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from issue no. 10 - 2011

The African continent: humanity’s spiritual “lung”

Benin. The second pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Africa.

Reflections of Cardinal Robert Sarah

by Cardinal Robert Sarah

Benedict XVI during his trip to Cameroon and Angola in March 2009; the Pope returns to the African continent on the apostolic visit in Benin, 18 to 20 November 2011 <BR>[© Osservatore Romano]

Benedict XVI during his trip to Cameroon and Angola in March 2009; the Pope returns to the African continent on the apostolic visit in Benin, 18 to 20 November 2011
[© Osservatore Romano]


Africa is truly honored by this second pastoral visit of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who will soon travel to Benin. Without any doubt this pastoral visit will encourage the African continent to take hold, in responsible fashion, of its destiny, and will encourage it, as it goes through so many ordeals, to strengthen the faith of Christians and recall the Church to its missionary task. Africa is fully open to Christ. It has taken a great step toward Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were only two million Catholics in Africa. Today, the continent numbers 147 million, with an impressive number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and numerous conversions to Christianity. But vast regions still do not know ‘the Gospel of God’ (Mk 1, 14).
The first Synod on ‘The Church in Africa and her evangelizing mission’ and the second Synod of the continent on ‘The Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace’ dealt in very serious manner and with great commitment with the fundamental questions that worry and torment the whole Church and the African peoples: evangelization, inculturation, the Church ‘family of God’ and dialogue as ‘the Christian way of being inside its community as with other believers’; justice and peace; reconciliation; the massive and powerful influence of the media in the cultural, anthropological, ethical and religious evolution of our society. These important issues were studied and discussed in an atmosphere of faith and prayer, examined with humble obedience to the Word of God and under the ever-burning light of the Spirit, which accompanies us throughout history.
I am confident that with patience, determination, the strength of faith, and with the help of God, the African continent will know peace, reconciliation, greater social justice, and will be able to help restore human, religious and ethical values, the sanctity and respect of life from conception to natural death, the greatness of marriage between man and woman, the meaning and nobility of the family, that modern societies – especially Western ones, weakened by ‘silent apostasy’ – ‘deconstruct’ and make blurred and insubstantial. It will be able to help find God again, the sense of the sacred and the reality of sin in its individual and social forms.
In addition to its fabulous natural resources, Africa has extraordinary human richness. Its population is young and in constant growth. Africa is a land rich in human life. Unfortunately, despite the natural and human riches, it is tragically stricken by poverty, instability and political and economic unrest. It still experiences the effects of domination, of contempt, of colonialism, a phenomenon that – while apparently concluded on the political plane – is not extinct: today it is more subtle and dominant than ever. Because of the technological, economic and financial weaknesses of Africa, the powerful and astute experts of the economic world have organized the depredation and anarchic exploitation of its natural riches, without any benefit to the peoples of the continent. Africa is poor and without money, but buys weapons, with its natural resources to engage in wars fomented with the complicity of certain corrupt, dishonest African leaders who do not care about the terrible suffering of their people, refugees constantly in flight from violence, bloody conflict and insecurity.
We must, however, thank God. Today Africa as a whole, seems to be experiencing a certain calm as against the sharp tensions that have marked the continent over the past two decades. Although in some places the peace and security of populations remain fragile and threatened, and real progress towards peace is perceptible. Now the war is over – or almost – we must take the path of reconciliation. The second Synod on Africa has come at the right time to remind Christians that they must be builders of peace and reconciliation. To help deal with this immense challenge, and this difficult battle against poverty, for economic development and for more dignified and happier human life in which the Church must collaborate with other institutions, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, returns to Africa with the aim of reaffirming to the Africans his full confidence in their ability to get out autonomously from this long and painful socio-economic and political crisis through work, unity and communion of souls, and to remind the Christians of Africa that God has reconciled us with Him through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2Cor 5, 18). The Holy Father will stimulate the energies of the African continent and, like a father, will push the Africans to come out of the ‘reservation’ and to enter the great circuits of the world to affirm and publicly manifest their cultural values and the priceless human and spiritual qualities that they can offer the Church and all mankind.

The opening ceremony of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, St Peter's Basilica, 4 October 2009 [© Paolo Galosi]

The opening ceremony of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, St Peter's Basilica, 4 October 2009 [© Paolo Galosi]

Of course, today most of Africa is outside of the world’s great circuits. It is easily left aside, marginalized. Africa is a negligible link in the worldwide chain, faced by a world totally controlled by the rich and powerful nations in all its economic, technological, military aspects. All the armies of Western countries are deployed almost entirely in the poor countries of Asia and Africa, bombing and destroying buildings, thousands and thousands of innocent human lives, so as – they say – to maintain peace and promote democracy. Iraq and its people have been destroyed and Saddam Hussein has been killed. Bin Laden has been slaughtered and tossed into the sea. Muammar Gaddafi has just been suppressed with some other members of his family, and the memory of him has been done away with in the sands of the desert. From the economic standpoint the Ivory Coast stood well. It has now been split in two and destroyed... I don’t intend to defend these figures and their actions, which are certainly to be execrated and condemned time after time. But it is barbaric and unforgivable that civil powers join together and treat human beings created in the image of God in this way. And if those people were the robbers and dictators of their people, why fear that their graves will become places of pilgrimage? The same fate is perhaps awaiting other heads of state!
I do not know what God, in His silence, thinks of so much cruelty. His heart, probably, is saddened. Forgive me this digression. It must never happen again that money and power become the gods of the world and that human lives are offered in sacrifice to them. The truth will triumph. God alone is the first and greatest truth. Without truth, mankind cannot grasp the meaning of life; he then leaves the field open to the strongest (cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. From the entry into Jerusalem to the Resurrection). The law of the strongest, violence and the wars of this world are the great problem and the great wound in our humanity today!
The African continent has been forgotten by men but not by God, who clearly prefers the humble and the poor and weak. Already in 1995 Pope John Paul II said “Africa can be compared to the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; he fell among robbers who stripped him, beat him and departed, leaving him half dead (cf. Lk 10, 30-37). Africa is a Continent where countless human beings — men and women, children and young people — are lying, as it were, on the edge of the road, sick, injured, disabled, marginalized and abandoned. They are in dire need of Good Samaritans who will come to their aid” (Ecclesia in Africa, no. 41). For this reason, strong in their faith in Jesus Christ, the bishops of Africa have entrusted their Continent to Christ the Lord, the true Good Samaritan, convinced that He alone, through His Gospel and His Church, can save Africa from its current difficulties and heal it of its many ills.
Jesus Christ, His Gospel and His Church are the hope of Africa, and Africa is the future of the world. The recent Popes think so, in the interpretation I give to their words. And I think that their point of view deserves credit because it is expressed in the exercise of their prophetic role.
In the Old Testament, the prophets had the mission of reading, interpreting and commenting on the history and socio-political and religious events, not only of the people of Israel but also of neighboring peoples. Of course now the popes, the successors of Peter, continue this prophetic ministry of reading, analyzing and interpreting the history of the Church and the human, religious and socio-political affairs of the world.
And what do the recent popes say of Africa? They clearly express what Africa is in the eyes of God and its present and future mission in the world.
Paul VI in front of the monument to the Ugandan martyrs, Namugongo, 2 August 1969. Montini was the first pope to visit Africa <BR>[© Pepi Merisio]

Paul VI in front of the monument to the Ugandan martyrs, Namugongo, 2 August 1969. Montini was the first pope to visit Africa
[© Pepi Merisio]

As Paul VI declared in Kampala in July 1969: “Nova Patria Christi, Africa. The new homeland of Christ is Africa”. God has always had particular concern for Africa, making it participate in the salvation of the world. It was in fact the African continent that welcomed the Savior of the world when as a child He was forced to flee with Joseph and Mary to Egypt to save his life from the persecution of King Herod (cf. Insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, V, 2, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2009, pp. 416-417). And then it was an African, a native of Cyrene named Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, who helped Jesus carry the cross (cf. Mk 15, 21).
In 1995, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia in Africa, “I have written your names on the palms of my hands’ (Is 49,15-16). Yes, on the palms of Christ, pierced by the nails of the Crucifixion. The names of each one of you [Africans] is written on those palms” (Ecclesia in Africa, no. 143).
And Benedict XVI in his homily at the opening of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, on 4 October 2009 said: “Africa is the depository of a priceless treasure for the whole world: its profound sense of God… Africa constitutes an immense spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope. But this ‘lung’ can also become ill. And at this moment at least two dangerous pathologies are infecting it: in the first place, a disease that is already widespread in the Western world, in other words practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilistic thought” (Insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, V, 2, Libreria Editrice Vaticana,Vatican City 2009, pp. 328-331).
Hence the importance and urgency of a deeper evangelization of the mindsets, customs and cultures of Africa, an intense task of study and appropriation of the faith and of the Christian mysteries. The training of the heart, which makes possible the formation of links of intimate friendship with Christ and promotes an intense life of prayer and frequent and personal encounters with God, needs to be promoted and reinforced. To get there we have the help, support and encouragement of African models of holiness we are called on to imitate: the martyrs St Charles Lwanga and companions, Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi, St Josephine Bakhita, St Clementine Anuarite martyr, and so on. But we also have another great Christian and a great African model who has just returned to his Father’s house: the venerable Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.
He was a man of God, a great man of prayer, attentive to God and man, and of a delicate humility. This is what he recommends: “Let your days be ordered, uniting rest and work, listen to the Lord and also to men, and then pray. Pray especially through the living sign of the Eucharist, which is the divine moment of God’s greatest love for humanity” (homily for a priestly ordination, 19 November 2005). Prayer was the pivot of his life. He said one day to a young priest: “My son, we must pray a lot. We must pray for forgiveness for everything we could have done, but that we could not achieve... Prayer, prayer; yes, prayer before everything and solely... As we increase our tasks and responsibilities, prayer must become more intense, longer, more insistent”. It must unite us closer to God who works through our poor selves. And towards the end of his life, he witnessed to it when he said: “I promised Pope John Paul II to consecrate the time of my retirement to meditation, listening and prayer” (Golden anniversary as bishop, Ouidah, 3 February 2007).
Cardinal Bernardin Gantin was a faithful and loving servant of God, the Church and the Pope. A man of great faith, totally infused with the love of Christ. Submission, loyalty and love for the Church and the Pope, that’s how he lived his gift and his humble service to God, who had granted him the gift of grace of the priesthood. As a cardinal he described that honor and privilege thus: “What is a cardinal of the Church if not a servant, minister of the Pope, of use, like the hinge of a door, according to its Latin root ‘cardo’, always happy and grateful to have been chosen solely to serve” (Homily for his thirtieth anniversary as cardinal, Cotonou, 27 June 2007). He added: “All my Christian love is summed up in these simple words: God, Jesus Christ, the Pope, the Virgin. Supreme realities that Rome made me discover, love and serve. That is why one can never thank God enough”.
Cardinal Bernardin Gantin was thus also a great African. Despite his thirty years in the service of the universal Church, in Rome, he remained unabashedly a genuine African, simple, humble, affable, respectful of everyone, without pomposity, wanting above all to deepen his love and his friendship with Christ every day and to render his service to the Church and the Pope ever more true, more complete and more humble.
Gantin with John Paul I, 28 September 1978 [© Foto Felici]

Gantin with John Paul I, 28 September 1978 [© Foto Felici]

He was a safe and solid bridge between Africa and the Holy See. He was a worthy son of the Church. He was a worthy and noble representative of Africa towards the other continents and peoples of the world. This is what Benedict XVI said of him: “His personality, human and priestly, was a marvelous synthesis of the African soul with those specific features of the Christian spirit: of African culture and identity and of Gospel values. He was the first African churchman to have held positions of extremely high responsibility in the Roman Curia, and always carried them with his typical humble and simple style” (Insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, IV, 1, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2008, pp. 862-863, Friday 23 May 2009).
I had the privilege of knowing Cardinal Gantin from as early as 1971. He was then secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide). And I was a student in Rome. My bishop, His Excellency Monsignor Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo, Archbishop of Conakry in Guinea, was in jail. The Church of Guinea was going through a storm of persecution under the revolutionary regime of Sékou Touré. So I no longer had a bishop and had lost all contact with my country and my family. So Monsignor Gantin, as he then was, acted as bishop, father, counselor. His humility, his simplicity and gentleness have marked me deeply. He had an immense affection for me and I for him. He considered me as his son, his continuation, his offshoot. One day, during a reception in the Embassy of Senegal to the Holy See, organized in his honor for his final return to Benin, he said, speaking of me: “Today I’m like a banana tree. The banana tree after it has borne fruit, is cut down and it dies. But before it dies, it plants a large number of shoots that take its place. This here is my shoot”. I realize that compared to the immense quality of the cardinal, I’m nothing but a shriveled offshoot, poor and without much value. But I am proud to have had him as a father and that he considered me his spiritual son.
By going to Benin, Benedict XVI is visiting the whole of Africa, to confirm its faith, reawaken its hope and trust in its future, a bright future because it is in the hands of God. The Holy Father will give to the Church in Africa a new missionary impulse and a new dynamism in the service of the Gospel, of reconciliation, of justice and of peace. But if he goes to Benin, it is also Cardinal Gantin, this man “full of wit and wisdom”, this great servant of God, of the Church and of the Pope, whom Benedict XVI will venerate, going to meditate for some moments before his tomb. He deserves the friendship and attention of the Pope
May this second pastoral visit of the Holy Father reinforce and make more filial and more affectionate the devotion and loyalty of the whole Church of Africa to the Successor of Peter, as was the venerable Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.

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