Pope Benedict XVI embarks on a three-day visit to the African nation of Benin Friday — his second visit to the continent, and his 22nd trip outside Italy.
The main purpose of this weekend's visit is to present the final summary of a synod of bishops held two years ago at the Vatican on the subject of Africa.
Addressing a crowd of Catholics on Sunday, the pontiff prayed to the Virgin Mary to support the efforts of all people “who work for reconciliation, justice and peace” in Africa, and asked for prayers for those who suffer from insecurity and violence.
Interfaith dialogue and peace building are expected to form the central focus of the trip, as well as the state of Christianity in Africa — a continent where, in contrast to the West, the Catholic Church has been growing at a rapid pace.
For the Pope, three other factors are important for this visit. This year marks 150 years since the first missionaries arrived in Benin; 2011 is the 40th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the African nation and the Holy See; and finally the Pope wishes to pay homage to two heroes of the Beninese people — Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a former close colleague of the Pope who died in 2008, and Isidore de Souza, a deceased archbishop of the nation's capital, Cotonou, who died in 1999.
Cardinal Gantin, at whose tomb the Pope will pray on Saturday, was the first African to be appointed to a senior position in the Roman Curia.
Greatly revered by the Beninese, Cotonou's international airport is named after him. Archbishop de Souza is also esteemed by the people for his work in helping Benin peacefully transition from Marxism to democracy in the 1990s.
But the main focus will be the signing and presentation of the summary of the synod of bishops which will take place in the presence of all of Africa's leading bishops. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists on Nov. 14 the text aims to offer encouragement and be a sign of hope for the church in Africa. He added it would also relevant to the wider church in Africa and the world.
Benin is a “model of stability” in Africa, Lombardi said, offering a “positive context” in which to present the document, called a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
He also noted that although a small African country of nine million inhabitants, it has always been a place of great spiritual importance for the church. When missionaries arrived 150 years ago, evangelisation spread into neighbouring 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.
"It will certainly arouse an atmosphere of hope for the African church,” Lombardi said. “Naturally, it will emphasise 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.”
A Beninese broadcaster at Vatican Radio said the Pope's visit “is a great honor” for the people of Benin. “Many events have been organised over these few days,” she said. “The people are very happy and looking forward to it — they will welcome him with great joy.”
Some commentators warn that the visit could be eclipsed by controversy over the church's teaching on condom use and AIDS prevention, as happened on the Pope's previous visit to Africa, to Angola and Cameroon, in 2009. Others are less concerned, arguing that any debate is healthy as it draws attention to the church's teaching which, they say, offers the best and most ethical solution to the AIDS epidemic on the continent.
The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Cotonou at 3 p.m. on Friday where he will be met by Benin's President Yayi Boni and other dignitaries. His addresses include one to diplomats, members of civil society and representatives of the major religions, and another to priests, seminarians and religious at a local seminary — an “important meeting” according to Lombardi because the seminary contributed to the formation of many priests not only in Benin but also from Togo, Ghana and Niger.
The Pope will also meet local children and celebrate an open air Mass.
As with his 2009 visit to Africa, the Pope is hoping to highlight the many positive aspects of the continent. “The West talks only about the ills of Africa, or Africa only if their interests are involved, as in the case of Libya and Gaddhafi,” said Father Jean Pierre Bodijoko, head of Vatican Radio's Africa programs.
“For this reason,” he added, “it is important for us Africans that the Pope is in Africa and shows the closeness of the church.”
The Pope is scheduled to arrive back in Rome late on Sunday.
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