Explaining Benedict's focus on Africa

New York

Benedict XVI, this most European of popes, once again exhibited a notable concern with Africa during the Easter season. In his traditional urbi et orbi greeting, Benedict spoke in greater detail about the political and humanitarian struggles of Africa than any other part of the world.

“I look with apprehension at the conditions prevailing in several regions of Africa,” Benedict said. “In Darfur and in the neighboring countries there is a catastrophic, and sadly to say underestimated, humanitarian situation. In Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the violence and looting of the past weeks raises fears for the future of the Congolese democratic process and the reconstruction of the country. In Somalia, the renewed fighting has driven away the prospect of peace and worsened a regional crisis, especially with regard to the displacement of populations and the traffic of arms. Zimbabwe is in the grip of a grievous crisis, and for this reason the bishops of that country in a recent document indicated prayer and a shared commitment for the common good as the only way forward.”

In conjunction with Benedict’s 80th birthday on April 16, a new book titled Jesus of Nazareth, a personal meditation on the life of Christ, will be released. During Holy Week, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published extracts from the work, which includes strong language connecting the parable of the Good Samaritan to the contemporary African situation.

“If we apply it to the globalized world, we see how the populations of Africa, who have been robbed and plundered, concern us,” the pope wrote.

The wealthy, Benedict said, have stripped the poor bare and have wounded them spiritually.

“Instead of giving them their God, the God that is close to us in Christ, and welcome from their traditions all that is dear and great ... we brought them the cynicism of a world without God, in which only power and profit matters,” Benedict said.”

These comments build upon a strikingly substantial track record of attention to Africa during Benedict’s first two years as pope.

One of Benedict’s first meetings with a head of state, in early Mary 2005, came with Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa. During that session, Benedict spoke about the need to bring peace to war-torn Africa. Afterwards, Mbeki said he had the sense that Africa was “on the radar screen” of the new pope.

Later that month, Benedict publicly issued an appeal for Africa during a General Audience in St. Peter’s Square.

“Today is Africa Day,” he said, referring to a holiday established by the African Union.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the beloved people of Africa. I encourage our Catholic institutions to continue giving generous attention to their needs, and I hope and pray that the international community will become ever more involved in the problems of the African continent,” he said, speaking in English.

In June, during an ad limina session with the the bishops of South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho, Benedict encouraged both the church and the international community to continue its fight against what he called the “cruel epidemic” of HIV/AIDS. He noted that the AIDS crisis threatens not only the physical health, but also the economic and social stability of the continent.

Also in June 2005, Benedict XVI announced his intention to call a synod of bishops from Africa to discuss the crisis facing the continent. One month later, when the leaders of G-8 nations gathered in Scotland, Benedict called upon them to take to heart “the often neglected continent” of Africa.

“I wish with all my heart for the success of this important meeting, hoping that it will lead to a sharing of the costs of reducing debt, to putting into motion concrete measures for uprooting poverty, and to promoting ... development of Africa,” Benedict said.
tIn February 2006, Benedict called upon Europe to do a better job in taking care of African migrants.

“There are increasingly more immigrants from less-privileged areas, in search of better conditions of life, who knock at the doors of Europe, placing a growing number of them in illegality, and on occasions creating situations that put in grave danger the dignity and safety of people,” the pope said in an address to the new ambassador of Morocco to the Holy See. He asked that “the institutions of the host or transit country take care that [the immigrants] not be considered as merchandise or a simple work force, and that their fundamental rights and human dignity be respected.”

In March 2006, Benedict XVI took part in a special satellite conference of university students to discuss how they can promote cooperation between Europe and Africa. The same month, Benedict disappointed some Africans when the only new cardinal from the continent in his first consistory was Peter Poreku Dery of Ghana, who was already over 80. The group included two new Americans, further exacerbating the disparity in the College of Cardinals between the United States and Africa; in the conclave of 2005, the United States by itself had more voting cardinals than all of Africa, 12 to 11, despite the fact that Africa numbers more than twice as many Catholics as the United States.

Yet in February 2007, Benedict took some of the sting out of this omission when, for the first time, he named two residential African cardinals to the Council of Cardinals for the Study of Organizational and Economic Questions of the Apostolic See, the body that oversees Vatican finances: Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, and Anthony Olubunmi Okogie of Lagos, Nigeria. Because wealthy northern dioceses are typically the largest contributors to Vatican coffers, membership in this council has often gone to cardinals from affluent sees such as Chicago, New York, Cologne and Milan. Benedict’s decision to appoint cardinals from the developing world, including two from Africa, was a break with this pattern.

In November 2006, when a new International Finance Facility for Immunization was launched by the World Bank to raise $4 billion over 10 years for the immunization of children in impoverished nations, above all in Africa, against preventable childhood diseases, the very first bond was purchased by Pope Benedict XVI.

The foregoing are merely selective examples of a broader pattern. In fact, over the first twelve months of his papacy, Benedict actually used the word “Africa” more often in his texts, messages, and public addresses than he did the term “sex,” a total that includes his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, devoted to human erotic love.

To be sure, one can argue that Benedict’s attention to Africa has hovered at the level of verbiage, and that his words have not been matched by equally energetic actions. One year ago, the Kenyan newspaper The Nation editorialized on that basis that after a year in office, “Pope Benedict has scored dismally in fostering Vatican relations with the Church in Africa,” complaining of a “Euro-centric focus.” (The editorial came shortly after the pope had not included any Africans under 80 in his first batch of new cardinals.)

Yet at least by the standards of what the pope talks about when he addresses international questions, there’s little question that Africa has occupied a clear pride of place. How to explain the papal focus on Africa?

First, there’s the obvious fact that Africa is gripped by multiple crises which any leader would find difficult to ignore. In his Easter message, for example, Benedict mentioned the on-going fighting in Congo, the center of a regional war in the Great Lakes area of Africa which, over the last decade and a half, has caused an estimated 2.5 million deaths and produced untold millions of refugees and displaced persons. Conflict in Darfur has produced an estimated 300,000 deaths and as many as 2.5 million refugees and displaced persons. Zimbabwe, also singled out by the pope, suffers from hyperinflation of more than 1,700 percent a year, 80 percent unemployment, chronic shortages of food and other basic necessities, and has one of the world’s lowest rates of life expectancy. More broadly, African nations are among those most left behind by the new era of economic globalization; 34 of the 50 nations on the United Nations list of “least developed countries” are in Africa, and while Africans represent 14 percent of the population of the world, they form more than 60 percent of the population of all least developed nations.

Given that many of sub-Saharan Africa’s 140 million Catholics are among the victims of those humanitarian disasters, it’s hardly a surprise that the pope would be sensitive to them.

Second, Africa in many respects represents the future of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. Catholicism grew in sub-Saharan Africa during the last century more rapidly and more dramatically than in any other place and time over the course of its 2,000 year history, exploding from three million to 140 million, a staggering rate of 6,708 percent. More than half of the adult baptisms in Catholicism today are in Africa. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are booming; the largest Catholic seminary in the world is thought to be Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, Nigeria, the heart of Ibo-land, which currently houses almost 1,100 candidates for the priesthood.

In that light, the pope has an obvious interest in promoting peace and stability in Africa, so that the church can build upon its expansion and put down roots. This is perhaps a special challenge for Benedict XVI, whose perceived interests traditionally have been more focused on the West, above all Europe. For just that reason, the Vatican as well as the African episcopacy has been concerned that the pope send clear signals that Africa will not be forgotten on his watch.

There is yet a third factor, however, which speaks less to the contemporary realities of Africa than it does to the ecclesiology of Benedict XVI.

During the daily General Congregation meetings of the College of Cardinals which led up to the conclave two years ago, the African cardinals as a block made a decision to use their speeches to describe the suffering of their continent, and to plead with the next pope, whoever he might be, to place Africa at the center of his pastoral concern. As I reported at the time, most participants in those meetings described the presentations by the Africans as the most powerful contributions to the General Congregation discussions.

In his capacity as Dean of the College, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presided over those meetings. He was thus in a special position to hear the cries of his brother cardinals from Africa, and to sense the overwhelming support their appeals enjoyed within the body of cardinals.

Benedict’s focus on Africa, in other words, is also an expression of his understanding of collegiality, which he promised would be an important feature of his pontificate. In the homily for his installation Mass as pope on April 24, 2005, Benedict said, “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the while church, so that we may discern the will of the Lord in this hour of her history.”

Two years on, the pope’s engagement with Africa has emerged as one way in which he sees himself to be making good on this vow. The open question, however, is what more the pope may have up his sleeve beyond expressions of concern.

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