?
Bishop Buckle: Officially we tell them what the Church says: One man one woman. We normally advise them to choose the oldest wife, but we also try to help them to take care of the children and the other women without making use of the marital offices that offend Christian morality of adultery and the rest of it. There have been situations were the offspring of the women together with the man have blamed the church for ruining their family system. In many, they have lived at peace with one another. Boys have identified with the three women as their mothers, in the absence of their father; the women have taken care of all the children. This is an ideal situation of course. There have been other situations where it wasn’t too ideal. A lot of rivalries between their mothers and their children have created a lot of pain. Once they accept Christ, you must accompany them to grow in their faith, and grow in the knowledge of their faith.
Mark Riedemann: What is the relation of the Ghanaian people to Our Lady?
Bishop Buckle: The Ghanaian is very, matrilineal. Every Ghanaian respects very deeply motherhood; respects the mother. And because of that: talk about the Mother of Jesus Christ is not difficult.
Mark Riedemann: …. their hearts will open….
Bishop Buckle: …. Exactly. Mary is considered the Mother of all the Ghanaians, as I said not even just Catholics, Protestants and even Muslims, they come, they join. For us motherhood as expressed in Mary the Mother of Jesus Christ is something deep which we are using as an occasion to bring them closer to the Catholic faith.
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps”, a weekly TV & Radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.