The announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, seems to have come as a greater shock to African Catholics than to many other Christians in the world. African Catholics are so strongly tied to Rome and to the Pontiff – in their fidelity to Christ.
It is that fidelity to Rome, to church teaching and tradition that gives the impression that the Church in Africa is conservative. So, for many African Catholics, news of the resignation of Pope Benedict came as a decision rather difficult to be received. However, as soon as it became apparent that the Pope’s choice was without coercion and in consonance with Church law, that spontaneous reaction swiftly turned from disbelief to sympathetic appreciation and support. That support cut across all religious and social strata.
Several newspapers in Nigeria, for example, have had editorial comments praising Pope Benedict XVI for his decision. In an age in which many leaders would do everything, including the re-writing of the constitution to cling unto power, said a Thisday editorial, Pope Benedict’s voluntary decision to step down due to his failing health is profoundly edifying and a big lesson to all in leadership positions”. The Daily Trust, a Muslim-based newspaper says ‘it takes humility and sacrifice to shun the fame and limelight of exalted office the papacy brings, and concludes that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation is a good lesson for politicians and their acolytes”.
Another publication lists African leaders from Omar Bongo of Gabon, Ghadaffi of Libya, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia who ruled for over 40 years to Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Robert Mugabe and Jose Eduardo dos Santos who have ruled over 30 years each and others like Paul Biya of Cameroon, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Omar al Bashir of Sudan, Idris Deby Itno of Chad who are still ruling after over twenty years in power. The lesson of Pope Benedict’s resignation for the political class in Africa is strong largely due to African leaders desire to cling to power.
Continent of hope
The political dimension of Pope Benedict’s legacy for Africa may not have been intended as he had desired during his two visits to Africa to impart on the numerous African Christians a spiritual patrimony. In 2009, he visited Cameroon where he spoke firmly about the important role of Christ’s Lay Faithful in the future of the church in Africa. It was in Cameroon that he graphically and dramatically insisted that African Christians must never be silent in the face of corruption and abuses of power”. That message clearly emboldened the resolve of African Christians in their commitment and fight for good governance on a continent whose bright future is being held back by corrupt political leadership. Twice on the Cameroonian trip he referred to Africa as the “continent of hope”.
In Angola on the second leg of that same trip, which was overshadowed by an earlier remark to journalists on condoms and AIDS, Pope Benedict XVI noted, during that visit to Angola also timed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of evangelization of the Portuguese colony, of which over 56 percent of the population is Catholic, that the tenacious faith of the Angolan society had a great lesson for all Catholics. He did not fail to remind them that there was a need to convert the other population of their nation still attached to witchcraft.
Within the Catholic community, Pope Benedict leaves Africa with a great sense of hope for the future. In his post synod exhortation, Africae Munus, which he presented in Cotonou, in the Republic of Benin and home of his late bossom friend and curia colleague, Cardinal Benardin Gantin, Pope Benedict urged the church in Africa to work hard to achieve peace and reconciliation as a basis for genuine development. He offered encouraging words: “only authentic reconciliation can achieve lasting peace in society. This is a task incumbent on government authorities and traditional chiefs but also on ordinary citizens.” The Pope’s hope for the church in Africa was sharp: “the future is in your hands, in the hands of those who find powerful reasons to live and to hope. If you want it, the future is in your hands, because the gifts that the Lord has bestowed upon each one of you, strengthened by your encounter with Christ, can bring genuine hope to the entire world”. Those words gave courage and strength to both the ecclesial, civil and the economic communities in Africa. The Church was reinvigorated after that visit in Cotonou in 2011, which was seen to have served as a launch-pad for new peace and stability initiatives within particular churches throughout Africa.
From that moment, Africa has surged forward. In attempts to implement the recommendations emanating from the second African synod, micro and macro initiatives have been undertaken in ecclesial communities in the promotion of peace and reconciliation. It is significant to note that since 2000, economic links between Africa and the rest of the world have surged impressively. Inflation has sagged significantly in the past decade and foreign debts have declined, thanks also to debt forgiveness which in part has allowed for more local investments to be made. Africa now has legitimate and self-made billionaires, whose money has not been stolen from their countries coffers. In 2010, six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa and economists project that seven African countries are expected to be in that bracket for the next five years.
Keeping the faith
Church demographic shifts have also raised hope for a Pope from Africa. Growing from 2 million in 1900 to 160 million in 2011.It is estimated that by 2025, one-sixth (230 million) of the world’s Catholics or one out of every six Catholics will be African. At present, the world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria. Generally, Africa currently produces a large percentage of the world’s priests. The number of African cardinals has grown significantly, although that number could be more. Today, Africa has over half a million catechists.
It is Africa’s church demographics, among other factors, that make the continent mentionable when the issue of the next Pope is discussed. Speculations abound, but the conclave is a complex arena. More than half of the cardinals, 67 of them, are European. Another 22 are from South America, 15 from the U.S, 11 from Africa, nine from Asia and one from Oceania. The country with the most cardinals is Italy, which accounts for 30 of them. It is followed by the U.S. which has 12. Germany and Brazil each have six cardinals. Spain has five cardinals, while France, Poland, India and Mexico have four. In Africa, Nigeria has three. The 47 remaining cardinals are of different nationalities. This makes it more possible for a European to emerge, but the conclave is guided by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit blows wherever it wills.
Pope Benedict’s legacy for the Church in Africa may not be about who succeeds him, but it is certainly about keeping the faith of our fathers. His unchangeable position on abortion and human life, about speaking out the truth in charity and in love, his position on marriage and the rejection of gay rights does and will continue to go down well with Africans and all Catholics. His invitation to all Catholics in Africae Munus is for a renewed recommitment of Africans in their engagement with the Lord Jesus Christ, towards a new evangelization. Africae Munus offers the Church in Africa practical guidance for pastoral activity over the coming decades.
Fr. Patrick Tor Alumuku