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Malawi, The Catholic Church in


Malawi is a landlocked, largely agricultural country located in southeast Africa. It is bordered by on the north and east by tanzania, on the southeast and southwest by mozambique and on the west by zambia. Predominately plateau, the terrain rises from rolling plains to low mountains with the region's sub-tropical climate characterized by a winter rainy season and a dry summer. Natural resources include limestone and deposits of uranium, coal and bauxite, although these minerals remained unexploited at the end of the 20th century. Agricultural products, which served as the basis for the Malawian economy, consisted of tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, tea and cassava.

Formerly known as Nyasaland, the region became a British protectorate in 1891 and was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland from 1954 to 1963. In 1964 it became the independent state of Malawi within the Commonwealth. Following three decades of dictatorial rule, the nation held its first multi-party elections in 1994. The average life expectancy of a Malawian was estimated at 37.5 years in 2000.

Early History. Jesuit missionaries from Mozambique penetrated the area around Lake Nyasa in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1861, two years after British explorer David Livingstone reached Lake Nyasa, Anglican missionaries entered the area. The White Fathers began evangelizing Malawi in 1889, but tribal wars, disputes between the British and the Portuguese, and disease compelled them to leave after a year. The Vicariate Apostolic of Nyasa, erected in 1897 with jurisdiction over part of modern Zambia, was entrusted to the White Fathers. The Montfort Fathers founded a mission in the south (1901) that became the Prefecture Apostolic of Shire in 1903 (vicariate in 1952, then Archdiocese of Blantyre in 1959). The hierarchy was established in 1959, with Blantyre as the metropolitan see for the country.

The Church as a Vehicle for Change. By the late 20th century the Church had grown in Malawi, in part due to the availability of a translation of the Bible in the two main local languages, Chichewa and Tumbuka, which was completed in 1971. Other factors included the achievement of political independence, the Church's emerging role as a leader in the push for a democratic society and the influence of the Second Vatican Council in shaping Church life and pastoral activities in Malawi during the first decades of independence.

On July 6, 1964 Malawi achieved independence from Great Britain. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who was elected president in 1966, extended his term of office to a life-presidency in 1971 amid charges of corruption. While professing the desire for a partnership with the Church, Banda acted to restrict the role of the Church in public life by suppressing all forms of public dissent. Although Malawian bishops issued annual Lenten pastoral

letters, they avoided publicly discussing serious moral and social issues for fear of imprisonment. Similarly, priests focused their attention away from government issues during sermons. The growing tension reached a peak in 1982, when Archbishop James Chiona was harassed for his outspokenness.

A few years later, in May of 1989 Pope John Paul II visited Malawi and encouraged Church leaders to take an active role in righting the wrongs perpetrated by the Malawi government. In 1992 the bishops issued the pastoral letter Living Our Faith, condemning the extensive human rights abuses of the Banda dictatorship. The letter served as a catalyst for political change: while government action was taken against the bishops, it prompted such public defiance as student marches and strikes, while Malawians of all faiths showed solidarity by attending overcrowded Catholic masses. The bishops were soon joined by Protestant leaders, and in 1992, an ecumenical public affairs committee was organized to campaign for democratic reforms.

As a result, Western relief agencies suspended much-needed aid to Malawi, forcing the government to address reform issues. In an attempt to improve relations with the Church, Banda met Archbishop Chiona in December of 1993, and elections were scheduled for the following spring. In March of 1994 Malawian bishops published a pre-election pastoral letter, Building Our Future, and distributed over 30,000 copies throughout the country. The bishops adopted a nonpartisan approach by encouraging citizens to vote responsibly and stressing the need to accept the election results. On May 17, 1994 the first multiparty election was held amid charges of fraud and Banda's government was unseated. A new constitution went into effect, guaranteeing freedom of religion.

In addition to speaking out on a national level, beginning in the 1970s the Church was active on the grassroots level through small Christian communities. These groups, which met to pray, study the scriptures and examine ways to help their local community, were viewed by the government as potentially subversive and were banned. A decade later they began to reappear and by the 1990s were flourishing. Among the challenges to such groups were the social consequences to the spread of AIDS in the region; government estimates showed 30 percent of the population infected with HIV by 2000, leaving thousands of children homeless.

Into the 21st Century. By 2000 Malawi had 162 parishes tended by 270 diocesan and 160 religious priests. Religious included over 90 brothers and 710 sisters, who operated the nation's 1,110 primary and 58 secondary Catholic schools. The Church was estimated to staff over half of all health care facilities in Malawi, among them 19 mission hospitals and seven orphanages. Every diocese had at least one minor seminary, and the Inter-Congregational Seminary at Balaka provided philosophy studies for Malawians wanting to join a particular order. Retreats for young people gained in popularity and each diocese had a full-time youth chaplain. In 1994 a Chichewa edition of the Liturgy of the Hours was published. A weekly Catholic newspaper and a monthly Catholic magazine were published in the country.

In 1994 newly elected Muslim President Bakili Muluzi publicly acknowledged the leading role of the Church in the fight for democracy. Pope John Paul II's directive to identify areas of injustice continued to bear fruit as Church leaders monitored the country's human rights situation. By 2000 Muluzi' efforts to promote Islam within the public schools was suspended after criticism from Church leaders, although tensions between Christians and Malawi's Islamic minority were increasingly visible elsewhere.

Bibliography: africa watch, Where Silence Rules: The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi (London 1990). amnesty international, Malawi: Preserving the One-Party State (London 1993). t. cullen, Malawi: A Turning Point (Cambridge 1994). j. lwanda, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi (Glasgow 1993). b. pachai, The History of the Nation (London 1973). p. short, Banda (London 1974). t. d. williams, Malawi: The Politics of Despair (London 1978). Bilan du Monde, 2:735744. Annuario Pontificio has annual data on all dioceses. For additional bibliography, see africa.

[j. f. o'donohue/

t. cullen/eds.]

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