Pope BeninAfrica, land of hope

Franco Moretti, Editor of Nigrizia

On 18–20 November, Pope Benedict XVI visited the country of Benin where he consigned the document Africae Munus, based on the Second African Synod of 2009. Its reflections will guide the pastoral activities of Christian communities in the coming years. The following is a summary of his visit

Eighteen November 2011, Pope Benedict XVI is on his way to Benin. During the flight he engages in conversation with over forty journalists who are travelling with him, and answering the question of why he chose the small Western African nation for his second visit to the African continent, he replies: ‘There are a number of reasons. The first is that Benin is a country at peace, both externally and internally. The second reason is that there are different religions present, and they co-exist peacefully. It seems to me that this co-existence of religions, where interreligious dialogue fosters peace and freedom, is very important and interreligious dialogue is a factor of peace and freedom. Lastly, I want to pay homage and pray at the tomb of a great friend, a noble son of Benin and a great man of the Church, the unforgettable Cardinal Bernardin Gantin’.

Other questions follow. What is the stance of the Church vis-à-vis the increasing growth in Africa of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches? The Pope answers that: ‘The characteristic elements of these churches are minimal institutional character, lightweight teaching, a straightforward message, and then a participative liturgy with the expression of personal emotions and of local culture, with combinations of different religions, sometimes in a syncretistic way. All this, on the one hand, guarantees success, but it also implies instability. Hence, we must not imitate these communities, but we must ask what we can do to give fresh vitality to the Catholic faith. And I would also say that a participative but not emotional liturgy is needed: it must not be based merely on the expression of emotions, but should be characterized by the presence of the mystery into which we enter, by which we are formed’.

Touching upon the issue of inculturation the Pope adds that: ‘It is important for inculturation not to lose universality. I would prefer to speak of interculturalism, rather than inculturation, that is, a meeting of cultures within the shared truth of our humanity and our era, giving rise to a growth in universal fraternity; we must not lose the great gift of catholicity, meaning that in every part of the world we are brothers, we are a family, knowing one another and working together in a spirit of fraternity’.

In the light of these words one understands why the concluding Eucharistic celebration on 20 November, the only one presided by the Pope, was not ‘inculturated’: it was so characterized by the ‘presence of the mystery’ to be celebrated in Latin.

Modernity to be rooted in values

On his arrival at the airport of Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital, early in the afternoon, the Pope is welcomed by the country’s President Thomas Boni Yayi and in his first address he offers further reasons for his visit. ‘This year Benin celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, as well the 150th anniversary of its evangelization. This Apostolic journey also fulfils my desire to bring back to African soil the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus (the outcome of the Second African Synod held in Rome in 2009). Its reflections will guide the pastoral activities of numerous Christian communities in the coming years’.

Talking about the country’s transition ‘currently under way from tradition to modernity’, the Pope says that: ‘Modernity need not provoke fear, but neither can it be constructed by neglecting the past. It needs to be accompanied by prudence for the good of all in order to avoid the pitfalls which exist on the African continent and elsewhere. The transition to modernity must be guided by sure criteria based on recognized virtues, but equally which are firmly rooted in the dignity of the person, the importance of the family and respect for life. All of these values exist in view of the common good which must take first place, and which must constitute the primary concern of all in positions of responsibility’.

The whole country of Benin is in a festive mood, celebrating the visit of the 84-year-old Pope in a society where the elderly enjoy respect and veneration. For the occasion, the city of Cotonou has undergone a facelift: the main streets and avenues have been cleaned up, the facades of the houses have been painted afresh, potholes have been filled, trucks that had been parked in the streets obstructing the traffic have been moved away. Many colourful boards along the streets carry the writing ‘Welcome Pope’. Looking at the new countenance of the city promoted by the local authorities, somebody comments: ‘It would be good if the Pope could come to pay a visit to our country at least once a year’.

Later on during the first day of his visit, at the cathedral of Cotonou, Pope Benedict VXI pays homage to the former Archbishops who are buried there: Archbishop Christoph Adimou and Archbishop Isidore de Sousa. ‘They were heroic workers in the vineyard of the Lord, and their memory lives on in the hearts of Catholics and innumerable other citizens of Benin. These two Bishops were, each in his own way, pastors full of zeal and charity. They spent themselves, without counting the cost, in the service of the Gospel and of the people of God, especially the most vulnerable. You know well that Archbishop de Sousa was a friend of the truth and that he played a decisive role in your country’s transition to democracy’.

A continent of hope

The second day begins at the Presidential Palace where the Pope meets with Government members, representatives of state institutions, diplomatic corps and leaders of major religions. His speech is vibrant and goes beyond the boundaries of the hosting country, reaching out to the whole continent. ‘Speaking on other occasions, I have often joined the word hope to the word Africa. The word hope is also found several times in the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus. When I say that Africa is a continent of hope, I am not indulging in mere rhetoric, but simply expressing a personal conviction which is also that of the Church. Too often, our mind is blocked by prejudices or by images which give a negative impression of the realities of Africa, the fruit of a bleak analysis. During recent months, many peoples have manifested their desire for liberty, their need for material security, and their wish to live in harmony according to their different ethnic groups and religions. Indeed, a new state has been born on your continent (South Sudan).

Many conflicts have originated in man’s blindness, in his wish for power and in political and economic interests which mock the dignity of people and of nature. Human beings aspire to liberty; then to live in dignity. At this time, there are too many scandals and injustices, too much corruption and greed, too many errors and lies, too much violence which leads to misery and to death. These ills certainly afflict your continent, but they also afflict the rest of the world’.

Launching an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries and the rest of the world, the Pope says: ‘Do not deprive your peoples of hope! Adopt a courageous ethical approach to your responsibilities and, if you are believers, ask God to grant you wisdom! This wisdom will help you to understand that, as promoters of your peoples’ future, you must become true servants of hope. It is not easy to live the life of a servant, to remain consistent amid the currents of opinion and powerful interests. Power, such as it is, easily blinds, above all when private, family, ethnic or religious interests are at stake. God alone purifies hearts and intentions’.

Clarifying the Church’s role, Pope Benedict XVI says that: ‘The Church does not propose any technical solution and does not impose any political solution. She repeats: do not be afraid! Humanity is not alone before the challenges of the world. God is present. There is a message of hope, hope which generates energy, which stimulates the intellect and gives the will all its dynamism’.

On the issue of interreligious dialogue, the Pope expresses his view in this way: ‘I do not think it is necessary to recall the recent conflicts born in the name of God, or deaths brought about in the name of him who is life. Everyone of good sense understands that a serene and respectful dialogue about cultural and religious differences must be promoted. True interreligious dialogue rejects humanly self-centred truth, because the one and only truth is in God. God is Truth. Hence, no religion, and no culture may justify appeal or recourse to intolerance and violence’.

Work for justice, peace and reconciliation

At mid-morning of the second day of his visit, Pope Benedict XVI pays homage to the tomb of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who died in 2008 at the age of 86. His body is buried in the chapel of Saint Gall Seminary at Ouidah, infamous slave trade centre of the past and present spiritual capital of the Voodoo religion. Immediately after, he addresses priests, seminarians, consecrated men and women, and the laity: ‘I give thanks to God for your zeal, in spite of the occasionally difficult conditions in which you are called to give witness to his love. I thank him for the many men and women who have proclaimed the Gospel in this land, and indeed throughout Africa’.

He encourages the priests: ‘Dear priests, the responsibility for promoting peace, justice and reconciliation falls in a special way to you. Owing to your reception of Holy Orders and your celebration of the Sacraments, you are called in effect to be men of communion’.

Turning to the consecrated men and women he says: ‘Dear men and women religious, either active or contemplative, the consecrated life is a radical following of Jesus. May poverty, obedience and chastity increase your thirst for God and your hunger for his Word, who, by increasing, transforms hunger and thirst into service of those who are deprived of justice, peace and reconciliation’.

And to the laity he says: ‘Dear lay faithful here present, you who are at the heart of the daily realities of life, you are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, I urge you to renew yourselves and your work for justice, peace and reconciliation’.

Around noon, at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of Mary of Ouidah, the Pope signs the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus. ‘The Second Special Assembly for Africa concentrated on the theme of reconciliation, justice and peace. Following on this assembly, the Church in Africa is called to promote peace and justice. Peace is one of our greatest treasures! To attain peace, we need to have courage and the reconciliation born of forgiveness, the will once more to live as one, to share a vision of the future and to persevere in overcoming difficulties. Men and women reconciled and at peace with God and neighbour can work for greater justice in society. Africa, land of a New Pentecost, put your trust in God! Impelled by the Spirit of the Risen Christ, become God’s great family, generous with all your sons and daughters, agents of reconciliation, peace and justice! Africa, Good News for the Church, become Good News for the entire world!’

The Exhortation’s phase of application begins 

Saturday evening, the Pope returns to Cotonou where he encounters abandoned and sick children at the Home of Peace and Happiness run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Recalling this moment after his return to Rome, the Pope confides that it ‘was an extremely moving experience, which permitted me to see concretely how love and solidarity are able to make the strength and affection of the Risen Christ present in weakness’.

Sunday morning, 20th of November, the Stade de l’Amitié of Cotonou is packed with over 50 000 thousand pilgrims coming from all over Benin and neighbouring countries to welcome the Pope for the Eucharistic celebration.

After the Mass, Pope Benedict XVI officially consigns the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus, to 200 African bishops, Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa, representing the ecclesial communities of the continent. ‘Upon the reception of this Exhortation, the phase of assimilation and application of its theological, ecclesiological, spiritual and pastoral data begins at the local level. This text seeks to promote, encourage and consolidate the various local initiatives already in place. It seeks as well to inspire other initiatives for the strengthening of the Catholic Church in Africa. Evangelization presupposes and brings with it reconciliation and it promotes peace and justice’.

Later on, at the Card. Bernardin Gantin International Airport of Cotonou, the Pope bids farewell to the people of Benin before returning to Rome: ‘I wanted to visit Africa once more; it is a continent for which I have a special regard and affection, for I am deeply convinced that it is a land of hope. I have already said this many times. Here are found authentic values which have much to teach our world; they need only to spread and blossom with God’s help and the determination of Africans themselves. The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation can greatly assist in this, for it opens up pastoral horizons and will lead to creative initiatives. I entrust it to the faithful of Africa as a whole, to study carefully and to translate into concrete actions in daily life. May Africans be able to experience reconciliation in peace and justice!’