Pope in western Africa to outline church's future

November 18, 2011 - 10:25 AM
Benin Pope

Catholic faithful pray to a statue of Jesus Christ on the cross, at St. Michel Church 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)

COTONOU, Benin (AP) — Catholics carrying umbrellas embossed with Pope Benedict XVI's image greeted him on 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.

Even in Benin, the heartland of the voodoo tradition, the number of Catholics has grown by nearly half in the past decade, adding more than half-a-million converts at the same time when congregations are declining in Europe.

Several hundred women lined the tarmac awaiting his arrival, wearing dresses with his face on them. Supporters from each parish wore a different color headscarf — blue, green, red and yellow. The faithful used umbrellas and even pieces of paper to shield their faces from the blazing sun as temperatures reached 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit).

At the cathedral where the 84-year-old pope was to speak later Friday, schoolchildren in their uniforms lined the sidewalks in anticipation.

Fr. Andre Quenum, the publisher of main Catholic weekly in Benin, says Africans have been particularly drawn to the church's teachings because of the that poverty and violence that have wracked the continent.

"One of the consequences of modernity in Europe is that people have been able to solve many of the problems of daily life. If you fall sick you can go to a clinic," he said. "Here when you get sick, you could very well die. So we put our problems in God's hands," he said. "And this is where the pope has seen our potential."

The pope is arriving in West Africa with a document that will attempt to use church doctrine as a kind of pastoral guide for the faithful. The guide is aimed at addressing the ills of a continent whose progress has been routinely derailed by war.

The document is based in part on the 57 recommendations of the 2009 synod held in Cameroon's capital, where bishops met to articulate the church's role in Africa.

Among the recommendations is a "sacrament of reconciliation" which will use the church's dogma of forgiveness as a tool to try to resolve violence. In remote parts of Africa where there are no courts and no police force, communities have often created their own rituals of reconciliation. One of the proposals that may be included in the papal document is to do an in-depth study of these practices in order to try to learn from them.

Priests who have traveled from neighboring countries to see the pope say that the idea of looking to African traditions shows that the Catholic faith has become more supple since colonial times, when becoming Christian meant turning your back on tradition.

Cameroonian priest Fr. Jean Benoit Nlend says that among his country's Bassa people, numerous rituals have been created to deal with life's conflicts. If a man beats his wife and she returns to her parent's home, the husband can only get her back if he comes with plates of food, and negotiates a cash amount to be paid to her kin in reparation.

"In my seminary in Cameroon, we went around the table and talked about the types of rituals our ancestors performed to fix problems that arose in the society. If you try to destroy these things, you render the people fragile. You take away their moral coordinates," said Nlend, an editor at Cameroon's Episcopalian publication.

"Catholicism is a much more supple religion now than it once was. The church shouldn't try to chase away African culture. What it needs to do is act like a sieve, and remove only the things that don't help human beings evolve," he said.

Because of this more supple attitude toward African culture, Catholicism is booming on the continent. Africa has become the world's feeder church, said Catholic scholar Lamin Sanneh, a Yale Divinity School professor who is from the African nation of Gambia.

"Europe is now looking to Africa to replenish its churches. In France, the most famous Catholic seminary has more priests in training from Africa than from all of Europe," said Sanneh, who is himself a native of Gambia, a small nation north of Benin.

To prepare for the pope's visit, parishes throughout the country were given a special prayer asking for reconciliation.

"Our father, you have created man and woman in your image," says the text of the prayer. "But they distance themselves from you by their tribal divisions, their violence, their wars. May the visit of Pope Benedict XVI create in us the desire to reconcile ourselves."

The government of Benin alsoissued public service announcements encouraging people to clean up the city ahead of the pope's arrival. One billboard showed a picture of the pope, next to three suggestions: Sweep your street, pick up garbage and repaint your house. On state television, an entire segment was dedicated to showing how a local church had revarnished their pews.

In Ouidah, nuns were working around the clock putting the finishing touches on the chapel housing the tomb of a cardinal that was a personal friend of Benedict's. The pontiff is expected to pray there on Saturday. On the tiled floor was a pile of pastel-colored bows, the kind you might use to decorate a present. The nuns were instead taping the pink bows to each of the chapel's columns.

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.