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from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

My Africa blessed by the Lord

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean Emeritus of the Sacred College, comments from his home country Benin on the figures showing the impressive growth of the Catholic Church on the continent

Interview with Cardinal Bernardin Gantin by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin visiting the seminary of Ouidah in Benin

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin visiting the seminary of Ouidah in Benin

In the span of twenty-six years the Catholic Church in Africa has grown. And by a lot. Believers tripled, priests increased by 85%, religious by 60%, the seminarians increased fourfold. In this framework the increase of 45.8% in the number of bishops doesn’t look out of place, as it does instead on other continents such as Europe (cf. box). The data comes with the publication of the Statistical Yearbook of the Holy See for 2004 and was substantially confirmed last 27 June with the presentation of the lineamenta of the second African Synod. This “boom” of the African Church has been discussed with particular emphasis also by such newspapers as Le Monde and Le Figaro in France. For a comment on the data 30Days went to one of the most eminent figures of the Church in Africa: Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean Emeritus of the College of Cardinals, former Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, now for some years back in his homeland of Benin as simple “Roman missionary”.

Your Eminence, the latest data from the Statistics Office of the Holy See highlight a big increase in numbers for the Catholic Church in Africa. How do you explain this Catholic “boom” on the continent, one that concerns seminarians in a significant way?
BERNARDIN GANTIN: All vocations are a gift from God. It’s true that the priestly vocation is being granted in abundance to the young African Christians of our time, in all our countries. In my own Benin, the phenomenon is really impressive. This year alone 67 new priestly ordinations are expected, of people coming above all from the dioceses in the south, the area where the evangelization of the country was begun by members of the Society of the African Missions founded 150 years ago by Monsignor Marion de Brésillac. The main aim for him and his spiritual sons was the training of the local clergy, a task faithfully continued by their collaborators and successors, bishops and priests, for the creation and growth of lower and upper seminaries. In Benin we now have seven seminaries: two upper, four lower and one junior. What worries us is that a bit everywhere there is not a sufficient number of priest educators to train the seminarians properly. But the bishops don’t want to be careless in the fundamental work of evangelization, work that requires men and means, and so they send young and chosen priests to study the different disciplines abroad so that when they return they can in their turn train the young seminarians. All this is a gift for which we must always thank the Lord.
Besides the many baptisms there are also a great many vocations. The seminaries and the novitiates are full of candidates. Are they valid candidates? Or is there the danger, as seems to emerge from some pontifical speeches to the African bishops received during ad limina visits, that the priesthood is seen as a way to social advancement?
GANTIN: There is danger in all human things. But the danger you mention doesn’t discourage us. The Lord helps us. Because many vocations are good and even excellent. It is from the fruit that you know the tree. It’s from the seminarians of today that the Church will choose its bishops tomorrow, its good pastors. Of course, not all the seminarians will become priests. There must always be good and healthy discernment. And that is why the Pope asks the bishops on ad limina to keep a close watch. Certainly, there are failures, in Africa as everywhere else, among the clergy as in the religious life. But that doesn’t discourage us.
The Church in Africa is so rich in clergy that it has begun to export them. Even in our parishes there are beginning to be priests who come from your continent. What do you think of the phenomenon?
GANTIN: It’s a matter, one might say, of priests and religious as fidei donum in the other direction! It’s the confirmation of the goodness of the Church in Africa! The mission is a universal duty. However, in this case, too, discernment is necessary. Personally and thanks to my experience, I can recommend these priests fidei donum in the West to return home after a certain period: so they will be able on the one hand to enrich the country with their experience, and on the other make a salutary return to the source of their vocation. Then, if their bishop consents, they can return again to the West. What must be avoided is that African priests, without the consent of their own bishops, roam the dioceses of the Western world more in search of their own material comfort than out of genuine pastoral zeal.
The same phenomenon, perhaps on a larger scale, is occurring with the religious. What is your thinking on that?
GANTIN: The European religious congregations on their last legs or threatened with extinction should not go seeking cheap reinvigoration among the young Churches in Asia or Africa. I’m convinced that the new prefect of Propaganda Fide, the Indian cardinal Ivan Dias, thinks of it in the same way. And will act accordingly.
In Africa however many male and female missionaries from the West continue their work. Is their help still precious and necessary?
GANTIN: The missionaries are still necessary for their work, for their testimony, for their solidarity and for their fidelity to a land and to a people they love and by whom they are loved as brothers or as children in the same faith. Their numbers are decreasing, but not their apostolic zeal. They still have much to give, to give us.
The church of the Holy Trinity in Onitsha, Nigeria

The church of the Holy Trinity in Onitsha, Nigeria

The number of the bishops is increasing also. What, judging by your experience, is the level of the African episcopate?
GANTIN: The new dioceses that have been created testify to the fact that in Africa Christianity is growing, the catechumens are growing, as is the need of offering the sacraments. Unfortunately the sects are also growing. The bishops appointed in Africa are generally very young, but they possess the culture, the experience, the awareness and the zeal necessary for evangelization. If I have to make a complaint it would be this: if at one time the bishops moved little, today they travel too much. Sitting down, listening, praying with their own believers is more that ever necessary and urgent for them. Always keeping in mind what is set down in canon 395 of the Code of Canon Law on the obligation of residence in their diocese, they can also be an example to their own priests.
The number of the African cardinals doesn’t seem to grow instead. On the contrary. In the last Consistory only one African cardinal, over eighty years old, was created. How do you judge this “forgetfulness”?
GANTIN: The number of the African cardinals could increase as a sign of encouragement, for example, in Burkina Faso, in Senegal, in Gabon, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or also in Congo-Brazzaville, whose first cardinal, Emile Biayenda, was savagely and sadly killed on 23 March 1977. But we understand that the Pope must think chiefly about the equilibrium of the universal Church. And then, according to me, there’s no need to create or maintain in the minds of the Africans the expectation of having many cardinal. Evangelization isn’t of the same age everywhere. The cardinalate is not necessarily and equally a sign of reward, guarantee of maturity or of equality with others. I imagine the embarrassment of the Pope faced with the choices to be made. But the Pope doesn’t forget anybody.
Nigerian priests in procession in Lagos

Nigerian priests in procession in Lagos

On 27 June the lineamenta of the next African Synod, that could be celebrated in Rome in 2008, were presented. Is it an event awaited in Africa?
GANTIN: I still haven’t seen anything in regard. Here in Africa news arrives late… I don’t believe however that a date has already been fixed. I would, however, like that not only Africa, but all the continents acquired “a synodal spirit” so as to live it constantly, in peace and in ordeal. However, as I’ve already said, we need to prevent our bishops taking themselves off too much from their own Sees.
In the first week of July there was also a Liturgical Congress involving the whole African Church. Africa has been a place favoured by the inculturation of the Latin liturgy. What, for you, have been the positive and less positive aspects of this inculturation?
GANTIN: Healthy inculturation can be of help. But one must never move away from the Magisterium of the Universal Church. And our masses must not be too particular. They must not be understood only by us Africans. Any Catholic who participates in a religious function of ours must be able to recognize it, must be able to feel at home. Catholicism is not Protestantism.
A last personal question. You are particularly tied to the present Pontiff not least because you were created cardinals together by Paul VI in the same Consistory in 1977. Have you had occasion of speaking with him about Africa?
GANTIN: If God is willing and my health permits, I hope to be able to come to Rome soon to see the Pope. But not to speak, to listen rather: he is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, who has words of eternal life. He is the Father and the Pastor of the universal Church. We here in distant Benin always try to read his homilies and his speeches: they are like stars shining in the dark night into which the world seems to have fallen at present.

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