The “Africa Project” of the Friars Minor has already lived through its first generation and this is the moment to gather memories in order to pass them on to the next generation. That which could have been considered an utopia has become, in the course of twenty years, an historical reality, has been fixed in structural and mental structures.
It is not that the Franciscan presence in Africa began with the “Africa Project” of our times. Francis himself arrived in Egypt to meet the Sultan in 1219, living a singular experience which would reveal to him the way in which the Friars should go “among the Saracens and other infidels” . Other Friars left at the same time for Morocco where they found martyrdom (1220) and where others followed in subsequent years until they established an almost continuous presence up to our days. The Friars also continued to go to Egypt and Libya in the XIII century. In modern times, following the discoverers of new lands or the more recent colonizers, the Friars of different European nationalities went to the African continent.
The Portuguese Friars arrived in the Congo towards the end of the XV century, then to Mozambique in 1900 and Guinea Bissau in 1932. The Belgian Friars established themselves in the Belgian Congo from 1919 onwards. The German, English and Irish Friars arrived in the south of the Continent (Kokstad, Rhodesia, South Africa) in the first half of the XX century. The Italian Friars continued the Franciscan presence in Libya and later on in Somalia and Burundi. The French arrived in Togo and Ivory Coast (1956) and in Madagascar (1961). The American Friars joined the Belgians in Congo-Zaire and the Croatians opened a mission in the region of Kivu (1970).
An evaluation of this long Franciscan missionary experience in Africa was made by the same Minister General who launched the “Project”: “The examination of what these Friars accomplished confirms our admiration for their zeal and dedication. It was a question, in the majority of cases, of small groups of Friars, often spread out and far from each other, without many prospects of success. Many of them established themselves in the coastal countries, often among large Muslim majorities without real prospects of conversions and even less possibilities of setting up local Franciscan fraternities. In some cases they had to limit themselves to taking care of foreigners only. Even if the sanitary conditions have improved, the climatic conditions in certain countries remain noteworthy.
The spiritual difficulties met were also great: the encounter with Islam, the evident sectarian attitude of many independent churches, an eclectic variety of animism and also grave difficulties with the Orthodox Churches. The difficulties in the cultural area were no less: tribalism, apartheid, the inaccessible mysteries of the African culture, the colonial and anti-colonial attitudes reminiscent of slavery, exploitation by the rich and the very many African traditions which seemed to be contrary to Catholic tradition” .
It is important to add that the Friars Minor began the mission “ad extra” in the modern sense and they created a presence among Muslims, starting out with explorers, using commercial routes of the time and approaching the local populations in so far as they could to proclaim the Gospel, to offer the salvation of Christ to all they met and also to help the poor countries in their development and civilisation and to establish the Catholic Church. The Franciscans followed the “missionary models” of their times.
All of this still did not lead to a stable presence of the Order in Africa, the idea of forming young local men to the Franciscan life still being absent. It was also noted that the Order was absent in a great part of Africa, especially in the English-speaking part. The “absence of presence” was also felt as an “absence of returns”, as a lack of an African contribution to the enrichment of the Franciscan charism.
This new sensitivity had been aroused by the missionary renewal of the II Vatican Council (The Ad gentes decree), which had an important and innovative echo in the reflection on Franciscan missions during the General Chapter of Medellin in 1971.