On his first visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI is expected to praise the Church’s invaluable work on the continent and offer welcome words of encouragement.

He will also draw attention to the numerous challenges Africa faces, such as tribal conflicts, poverty and corruption.

The Holy Father’s first stop will be Yaounde, Cameroon, March 17-20, where he will present Africa’s bishops with a preview of issues to be discussed at a Synod of Bishops for Africa to be held at the Vatican in October. Then, from March 20-23, the Holy Father will be in Angola to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of that country.

The Pope’s presence on the continent is being eagerly awaited by many Africans, whatever their nationality.

“A papal visit is always a wonderful period of grace for us in Africa,” said Archbishop Ignatius Kagaima of Jos, Nigeria. “The Pope is a father, and we have high respect in our cultures for fathers, [so] we will receive him with such joy.”

Archbishop Kagaima believes Benedict XVI’s visit “will infuse more dynamism in the Catholic faith and create a greater sense of the universality of the Church — that we are one big family.”

Faith Is Flourishing

The Pope’s 11th apostolic voyage outside Italy comes at a time when the Church is flourishing in Africa.

The latest statistics show substantial increases in ordinations, up 27.6% during 2007. Moreover, the Church is highly valued by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for its work and solidarity with those most in need.

After years of poor governance and corruption, missionaries, Church leaders and laity have, in contrast, been beacons of hope, often offering a powerful witness to the Gospel through heroism and self-sacrifice.

The Church has brought a wealth of medical services, education and other resources and been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS care.

According to many citizens, the Church has transformed life in villages and towns.

However, the African Church today is still relatively young (in most of sub-Saharan Africa only 200 years old), so the Pope’s visit is being seen by many African Church leaders as an important step in deepening and strengthening the faith on the continent.

According to Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, head of Vatican protocol in the Secretariat of State, a problem underpinning most of Africa’s ills, and which the Pope is likely to address, is tribalism.

Ethnocentrism, he contended, is responsible for 60% to 70% of the continent’s problems, such as ethnic conflicts, nepotism, corruption, acting with impunity, and mediocrity.

“This problem is so acute and widespread that, in different regions, even the Church is not spared,” Msgr. Nwachukwu, a Nigerian, wrote in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano March 2. “Such ties and ethnic feelings run so deep and are often overly sensitive that any measure that tries to overcome them tends to trigger strong opposition.”

But he added that perhaps it is “precisely this opposition and resistance with which the Church should deal through the message of the Gospel if we are to foresee a future of reconciliation, justice and peace.”

‘Useful Reminder’

The Pope’s visit to Africa will come at a good time to draw attention to poverty on the continent. “It will act as a useful reminder during this period of economic hardship,” said one diplomat at the Vatican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It will be helpful that he is visiting just before the G20 summit in London later this month and the G8 summit in Italy in July.”

Another issue of concern is the rise of radicalism, both among Muslims and evangelical sects. However, many African Church leaders believe the Church should respond by bolstering the faith, which will help remove fear of these groups.

In Africa, what often appear to be religious conflicts are mostly based on a deadly mix of conflated tribalism and politics. And, in many cases, these problems have been overcome, such as in Ghana, Tunisia and Botswana.

The choice of Cameroon is also symbolic: It was there, in 1995, where Pope John Paul II proclaimed his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa. The publication became widely considered to be a road map for the modern Church on the African continent.

Angola, where Portuguese is spoken, was chosen partly because the world tends to pay less attention to non-Anglophone or Francophone African countries.

Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Yaounde at 4 p.m. local time on March 17. The next morning, he will pay a courtesy visit to President Paul Biya. There, or in other discourses, he is likely to press for an end to government corruption, which Cameroonians describe as their second deadly virus, after HIV/AIDS. He will then meet local bishops, followed by vespers in the city’s basilica.

The following day, March 19, he is scheduled to meet with the country’s Muslim leaders, celebrate Mass and present the Instrumentum laboris (working document) of the upcoming Synod of Bishops for Africa. Later, he will meet disabled people at a rehabilitation center in the city.

On March 20, he leaves Cameroon and arrives in the Angolan capital, Luanda, shortly before 1 p.m. In the afternoon, he’ll pay a courtesy visit to President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, give a speech to diplomats, civic and political leaders, and then meet with bishops of Angola and Sao Tome.

The next day, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass with bishops, priests, men and women religious, members of Church movements and catechists of Angola and Sao Tome in St. Paul Church of Luanda.

In the afternoon, he will give a discourse to young people. On Sunday, he’ll celebrate an open-air Mass, and then in the afternoon meet with members of Catholic movements for the promotion of women.

He is due to leave Angola for Rome at 10:30 the following morning.

African Church leaders like to point out that the vast majority of Africans live peacefully with one another.

Some have questioned why the Pope is not visiting any Anglophone countries on this visit. However, the Vatican says the reasons are both practical and symbolic.

An official pointed out that the Pope will be visiting both a central and southern African country and that Cameroon is also a bilingual country (English and French).

“The Pope would have loved to visit all corners of Africa,” said one official, “but it is logistically impossible to visit more than two countries.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.