To many, Pope Benedict XVI’s description of Africa as “the continent of hope” sounds jarring and bizarre.

And against the long-standing, pejorative image of Africa as “the dark continent” — an image reinforced by the contemporary scourges of disease, war, poverty, endemic political corruption and entrenched economic and social inequity that blight African societies — the Pope’s description might seem foolishly optimistic.

But consider this fact, highlighted in the information package that’s now being distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in conjunction with the U.S. bishops’ Mass collections for the Pastoral Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa: Africa is the continent where the Catholic faith is growing the fastest. Viewed from the supernatural perspective, this shows that it is precisely in the continent where human hope seems hardest to find that people are finding their collective way to the only hope that endures — faith in eternal salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This abundant hope, and the joy it inspires, was displayed abundantly during the Pope’s trip in March to Cameroon and Angola. While Western media and political leaders fixated on criticizing the Holy Father’s entirely accurate comments that condoms don’t work as an African AIDS prevention strategy, the African people ignored this manufactured controversy and rejoiced in Benedict’s presence in their midst.

Of course, Africa’s immense social problems also mean that nurturing the Church’s burgeoning flock there requires a lot of help from Catholics who live in more materially privileged countries, such as the United States. Hence the collections at Mass for the Pastoral Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa, which will take place at various dates at the discretion of local bishops.

“Because of your generous help, the fund will be able to support Catholic schools, clergy and lay leadership formation, evangelization, religious education and youth programs in countries such as Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia and South Africa,” notes one of the documents distributed by the USCCB in conjunction with the Mass collections.

More information about the fund is available at www.usccb.org/churchinafrica.

Don’t think of these donations as a one-way gift, though. In return for the material support Catholic Americans give to Catholic Africans, they return to us a priceless gift — their joyous witness of faith, hope and love for Jesus Christ and his Church.