On the fourth Sunday in Lent, gospel hymns echo down quiet streets along Ghana's coast. A five-piece band welcomes the incense-bearing priest to the altar in a simple Catholic church on a hill above the Atlantic. The band aside, the mass is traditional. Hymns alternate with readings from the Book of Joshua. Parishioners look on intently, occasionally roused to their feet for a brief burst of singing and clapping.
Here in Cape Coast is where Peter Turkson, 64, cut his teeth two decades ago as a church leader. Now a cardinal, he had been fancied as a potential pope, underlining the church's rapid rise in Africa. According to the Vatican, Africa has 186 million Catholics, 16 per cent of the global flock, a more than six-fold increase from half a century ago.
The African church's vitality also is marked by the devotion of its faithful.
"The African is incurably religious," says Charles Palmer-Buckle, archbishop of Accra.
A 2010 survey by Pew Research Center backs that assessment, ranking sub-Saharan Africa as the most religious part of the world. Though Christianity displaced traditional African religions, the zeal of animistic rituals survives.
Less well known are Catholicism's deep roots on the continent. North Africa produced at least three early popes. Portuguese settlers of present-day Ghana introduced the faith to western Africa more than 500 years ago, and the church has long sponsored a network of schools and clinics.
There was a groundswell after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, which authorized the use of vernacular languages at mass and delegated more power to local churches and dioceses. The church's indigenization proceeded: African song and dance were incorporated, and African priests -- not European missionaries -- took charge.
Though the church in Africa thrives, it has had its share of controversy. How far should church leaders go in appealing to local tastes in worship? Should the church seek greater autonomy from Rome to pursue its own agenda?
It faces strong competition from evangelicals, especially among the young. In Ghana they have twice as many members as the Catholic Church does. The influence of swashbuckling charismatics is inescapable on the streets of Accra, the capital. Photographs of dapper pastors, often styled "prophets," appear on billboards and leaflets. The avuncular Palmer-Buckle says that his competitors poach Catholics by offering "the crown without the cross," salvation without sacrifice. Many promise earthly riches.
The church must also overcome other hurdles. Last month, Turkson caused a stir when he claimed that the African church knows no sexual abuse in its ranks because homosexuality is so rare on the continent. More broadly, critics decry a lack of openness in church affairs. Corruption is a serious problem.
Nonetheless, Palmer-Buckle is upbeat. Older parishioners who left the church, perhaps to find riches, are slipping back into his pews, he says.