Pope’s New Document Outlines Church Role in Africa
In a basilica built in the birthplace of Africa’s Voodoo religion in Benin, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday unveiled a treatise outlining the role of the Catholic Church on the continent and explained how Catholicism can help address Africa’s chronic wars and interact with indigenous practices.

Among the messages the pope is bringing to Africa is that Catholicism has evolved from the religion practiced by the missionaries who first brought the church to this coastal town, considered the cradle of Voodoo, a state religion in Benin alongside Christianity and Islam.

Catholics need to cultivate respect both for Islam and for traditional practices, the pope said in the document. But he also told bishops they must carefully discern which traditional practices might clash with church doctrine so they can “separate the good seed from the weeds.”

“The church is open to cooperation with all the components of society, particularly with the representatives of the churches and ecclesial communities not yet in full communion with the Catholic church,” the pope said as African priests and nuns held up camera phones in the pews of the packed basilica to record his message. “As well as with the representatives of the non-Christian religions, above all those of traditional religions.”

Catholic faithful stand n line near a… View Full Caption
Catholic faithful stand n line near a billboard of Pope Benedict XVI with Benin President Yayi Boni, as they wait to enter the airport for the Pope’s arrival, in Cotonou, Benin Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Pope Benedict XVI is returning Friday to Africa, the Roman Catholic Church’s fastest-growing region whose pool of aspiring priests are helping to replenish orders in Europe, where congregations are dwindling.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

As he signed the 87-page papal treatise, several dozen Voodoo practitioners sat in plastic chairs in the Temple of the Pythons located at the opposite end of the basilica’s square, less than 100 yards from where Benedict was preaching. The high priest, who sat with his foot on a bottle of gin, a traditional Voodoo spirit offering, said they had gathered to hear the pope’s message which was being projected outside through massive speakers mounted on the basilica.

“This is a positive message which will bring peace to Africa,” said Houkpon II Houawamenod. “I am a baptized Catholic, but I can’t turn my back on where I come from. When I was a child if I attended a Voodoo ceremony, I used to get flogged at school the next day,” he said.

Houawamenod, who like many in Benin practice a combination of Voodoo and Catholicism, said: “We are simply taking a different road to get to the same place.”

The 84-year-old pope’s three-day trip is his second to Africa, the most rapidly growing region for the Roman Catholic Church. While congregations are graying in Europe and orders are struggling to recruit future priests, there are not enough spots in seminaries in Africa to accommodate all those wishing to pursue a religious life.

“Africae munus,” Latin for “Africa’s Commitment,” is the pope’s attempt to tailor the faith to the needs of a continent shattered by war and crippled by corruption. The pope is proposing a reconciliation which draws on the church’s doctrine of forgiveness to stem the cycle of retribution at the core of many of the region’s most recent conflicts.

Among the ideas he suggested is an in-depth study of local ceremonies used to resolve conflicts in Africa, though he made clear that these cannot take the place of the church’s sacrament of penance.

Earlier on Saturday at the country’s largest seminary located a few miles from the basilica, the pope addressed the aspiring priests, and explained how they can become an instrument for changing Africa.

“Dear priests, the responsibility for promoting peace, justice and reconciliation falls in a special way to you,” he said. “As crystal does not retain the light but rather reflects it and passes it on, in the same manner the priest must make transparent what he celebrates.”

Rev. Gabriel Dobade, a priest from Chad which has seen repeated coups and wars said the Biblical principle of turning the other cheek is a perfect instrument for resolving Africa’s cycle of violence.

“Africa needs to stop fighting. We need to assume responsibility for peace,” he said. “The pope’s message is a strong one. And it should be heard throughout Africa.”

The pope’s trip to Benin, a place that has added over half-a-million new converts in the past decade, comes in the context of a crisis of faith in the Western hemisphere. Congregations in Europe are dwindling including in the pope’s native Germany, which lost around 2 million members in the same period that Benin’s churches grew by 50 percent, according to the World Christian Dabatase.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI disembarks from his plane… View Full Caption
Pope Benedict XVI disembarks from his plane at the airport in Cotonou, Benin Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. Catholics wearing colorful dresses printed with his image greeted him Friday as he embarked on his second trip to Africa, where he plans to outline the church’s future for the continent with the fastest growing number of faithful.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) Close
The number of people joining orders in Europe is in steep decline, said Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, who points to France’s most famous seminary of Saint Sulpice. With room for 200, the seminary today houses just 50 — many of them from Africa, he said.

In “Africa’s Commitment,” Benedict says there is potential for Africa to become a resource for the rest of the world, acting as “a spiritual lung for humanity.” Among the traits he praised in Africans is their love of family on a continent where its rare to find only children, and their deeply felt faith, whether it is in the context of Christianity or not.

“However, if it is to stand erect with dignity, Africa needs to hear the voice of Christ who today proclaims love of neighbor, love even of one’s enemies,” the pope writes in the exhortation, “to the point of laying down one’s life.”

The pope doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Africa’s leaders. At a meeting with Benin’s government inside the presidential palace on Saturday morning, Benedict made an impassioned plea to the continent’s ruling class: “From this place, I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries,” Benedict said in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou.

“Do not deprive your people of hope. Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present. Adopt a courageous, ethical approach to your responsibilities.”