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from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

CARDINALS. Interview with Bernardin Gantin

«I remain a Roman missionary in my country»

The Dean Emeritus of the Sacred College, after a long stay in Rome, returned to Benin two years ago. And today he tells of his Africa

by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin

«First of all I wish to thank 30Days and president Giulio Andreotti for allowing me to express my gratitude for what the Pope and the Holy See say and do for my Africa. I left Rome in body but not in spirit. I remain a Roman missionary in my country where I bring the solicitude of the whole Church». Despite the continuous interruptions on the telephone line, the voice of Cardinal Bernard Gantin is clear and well-defined. We reached him in Benin to get him to tell us about his Africa. After a long stay in the Roman Curia the cardinal in fact requested and obtained permission from the Pope to return to his own country. «I have been back here for two years. And I made this choice to pray, to help the bishops of my country with my presence and prayer.»
And Africa has need of prayers …
BERNARDIN GANTIN: Painfully I become ever more aware that in Africa, all of Africa, from east to west, from north to south, we are physically and spiritually immersed in difficulties that torment us, that give us no peace. War, violence, hatred, enforced emigrations, epidemics, pandemics, of which the most notorious and deadly is certainly AIDS. And then there’s the political class and the bureaucracy who are not always examples of honesty and justice. On the contrary. There are many problems, which you perhaps know better than me because you have the fortune of finding yourselves at the center of the world, of universality, of Catholicity.
But there are positive signs…
GANTIN: There are, there are, thank God. I’ll give you an example. I just took part in a mass celebrated in the largest parish of Cotonou in support of the victims of the tsunami in Asia. Carnage that left no one indifferent. Here in Benin millions of local francs were collected to help the populations hit by the disaster. Of course it’s only a drop in an ocean of need, but also a demonstration of how Africa with its own poverty is sensitive to the poverty of others.
How did you find Africa after many years of absence?
GANTIN: I was away from my continent for thirty-one years. In that period Africa did not remain static. To be fair, it is necessary to recognize that there has been a certain improvement in the average conditions of life. This must be recognized. And for this we give thanks to the Lord. From the moral point of view however the situation is as I have described, with all the destitution that surrounds us. Everything has increased. Also evil.
And the Church?
GANTIN: The Church grows, despite the lack of means, and our own lack. But this is for the greater glory of God. Because the Church is His, not ours. In Benin we have two seminaries and in each of them there are over two hundred major seminarians. Every year about fifty priests are ordained. And this is lovely, truly lovely. It means that the Lord loves us particularly well. It is a concern that these youths be given a good training, that they be wisely sensitized and cared for until they can positively confront today’s and tomorrow’s difficulties.
There are those who state – also in Africa – that one of the major challenges the Church must face is Islam …
GANTIN: Islam is what it always was. At times it shows its fraternal face and then things go well. At times it’s the distrustful one, and then problems arise. I must say that here in Benin relations are good. Even if there are Islamic countries that invest their riches here for purposes of proselytism. I say it without bitterness, but I say it so that we can work with our Muslim brothers for the well-being of the same people, of the men and women of our land. It is they in fact who suffer from our eventual conflicts.
What advice do you feel you could give to the Church in Africa?
GANTIN: The Catholic Church for its part does all it can do. The bishops, the priests, the religious, male and female, the missionaries, with the help of God, dedicate themselves entirely. Even at the risk of their lives. You have undoubtedly heard of the recent slaughter, senseless and ferocious, of the nuns in Chad, which can be the sad image of what the reality and the risks of the Church in Africa are. But the Church does not get discouraged, even when it becomes surrounded by the many sects and movements that claim to substitute it.
What is the difference between the missionaries you knew in your youth and those you meet today?
GANTIN: The difference is in the fact that their number is greatly reduced. The reason is known: the collapse of vocations in the Churches of Europe and North America, who sent their apostolic workers to Africa. But those who remain, especially the religious, commit themselves to doing a great deal in every field, from that of health to that of education. They do so with a total gift of themselves. And they merit all of our profound gratitude.
How can the politicians and governors of the rich countries help your continent?
GANTIN: I hope that European politicians had the means of hearing the appeals of the symposium held in Rome between the African and European bishops. A truly important gathering. On that occasion the list of the afflictions and expectations of Africa were well highlighted. The generosity of these politicians is required more than ever. The more we suffer, the more we cry out. And the more we hope. We hope they will come to help us, also because by helping us they help themselves. Solidarity also profits those who offer it. It’s true that governments also have great worries about alleviating the sufferings of their own countries. But I invite them with my heart in my hand to help the European Churches in the precious charitable works that they have set going in Africa.
Are you saying that it is better for whoever really wants to help Africa to turn to the Church rather than to states or other organizations?
GANTIN: For me it is the most direct and safest way. I do not doubt the good faith of others or of other organizations, the voluntary ones also. But nevertheless I believe that the most efficient way is that of the Churches, also because in this case it is easier to control and verify that the goods actually go to those they are meant for and not instead to swell the odious mechanism of corruption widespread alas on our continent.
A last greeting for our readers, Your Eminence …
GANTIN: I thank 30Days for this opportunity. My health has ups and downs. I am in the hands of God. But the Pope in continuing his mission to the end is an example to us. And this is a help to me to be a humble witness to the goodness of the Lord. Materially I don’t have anything anymore. Better that way! This material poverty helps me to live spiritual poverty better.

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