African pilgrims, in great numbers, will be among the five million expected at St. Peter’s square and its environs for the canonization of two of the church’s great popes of our time. Popes John XXIII famously known as ‘the good pope’ and Pope John Paul II, known by many Africans as the ‘the white and African’ pope.
John XXIII who was Pope from 1958 – 1963 is fondly remembered for his major encyclical ”Pacem in Terris’ or Peace on earth. But in Africa he is specially remembered for having appointed the first African into the College of Cardinals. In 1960, John XXIII named Laurean Rugambwa of Tanzania as Cardinal. Rugambwa was a pragmatic, loving and caring pastor. He was the uniting factor in his country and in Africa and became a symbol of the hope of the Church in Africa. Rugambwa’s appointment which came at a time most African countries were struggling for their independence was also seen as a recognition and an empowerment of the African indigenous presence in the universal church. When the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, Mugambwa became the rallying point of the very few native African Bishops and the majority missionary Bishops at the Council. Pope John XXIII is affectionately called the ‘the good pope’. This Pontiff is especially remembered for promoting ecumenism, fostering fraternal relations with the Orthodox, engaging in intense relations with the Anglicans and with an array of Protestant churches and for creating the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians. He also endeavored in every way to lay the foundation for a new attitude for the Catholic Church toward the Jewish world.
In his 26-year pontificate, John Paul II changed the ecclesial demographics in a way no Pope had done in the entire history of the Catholic church.
Within that period, the world’s Catholic population increased by about 43 percent, from 757 million in 1978 to 1.09 billion by the end of 2003. More significant was a definite Third World shift under Pope John Paul. The number of Catholics in Africa, for example, had increased by more than 160 percent, from 55 million to 144 million. The biggest growth in priestly vocations in the church in his pontificate also came from Africa, where the number of diocesan clergy had more than tripled in 26 years.
The growth of the Church in Africa was largely due to the attention he gave to the continent by his numerous visits. He made 14 trios, visiting 42 of Africa’s 57 nations.
Who loves Africa
At the start of one of those trips, an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, called him ‘the pope who loves Africa’. It was his messages, his gestures and his affection that brought about the enormous growth and strong Catholic presence which is now visible in most African dioceses south of the Sahara. During these visits, he addressed seminarians, priests and religious, the laity, diplomats, leaders of government, encouraged inculturation, urged particular churches to promote causes for local saints. He took on issues like corruption, apartheid and dictatorships. He called for a new evangelization and urged Christian families to live in harmony. He called for a new Africa which would live in justice and peace. He invited young people to realize that they were the hope of the African future and promoted solidarity among particular churches. He urged the hierarchy to strengthen all African Catholics and help them realize the hope of genuine liberation.
John Paul never hid his joy at the continuous growth of the Church in many African countries and desired that this growth be sustained. While addressing the Nigerian Bishops in his 1998 visit he said, ‘Nigeria has one of the largest Catholic populations in Africa and the number of believers continues to grow. This is a sign of the vitality and growing maturity of this local church. Particularly promising in this same regard is the increase of vocations to the priesthood and to religious life.’ Calling for close collaboration between priests and their Bishops he said, ‘since priests are your chief co-workers in carrying out the Church’s apostolic mission, it is essential that your relations with them be marked by unity, fraternity and appreciation of their gifts.’
It was at the first African synod convoked by John Paul II that the African drum was for the first time sounded in the basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. That synod provided the entire church in Africa an opportunity to look not only at the challenges but also the opportunities to consolidating the faith in a continent rapidly becoming Christian. That synod was also a chance to share with the rest of the world the enormous impact John Paul’s papacy had made on Africa. By that time, the African presence in the Vatican was also growing. With Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of Benin Republic as the dean of the College of Cardinals, Nigeria’s Cardinal Francis Arinze as Prefect of a dicastery and Archbishop Robert Sarah of Guinea at the Propaganda Fidei, as well as a dozen African priests in the various Vatican dicasteries, it was clear that John Paul wanted an African presence at the centre of the church’s administration.
Pope John Paul’s influence had grown like a wild fire. In rural communities throughout Africa, there is a whole generation of young Christians who bear the name John-Paul, a number of whom have also now become priests. Their parents had been touched by the witness of this great Pope and his love for Africa.
Africa is literally littered with institutions of health, of social services, or pastoral and spiritual formation centres named after Pope John Paul. His footprints are visible in every corner of the continent. There is a Hausa proverb to the effect that if someone loves you, you ought to love him back. Africa loves Pope John Paul in death as in life. There couldn’t be a greater moment to honour this great Pope than to rejoice at this moment of his canonization. This is why individual dioceses and national conferences are planning pilgrimages to Rome to coincide with this canonization.
I was a student of theology in St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, when he was elected. Later, I studied in Rome and had the opportunity of closely working with him as a staff Vatican Radio. Although I had met him several times at his private morning Masses in the Vatican, my most joyous moment was to have accompanied Pope John Paul to my country Nigeria in 1998 doing live commentaries of that visit at which Blessed Iwene Tansi was beatified. I hope, also, to be at that canonization ceremony to pray for special favours from the only saint I have ever shaken hands with.
Fr. Patrick Tor Alumuku
Director of Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria