KAMPALA, Uganda — On Sunday mornings, worshipers arrive two hours early to wait in line for one of 200 seats in the Missionaries of the Poor chapel. By the time Mass begins at 8 a.m., they have been joined by 2,000 more parishioners who sit outside in the sun.
Roman Catholic churches in Uganda are packed these days, the participants traditional-minded, their faith vibrant and strong.
Across Africa, the church reinforces the staunchly conservative values of a population that often attends services several times a week, for hours on end. Catholic leaders also provide homes and food for poor and disadvantaged people whom the state doesn’t help, including orphans, abandoned children, the homeless and the disabled.
Vatican officials announced Friday that cardinals from around the world would open a conclave Tuesday to choose a successor to Benedict XVI. Many wonder whether choosing an African would create a sense of excitement, drawing in new membership and reinvigorating the faith while ensuring that it stands firm on its conservative social mores. But as strong as it is in Africa, the Roman Catholic Church faces stiff competition here from Pentecostal preachers whose charismatic services are closer to African tradition.
Among the Africans mentioned as having a chance to be elected pope are Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson and Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Arinze, now 80, had been considered a strong possibility to succeed John Paul II in 2005.
In the last century, the Catholic Church grew faster in Africa than anywhere else, with 16% of the world’s Catholics living on the continent, according to a Pew Research Center report.
The stark contrast between the church’s growth in Africa and decline in Europe provides perhaps the greatest logic for an African pope. Vatican statistics published last year showed 800 priests being added in Africa while the number declined by 905 in Europe. Africa also showed the largest increase in Catholic seminary students, rising 14% from the previous year, compared with a 10% decline in Europe.
Whomever the cardinals finally choose, Ugandan church members hope their agenda — which decries Western social attitudes, particularly about homosexuality, while encouraging anti-poverty programs — will have informed the cardinals’ choice.
Turkson, for one, has linked the spate of child sex scandals in the Catholic Church in Western countries to homosexuality, saying taboos in African societies have prevented such abuses. In 2012, he opposed a United Nations call on African countries to ditch laws punishing homosexuality.
But the church faces increasing competition from Pentecostal churches. Many are one-person operations founded by men who declare themselves pastors or bishops and claim to cure the sick or resurrect the dead, luring converts from more traditional churches.
The Catholic Church, staid and traditional, lags behind Pentecostals who’ve proved to be masters of taking advantage of public sentiment over a popular 2009 bill in Uganda to institute the death penalty for homosexual rape or acts with children, said James Onen of Freethought Kampala. The Vatican opposed the bill.
“The Pentecostal churches will do whatever it takes to fill the pews, as opposed to the Catholic Church, which remains more rigid, structured and hierarchical,” Onen said.
“Every [Pentecostal] pastor in Uganda is a pope unto himself. His church is his gig,” said Onen, who hosts one of Kampala’s most popular morning radio shows. “That’s why they’re everywhere on radio and television. They will come running to you if you want a comment.”
Pentecostal churches, usually barn-like halls decked with garish lights and loud gospel music, allow parishioners to dance, sway, speak in tongues and experience what they believe are miraculous cures, closer to charismatic African tradition.
In contrast, Christ the King Catholic Church, occupying a block in central Kampala, is a soaring brick edifice with an air of old world establishment. At lunchtime, people sit outside listening to services blaring out over a speaker.
The church’s leader, Msgr. Gerald Kalumba, said the evangelical tidal wave is “not a threat, but it is a challenge. They talk a lot about miracles, people getting rich, curing people’s diseases.... Such [churches] find the weak elements and manipulate those perceptions in us.”
But he acknowledged that controversies within the Catholic Church could also make African people, horrified by what they see as Western decadence, doubt their leaders.
“That’s why these scandals that have been blown out of proportion by the media destroy the perceptions of genuineness of the church,” he said, referring to the sex scandals in Western churches.
“There’s a lot of practices in these kind of societies which are influenced by the type of things people watch, the movies, the pornography, that secularization, the fact that people are just enjoying their life in this world thinking technology will solve all their problems.”
Despite the aggressive proselytization of evangelicals, Uganda’s Catholic Church still grows in a way Western Catholic leaders can only dream of. If the current rate continues, Uganda’s Catholic population will reach 56 million by midcentury, according to the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter.
The church means a lot to its flock, even those who disagree with some of its teachings. Frank Mugisha, 30, Uganda’s most prominent gay activist, says he still loves the church and attends services regularly.
“I’d feel so bad. I’d feel so guilty,” he said, recalling his confessions as a teenager to having crushes on other boys. “I’d double the punishment. Ten Hail Marys? I’d make it 50. I kept thinking maybe what they’re telling me is the truth. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing it. But when I started accepting myself, I stopped confessing these things.”
For many African Catholics, foreign sex scandals remain a sideshow compared with the church’s role in aiding the poor.
At a Kampala orphanage run by the Missionaries of the Poor, Father Henry Lozano, wearing a white monastic habit and string of rosary beads at his waist, hovered over the bed of Zainab, a tiny child-like young woman covered with a blanket. Found abandoned three years ago, she can’t speak, feed herself, walk or sit up.
“She’s never gotten up. She’s never moved,” murmurs the Catholic monk, originally from the Philippines, tickling the palm of her hand, because it makes her smile. “I pray may the Lord preserve her life. May she always be happy.”
A third of the children in two homes run by the Missionaries of the Poor in Kampala are disabled. Sometimes people leave such a child at the gate because of the stigma and superstition attached to disabilities in Uganda.
Lozano said news reports on sex scandals, or even speculation about the election of an African pope, don’t touch his soul nearly as much as his work rescuing disabled children and orphans.
“Many of them would have just died either in the street or a little shack because they have nobody to look after them or give them the basics,” he said. “They’re human beings and children of God, worthy of our care and our love and our time.”