Sunday, March 22, 2009
“How much darkness there is in so many parts of the world!” proclaimed the Holy Father
By BARRY BEARAK
LUANDA, Angola — Manuel Domingos Bento, a 62-year-old farmer with a paralyzed right leg, had journeyed 50 miles to the outskirts of Angola’s capital and slept here under the stars beneath a thin blanket. A faithful Catholic, he did not want to be late for Mass on Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI was going to lead the service on the last full day of his first trip to Africa.
Even with the help of a crutch, Mr. Bento was too unsteady to venture into the mammoth crowd that had gathered along the expansive dirt of a vacant lot near a cement factory. When the pope finally arrived, the farmer was 200 yards away, able to see only the top part of the “popemobile,” a sparkle of glass under the harsh glint of a powerful sun.
Still, his eyes welled up with emotion. “This is the greatest moment of my life,” he said, awed by the pope’s presence, no matter how distant.
On Sunday, Benedict drew the biggest audience of his two-nation African visit, a multitude that a Vatican spokesman, citing local officials, put at one million. That estimate may have been hyperbolic by at last half, but there was no doubting that the crowd, like those this past week, was ebullient in its faith and passionate about expressing it, the fervor hard to hold back.
Indeed, on Saturday, two young women were trampled to death and 40 other people were injured in a stampede at the gates of a sports stadium hours before the pope was to preside at a youth rally. Benedict mourned the deceased on Sunday: “We entrust them to Jesus so that he may receive them in his kingdom.”
Ten miles to the south, the two bodies lay on hospital gurneys beneath white sheets, one topped with a ring of violets, the other a garland of roses.
No one had yet come to claim one of the victims. The other was identified by government officials as Celina Kiala, 22. Some of her family gathered in an anteroom of a colonial-era hospital as church officials paid their respects in a private meeting. Afterward, as the grieving relatives were spirited away, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told reporters that the woman had tutored catechism students at São Pedro’s Church.
Perhaps that was so, but in the evening no one there recognized Ms. Kiala’s name, including the coordinator of the catechism classes. São Pedro’s is a typical parish church in a poor neighborhood. It looks more like a warehouse than a cathedral, with narrow openings for windows and corrugated metal on the roof. Benches provide the seating.
Repeatedly while in Africa, first in Cameroon and then here in Angola, Benedict, 81, has lamented the afflictions that keep the continent impoverished.
In Sunday’s homily, he spoke of “the evils of war, the murderous fruits of tribalism and ethnic rivalry, the greed which corrupts men’s hearts, enslaves the poor and robs future generations” of resources needed for an “equitable and just society.”
Africa has the world’s fastest-growing Catholic population, and oil-rich Angola was a logical choice for a papal visit, not only because a majority of the population belongs to the church, but also because it has suffered some of the worst of the sins that bedevil the continent.
Portuguese colonizers brought Catholicism to Angola in the 15th century, and missionaries who continued to arrive on merchant vessels did little to interfere with the slave trade to the Americas. Once independence was won in 1975, civil war broke out and lasted 27 years. Peace has brought prosperity only to the elite. The economy’s double-digit growth — due to profits from diamonds and oil — has trickled down to the masses too slowly or not at all. The latest corruption perception index from Transparency International ranks Angola among the worst, 158th out of 180 nations.
“How much darkness there is in so many parts of the world!” proclaimed Benedict, protected from the sun by a pink tent, on Sunday as the immense crowd strained to see him.
Video screens had been set up to assist those toward the rear, but the technology failed to furnish the pontiff’s image, instead showing only the top edge of a computer screen with the words “File,” “Edit” and “View.”
The crowd was a disparate group. Many wore T-shirts that either showed the face of Benedict or Jesus. Joaquim Andre, a 22-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist, favored attire that celebrated Bob Marley. “But disregard the shirt,” he insisted. “I love the pope. He is the God of the earth.”
Realizing this theological view might be subject to misinterpretation, Mr. Andre then said, “I mean the pope seems like a father for everyone, and I am proud just to be close to him.”
The Mass lasted nearly two hours, and with the heat, there were some who left early. “I am tired, thirsty and hungry, and I have been blessed enough already,” said João Augusto Carvalho, a teenager.
But most worshipers stayed until the last. “I came here with a heavy heart, with many financial worries,” said Mokusu Zola, 52, a driver who was smiling rapturously. “My worries are lifted.”
Angola’s roads cannot support so big an event. A sea of walking bodies finally inched homeward, the great flock parting only when police motorcycles led the popemobile up the center.
“Papa! Papa! Pope! Pope!” children shouted as they broke into a run, chasing this visitor to Africa as if they might catch him and hold on.
Posted by padre seraphim at 22.3.09