Fr. Rafael B. Sapato


The Church is a family of God and the one in Africa was formally defined in the Special Assembly of the Synod for Africa in 1994 as a ‘Family Church’. This definition was not a random one. Africa had already been feeling the Church as a Family, indeed the Church in Mozambique, in its First National Pastoral Assembly celebrated in Beira in 1977, opted to be a family Church lived in small communities animated by ministries. Its formalization had certainly been encouraged by the winds of the Second Vatican Council which stated that “Thus the whole Church appears as “a people united by the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, an expression inspired by St. Cyprian in his work De oratione dominica.

All feel that the family should be a place of protection and security. The family’s concern to not lose any of its members is known to all. Recent years have seen the rise of a social reality, called ‘single mothers’, a phenomenon generally assumed by society.  Paradoxically, the attitude of relative resistance to this phenomenon, comes from the Church, mainly in some parts of Africa.  It is said that there is a tendency to discriminate girls who are called ‘single mothers’, an attitude denounced by fathers at the Synod on the Family in the 1980s and condemned by John Paul II in his post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, but unfortunately such discriminatory attitude persists and even worse, it persists in the family of God, the Church.

The first core value of the Preparatory Document of the Synod 2023 is entitled THE CALL TO JOURNEY TOGETHER, and seeks to answer the question: What people or groups are, expressly or effectively, left on the side-lines?  In response, we judge ‘single mothers’ as a part of those people who are left on the side-lines.

This reflection seeks to contribute to this synodal process in relation   to the pastoral attitude of some churches to leave the ‘single mothers’ on the side-lines, and thus to overcome the paradox with the concept of the Church as family.

It is important to make one thing clear beforehand. It is not the intention of this reflection to go into the complex matter of what is understood by the family in various sectors of society, especially today. The basis for this reflection is the vision of the Church as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 2202, according to which “A man and a woman, united in marriage, form a family with their children. This provision precedes any recognition by public authority and imposes itself upon it. It must be regarded as the normal reference point against which the various forms of parentage are to be assessed”, nor the various extratifications of the single mother, such as single mother due to the death of her husband, single mother due to divorce, single mother by choice. The subject of study is the single mother, the one who has become involved with a man, who does not accept responsibility, therefore seen as a sinner.

I. Assumption

  1. Church as Family

The Church is God’s family. This concept is very clear and is acknowledged in church documents. John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, in paragraph 15, states the following: “Christian marriage and the Christian family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of the rebirth of baptism and education in the faith the child is also introduced into God’s family, which is the Church.” This concept is particularly felt on the African continent to the point of defining the Church in Africa as the family of God. It is formalized in the document resulting from the Special Assembly of the Synod for Africa, an event that took place in 1994, Ecclesia in Africa. Paragraph 63 of the document published by John Paul II, the Pope who convened the Synod for Africa states:

“Not only did the Synod speak of inculturation, but it also made use of it, taking the Church as God’s Family as its guiding idea for the evangelization of Africa. The Synod Fathers acknowledged it as an expression of the Church’s nature particularly appropriate for Africa. For this image emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust.” This is the key concept in the Kampala Document.

For this important document of the Church which is in Africa, “The Church-Family of God, formed by all peoples of different cultural origins, through the acceptance of the Word preached by the Apostles, is nothing but the Apostolic Church itself. The expression Family of God perfectly corresponds to the fundamental vision of the ecclesiology of communion of the Second Vatican Council, with reference to both the themes of fraternity and the great prayer of Jesus: “May all be one” (Jn 17:21). In addition to the apostolic character of the Church, the Council Fathers underline the eschatological dimension of the Church as a Family of God, based on the pilgrimage to the fullness of God’s love, while emphasizing what builds unity, that is, the new commandment of love” (DK 78).

The Document produced by SECAM, following the same path of Ecclesia in Africa, develops the idea and motivations stating, in its number 81, that “The Church-Family of God in Africa implies both communion with God and communion with brothers and sisters, Christians, all called to a communion of life and love, of truth and action, of fidelity and witness. The Church is a family of people united by life, mutual acceptance, love, commitment, celebration of faith, forgiveness, joy and sharing. It is a community of construction of justice, peace, solidarity, and fraternity lived in words and works. We enter into this communion of the Church through Baptism preceded by a first step, that of listening, accepting the Word of God and clinging to Christ, the eternal Word of God”.

According to the document, Church is a place of mutual acceptance, as in a family, a place of forgiveness. In fact, the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness is the sustenance of any human family.

 2. Pastoral practice of some churches

In many areas of the planet, especially in Africa, pastoral practice is not in tune with the concept of the Church – Family of God that was succinctly presented above. Pastoral practice in some areas prioritizes the moral aspect, which swerves into segregation and even hostility. In other cases it is at the mercy of the character of the pastor, that is, if he is an open and compassionate pastor, able to influence his flock, then the church welcomes a ‘single mother’ as part of the family;  otherwise, the girl who conceived and gave birth without a man by her side is simply discriminated against, and therefore, so to speak, loses the status of a member of God’s family. Even more ludicrous is the fact that there is no concern to also hold the man who fathered the child accountable, especially considering that the sexual act that results in a living being is not individual one. The attitude of those who only arrested the woman caught in flagrant adultery and that absolved the companion of the act is reissued (Jn 8:8-11).

On the unilateral penalization of women, John Paul II is most eloquent in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, where he deplores this attitude of society. For in number 14 he has the following words: “A woman is left alone, exposed to public opinion with “her sin”, while behind “her” sin there lurks a man – a sinner, guilty “of the other’s sin”, indeed equally responsible for it. And yet his sin escapes notice, it is passed over in silence: he does not appear to be responsible for “the other’s sin”! (…) How often is she abandoned with her pregnancy, when the man, the child’s father, is unwilling to accept responsibility for it? And besides the many “unwed mothers” in our society, we also must consider all those who, because of various pressures, even on the part of the guilty man, very often “get rid of” the child before it is born. “

These are words loaded with an emotion, typical of a shepherd, one who has the fate of the sheep at heart, especially the ones who have suffered the greatest injustice.

As mentioned in the introduction, this discriminatory attitude has already been denounced in the Synod on the Family in the 1980s and condemned by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. For the Pope deplores this situation in the following terms: “Besides, many forms of degrading discrimination still persist today in a great part of our society that affect and seriously harm particular categories of women, as for example childless wives, widows, separated or divorced women, and unmarried mothers.” (FC 24).

And in this regard, he gave very clear guidance, as can be read: “The Synod Fathers deplored these and other forms of discrimination as strongly as possible. I therefore ask that vigorous and incisive pastoral action be taken by all to overcome them definitively so that the image of God that shines in all human beings without exception may be fully respected.” It is the purpose of this reflection.

The situation was supposed to have taken another course in the process of being overcome by now. But unfortunately, the scenario persists. Some Christian communities or local churches have taken different forms to accompany the young women who have had their baby out of marriage, where the father is unidentified, the commonly called ‘single mothers’. There are trends of thought that defend their removal from the youth group so that they do not infect the other young women, as the conception is considered illicit, and in depriving them of holy communion.

Paragraph 63 of Ecclesia in Africa motivates why the idea of Church- Family of God is appropriate for Africa. According to the document “this image emphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust.”  Welcoming does not match discrimination, so there is an unquestionable paradox.


Once   the marginalization of ‘single mothers’ is noted in some churches, a paradox with the concept of the Church as Family, we are urged to seek ways to overcome this. Moreover, John Paul II already expressed, a few years ago, the desire to see the concept of the Church as Family deepened. We need to not only deepen the speculative point of view but also impact the experience of faith. He challenged theologians in this task, as can be seen in the following words from Ecclesia in Africa 63: “It is earnestly to be hoped that theologians in Africa will work out the theology of the Church as Family with all the riches contained in this concept, showing its complementarity with other images of the Church”. There is no lack in grounds to overcome this paradox. Let us succinctly present some of these.

2.1 Social ambit

There is no-one who does not have a sense of family and in Africa this is a very strong sentiment, either as a nuclear family, clan and even tribe. Pope Paul VI testifies to this. In his document entitled Africae Terrarum, 10 states: “An element of African tradition is still the sense of family. In this regard, we would like to emphasize the moral and even religious value of attachment to the family, also proven by the bond with the ancestors, which finds expression in many and widespread manifestations of worship (…). For Africans, the family thus becomes the natural environment in which man is born and acts, finds the necessary protection and security and, finally, has its continuity beyond eternal life, through union with the ancestors.”

This idea is taken up and developed in Ecclesia in Africa, 43 in the following terms: “In African culture and tradition the role of the family is everywhere held to be fundamental. Open to this sense of the family, of love and respect for life, the African loves children, who are joyfully welcomed as gifts of God.” “The sons and daughters of Africa love life. (…) The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this life. They reject the idea that it can be destroyed, even when the so-called ‘progressive civilizations’ would like to lead them in this direction. (…) Africans show their respect for human life until its natural end and keep elderly parents and relatives within the family.”

According to this testimony of Paul VI and John Paul II, family is a place of protection and security. So too for the Hebrews, the chosen people. At Passover, the people were instructed to gather as family and thus be saved. Excluding someone from the family is exposing them to more risks. Lack of good behaviour cannot be corrected by discrimination. Seek to listen and question. The persistence in the disapproved conduct has no capital punishment but there are patient pedagogical mechanisms that can gain them back. It is common to hear people say, ‘my brother doesn’t weigh’.  If he is incorrigible, leave it and live with it, as suffering and the family cross, according to the proverb of the Xirimas from Niassa, northern Mozambique “Nino nakhuleya nlumi khaninatthapa” (If you pull out a tooth, the tongue does not exult) = The misfortune of one member affects others.  This xirima proverb seems to be in tune with St Paul. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he states, “If one part suffers, all others suffer with it; when one part is honoured, all others share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).

A girl who conceives and gives birth to a child without identification of the child’s father is undoubtedly an irregularity and even dishonour for the family, but she is not excluded from the family although initially she may be the subject of social disapproval.

Another very important fact revealed in these words of Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia in Africa is the love and respect of life. Certainly, it is due to this fact that the girl assumes the responsibility of bringing her pregnancy to term even in the face of the contradiction of the man with which she was involved. It is the balance between protecting life and the risk the disapproval, where she opts to choose life instead of ending it. I believe Mary did the same when she received the angel’s announcement to conceive without the intervention of a man. She must have weighed between cooperating with the Lord and being the subject of some disapproval in the eyes of society and, by her commitment, she decided to cooperate with the Lord and not to heed what may have been thought and spoken.  It seems to me that this aspect in the court of ‘single mothers’ is not considered or if so, due weight is not given.

 2.2 Pastoral attitude of Jesus

The reference of any pastoral action is Jesus Christ, Pastor par excellence. What was Jesus’ pastoral attitude to cases of people with some misfortune in conduct?

It was never rejection but welcome. That does not signify His approval. Because he has always condemned sin, but not the sinner. The fact that he is in everything similar to us except in sin, is a clear disapproval of sin. His attitude in this matter is demonstrated in the episode of the woman caught in adultery. (Jn 8:8-11). Because, according to scholars in matters of Sacred Scripture (A. POPPI, 1997, 611), “Jesus does not approve of the disorderly conduct of women, nor does he also intend to affirm that a magistrate must be sinless to judge. However, it is not according to the severity of the accusers, who, under the pretext of the application of the Law did not pay attention to the good of the person. Moreover, they had not taken into consideration the complicity of the man, equally guilty. Jesus, disapproving of the woman’s sin, with an attitude full of kindness makes the adulteress recover her dignity and guides her on the road of honesty, ordering her not to sin anymore.”

In his preaching against the puritanical and segregationist attitude of some sectors of society of his time, he urged more for the pastoral care of welcoming and said expressly that there is more joy in a lost sheep that is found than the in the 99 who are safe, (Mt 18:10-14; Lc 15,1-7), moreover the security situation is not definite nor is it a given.

Jesus’ pastoral attitude to cases of misfortune in conduct is welcoming, without, however, approving evil. It encourages concern for those who are in an irregular situation in their journey of faith. Jesus not only left an expressly clear message, He also gave an example, from the point of view of pastoral reference for cases of this kind.

John Paul II expresses this better in the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 13 stating that “In all of Jesus’ teaching, as well as in his behaviour, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day. On the contrary, his words and works always express the respect and honour due to women.”  And in the same paragraph, “This becomes even more explicit in regard to women whom popular opinion contemptuously labelled sinners, public sinners and adulteresses”.

2.3 Magisterium

In the Magisterium there is no shortage of indications that can serve as a reference regarding the pastoral care of this social category, and that, when considered would help this pastoral care and overcome the paradox.

a) John Paul II

As mentioned above, in Familiaris Consortio João Paulo II condemns discrimination of some social categories, including that of ‘single mothers’. This discrimination is paradoxical for Church – Family of God and for the church in Africa, with very strong sense of family. It is absurd.

It is in this context that John Paul II states in Ecclesia in Africa, 48 “During my visit to Malawi I made the same point: “I put before you today a challenge — a challenge to reject a way of living which does not correspond to the best of your traditions, (…) Today I urge you to look inside yourselves. Look to the riches of your own traditions, look to the faith which we are celebrating in this assembly. Here you will find genuine freedom — here you will find Christ who will lead you to the truth”.

 b) Benedict XVI

During his apostolic visit to Cagliari, Italy, in September 2008, Benedict XVI revealed not only that he has in his heart the ‘single mothers’ but also acknowledged their heroism. For during the Angelus, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria, he said: “We ask Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word and our Mother, to protect all the mothers who, together with their husbands, educate their children in a harmonious family context, and those who, for many reasons, are alone in facing such a difficult task”.

c)The pastoral line of Pope Francis

The pastoral line of Pope Francis is very clear and known to most. From his gestures and documents, Pope Francis defends acceptance and mercy and not the pastoral ‘of the customs of faith’. For Francisco there is no ‘single mother’, because ‘single mother’ is not a marital status, so there is only a mother. Francis is well known for his ‘revolutionary’ doctrine of the ‘outgoing Church’. An outgoing Church is one that crosses the torrent of Cedron, as Jesus did during his passion, one that comes out of the safe environment, accepts the risk to search for the greater good.  It is the one that leaves the 99 sheep in a relatively safe environment to cross rivers, face the forest and snakes in search of sheep in need of comfort.

In his writings he leaves no doubt that he does not support segregation or marginalization and even worse antagonization of any type of sheep, as one can read:

“The Synod called for the development of a youth ministry capable of being inclusive, with room for all kinds of young people, to show that we are a Church with open doors.” (ChV 234). And in paragraph 232 of the same document, he brings a teaching that can serve as a light for this matter: “In rejecting the weeds, we also uproot or choke any number of shoots trying to spring up in spite of their limitations.” In addition to discouraging a pastoral that excludes some social layers, he gives guidance of the way forward, stating that “Instead of “overwhelming young people with a body of rules that make Christianity seem reductive and moralistic, we are called to invest in their fearlessness and to train them to take up their responsibilities, in the sure knowledge that error, failure and crisis are experiences that can strengthen their humanity” (ChV 233). He, like Jesus, welcomes the sinner but does not tolerate sin.  He is known for his zero tolerance in moral deviations particularly for ministers.

Conclusion to the contribution guide

First of all it is necessary to re-address that the pastoral attitude that some Christian communities take towards ‘single mothers’ is not aligned with the theological vision of the Church as Family, it does not fit with the praxis of a family or with the nature of the Creator Himself in relation to the infidelities of man as the words of the IV Eucharistic Prayer say: “And when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek might find you. Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.” God’s concern is evident to help and recover the unfortunate so that all may find Him. He is never indifferent to any situation of deviation or fall. Another very evident aspect is His patience and persistence in the face of the failures of humanity. It is symptomatic that God is always patient with man, but the latter has great difficulty in replicating the patience of his Creator.

Pastorally, to overcome the marginalization of a group of people, a concern of the Preparatory Document for the Synod on Synodality, that includes, in the view of this reflection, the ‘single mothers’, the shepherds with their flock should bear in mind the attitude of the family, the attitude of patience, zeal and persistence towards their members, an attitude in tune with that of the Creator.  It was Jesus’ moving prayer: ‘I protected them that you gave me, and I guarded them and none of them was lost’ (Jn 17:12).  Divine patience is pointed out as a paradigm in the pastoral care of ‘single mothers’.

This pastoral attitude would contribute to overcoming the paradox between the concept of the Church – Family and the pastoral practice of the marginalization of ‘single mothers. In our view, the process of synergy between theology and pastoral care or ‘synodality’ between pastoral actors with their flock and theologians, creators of theological concepts and advisors to decision-makers seems a crucial step. Pastoral practices should be founded on theological concepts and are the reflection of the theological vision. Just as philosophy should serve theology, so too should theology be a pastoral serviceman. Pastoral action should be illuminated by theology and not only dictated by the moralistic view, because in this way we have a monolithic vision of pastoral action. In fact, a question arises: what is theology for, if it cannot have an impact on pastoral practice, if it is only an exercise in intellect?

From the data briefly presented, it can be affirmed that for theology the Church is family. The challenge is articulation between theology and pastoral care. There is a sense that theologians are making their way and the actors in pastoral care with their flock, another way, a parallel faith walk, instead of synodality.

Undoubtedly, this undertaking requires    a renewed effort or better yet, a renewal, as the International Theological Commission (2018) rightly states in its document entitled Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church in the paragráfo,104 that

“Every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in increase of fidelity to her own calling. So, in carrying out her mission, the Church is called to constant conversion, which is a “pastoral and missionary conversion”, too; this involves renewing mentalities, attitudes, practices and structures, in order to be ever more faithful to her vocation.


Bibliographic reference

PAUL VI (1967), Apostolic Letter Africae Terrarum.

JOHN PAUL II (1981), Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

______________ (1988) Apostolic Letter Mulieres Dignitatem

_______________ (1995) Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa

BENEDICT XVI (2008), Angelus. Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria

Sunday, 7 September 2008.

FRANCIS (2019), Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit.

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

SECAM (2019), Kampala Document.

INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION (2018), Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,

Preparatory document of the Synod 2023.

FRIZZI G. (2008), Murima ni Ewani Exirima- Xirima Biosophy and Biosphere: Xirima Anthology and Grammar.  Maúa, Macua-Xirima Investigation Centre.

POPPI A. (1997), I Quattro VangeliCommento sinnotico, Padova, Edizione Messaggero.