Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Africa, pope says Gospel is answer to continent's problems

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

YAOUNDE, Cameroon (CNS) -- Arriving in Africa, Pope Benedict XVI said the church's message of hope and reconciliation was sorely needed by a continent suffering disproportionately from poverty, conflict and disease.

At a welcoming ceremony March 17 in Yaounde, the pope said he was making his first visit to Africa to respond to the many men and woman who "long to hear a word of hope and comfort."

In Africans' fight against injustice, he said, the church is their natural ally.

"In the face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent," the pope said.

The 81-year-old pontiff stood on a platform at Yaounde's airport next to Cameroonian President Paul Biya, who welcomed the pope on a hot, humid afternoon. Groups of schoolchildren sang and cheered, waving paper flags with the Vatican's colors.

The pope said he came to Africa as a pastor, not a politician, to a continent where the saving message of the Gospel needs to be "proclaimed loud and clear." The encounter with Christianity, he said, can transform situations of hardship or injustice.

He cited the regional conflicts in Africa that have left thousands homeless, destitute and orphaned, as well as human trafficking that has become a new form of slavery, especially for women and children.

"At a time of global crisis in food shortages, financial turmoil and disturbing patterns of climate change, Africa suffers disproportionately: More and more of her people are falling prey to hunger, poverty and disease. They cry out for reconciliation, justice and peace, and that is what the church offers them," he said.

"Not forms of economic or political oppression, but the glorious freedom of the children of God. Not the imposition of cultural models that ignore the rights of the unborn, but the pure healing water of the Gospel of life," he said.

In place of bitter ethnic or interreligious rivalry, the church offers the righteousness and peace of the "civilization of love," he said.

The pope described Cameroon as a "land of hope," noting that the country has accepted refugees from neighboring countries and tried to settle border disputes with patient diplomacy.

Cameroon is also a "land of life, with a government that speaks out in defense of the rights of the unborn," the pope said.

In his remarks on the unborn, the pope may have been referring to a recent exchange between the Cameroonian government and a U.N. committee that monitors compliance with a convention on eliminating forms of discrimination against women. In response to a request to liberalize its abortion law, the government responded that abortion was murder and should not be elevated to a right.

It was Pope Benedict's first papal visit to Africa. As a cardinal, he visited the continent only once, attending a theological conference in 1987 in what is now Congo.

Aboard the plane taking him to Africa, the pope told reporters that he considered corruption one of the continent's biggest problems. According to the U.S. Department of State, Cameroon's corruption level is among the highest in the world.

Biya and his Cameroon People's Democratic Movement have retained power for 27 years, giving the country political stability but at a price. Critics say national elections have been unfair, and human rights organizations have faulted the government for restricting freedoms of speech, press, assembly and association.

Last year, Biya, 76, steered a movement to lift constitutional term limits and thus allow him to run for office again in 2011. Cameroon's bishops sharply criticized the move and appealed for the creation of conditions to allow an "effective democratic alternative" in the country.

At that time, Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi, archbishop of Douala and Cameroon's senior churchman, personally appealed to Biya not to carry out the constitutional modifications. Weeks later, riots broke out as the public reacted to the political maneuverings, high prices, high unemployment and widespread corruption. The government said 40 people died in the protests, though the opposition said the death toll was much higher.

Cardinal Tumi was among the church leaders who stood near the president as he welcomed the pope at the airport.

The pope later rode in his glass-walled popemobile some 20 miles into the city of Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, past groups of well-wishers who sat in plastic chairs in front of their cinderblock homes and waved palm fronds in greeting. As the pope drew closer to the city center, the enthusiastic crowd was wall-to-wall.

Yaounde was given a partial facelift for the pope's arrival, and the clean-up projects included the mass demolition of illegal shops around the city's cathedral. That prompted angry protests from the vendors, but city officials defended the move, saying it was needed to ease traffic along the main urban routes.

The main purpose of the pope's stop in Cameroon was to deliver a working document for the Synod of Bishops for Africa, to be held in Rome next October. The pope said the synod would be a summons to all African Catholics to "rededicate themselves to the mission of the church to bring hope to the hearts of the people of Africa, and indeed to people throughout the world."

Cameroon, sometimes called "Africa in microcosm," was chosen for the consignment of the synodal document because the country includes French- and English-speaking populations and approximately 200 ethnic groups.

The Synod of Bishops will be the second for Africa, and its theme is "The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace." The first African synod took place at the Vatican in 1994. In 2004, Pope John Paul announced that another synod would be held to allow church leaders to address the continent's changing religious, demographic, social and political scenes.

For the Catholic Church, Cameroon represents an evangelization success story on a continent that has experienced an explosion of church growth over the last century. Over the last 40 years, the number of Catholics in Africa has increased from 11 percent to 17 percent of the total population; in Cameroon, Catholics today constitute 27 percent of the population, up from 23 percent 40 years ago.

Africa also has the fastest growth in priestly vocations, and Cameroon, with 26 seminarians for every 100,000 Catholics, has one of the highest vocation rates on the continent.