VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will embark on his second apostolic voyage to Africa this week when he makes a three-day trip to the Republic of Benin.
The main purpose of the Nov. 18-20 visit is to present the final text of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, which was held two years ago at the Vatican.
But the Holy Father is also traveling to the country for three other reasons: to celebrate 150 years since the first missionaries arrived there; to pay homage to two great Beninese, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin (1922-2008) and Archbishop Isidore de Souza (1934-1999), who was archbishop of Cotonou, the nation’s capital; and to mark 40 years of formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Benin.
The Pope is due to sign the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae Munus on Nov. 19, at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of Mary of Ouidah, the first cathedral built in West Africa. The next day, on the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 20, Benedict XVI will then present the exhortation to the 35 presidents of Africa’s bishops’ conferences and seven heads of regional conferences at an open-air Mass in Cotonou’s stadium.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists on Nov. 14 that the text is a summation of the October 2009 synod that aims to offer encouragement and be a sign of hope for the Church in Africa. He added it would also be relevant to the universal Church and the wider world.
Cardinal Gantin was the first African to be appointed to a senior position in the Roman Curia. He had been a former prefect at the Congregation for Bishops and headed various other dicasteries before Pope John Paul II appointed him dean of the College of Cardinals in 1993, a position he held until 2002, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was given the position.
When he was cardinal and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict became good friends with Cardinal Gantin, and his visit to the cardinal’s tomb will, therefore, be a significant moment of the trip.
Father Lombardi also said the Pope wanted to honor the memory of Archbishop de Souza, who, as president of the National Transitional Council after 1990, helped Benin pass through “troubled times” when it moved from post-independence Marxism to democracy. The people of Benin have great esteem for these two Church leaders (Cotonou’s international airport is named after Cardinal Gantin).
Benin is a “model of stability” in Africa, Father Lombardi added, offering a “positive context” in which to present the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. He also noted that, although it’s a small African country, with just 9 million inhabitants, it has always been a place of great spiritual importance for the Church.
“When missionaries arrived 150 years ago, evangelization spread into neighboring countries, from Togo to Ghana and Niger — just one part of a continent where the Church has grown rapidly over the past century and a half. For this reason, the Pope’s visit has raised great expectations.”
A Beninese broadcaster at Vatican Radio told the Register Nov. 15 that the Holy Father’s visit “is a great honor” for the people of Benin. “Many events have been organized over these few days,” she said. “The people are very happy and looking forward to it — they will welcome him with great joy.”
The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Cotonou at 3pm on Friday, Nov. 18, where he will be met by Benin’s President Yayi Boni and other dignitaries before making a visit to Cotonou’s cathedral. The following morning, he will give an address to diplomats, members of civil society and representatives of the major religions at the presidential palace.
The Pope will then travel to Ouidah, 30 miles south of the capital, where he will sign the apostolic exhortation, visit the tomb of Cardinal Gantin, and meet priests, seminarians and religious at St. Gall Seminary. This will be an “important meeting,” Father Lombardi said, not only because the seminary is an important part of Benin’s history, but because it has also contributed to the formation of many priests from Togo, Ghana and Niger.
The Pope will then return to Cotonou, where he will have separate meetings with members of the Missionaries of Charity, local children and Benin’s bishops. After the open-air Mass, presentation of the apostolic exhortation and the recitation of the Angelus on Sunday, the Pope will lunch with participants of the synod before leaving for Rome, where he is expected to arrive at around 10pm.
Among the events organized for the visit is a concert performed by three major African singers — Papa Wemba, Bonga and Fifit — in the evening of the Pope’s arrival. The music will address the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation.
Papa Wemba, who is Congolese, underwent a spiritual conversion while serving time in 2003 for smuggling Congolese nationals into France. The musicians have turned the music into a commemorative CD and some of the tracks contain the voices of the three popes who have traveled to Africa: Paul VI, John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Of the Pope’s upcoming trip, Father Lombardi added, “It will certainly arouse an atmosphere of hope for the African Church and be an encouragement to the continent of Africa as a whole.
“Naturally, it will emphasize existing problems, but from a positive perspective, underlining commitment to reconciliation, justice and peace, and the announcement of the Gospel as part of man’s integral development. In other words, the trip seeks to be extremely constructive.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.