Pope Benedict XVI is expected to call for greater efforts toward building peace and reconciliation when he embarks on his first trip to Africa on Tuesday.
Benedict XVI’s visit comes at a time when the number of Christians on the continent is booming. Latest statistics show the Catholic population rose 3 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, ordinations to the Catholic priesthood were up 27.6 percent at a time when vocations in the West have been declining.
But the continent is still ravaged by conflict and other scourges. Its wars are often fuelled by a deadly mix of tribalism, politics and battles for natural resources – unrest which, some Church leaders say, threatens peace in other parts of the world.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo has vast deposits of uranium that can also be used to make an atomic bomb,” said Rev. Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, Archbishop of Kinshasa, in a March 4t interview with Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. “If this natural wealth is not managed wisely, and with discretion, it could lead to a proliferation of atomic weapons in the world, possibly creating perpetual wars.”
According to papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s visit will be one of “hope and, overall, reconciliation” – a major theme of an upcoming Synod on Africa at the Vatican.
The Pope, who turns 82 in April, will begin the first leg of his journey in Yaoundé, Cameroon, from March 17 to 20. His main task there will be to present Africa's bishops with a preview of issues to be discussed at the synod, due to take place in October.
From March 20 -23, the Pope will be visiting Luanda, Angola, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of that country. One of the first sub-Saharan countries to be evangelised by Christian missionaries, Angola is still recovering from three decades of civil war that ended in 2002.
The upcoming Synod on Africa is expected to address this and other issues, in particular areas of injustice and how the Church has been effective in conflict mediation on the continent. The previous Synod on Africa took place in 1994 just after the Rwanda genocide. It led to Ecclesia in Africa – a document signed by Pope John Paul II in Cameroon in 1995, and which later came to be seen as a road map for the Church on the continent. Since that time, the Church has led the way in conflict mediation, especially in South Africa.
The Pope will also address issues of poverty, disease, and corruption during a visit which some see as especially timely. “It will act as a useful reminder during this period of economic hardship,” one diplomat at the Vatican told Newsmax, and pointed out that his visits comes just before the G20 summit in London next month, and the G8 summit in Italy in July. The Pope will also be meeting the presidents of both countries, and may use that time to draw attention to the continent’s endemic corruption.
But speaking to reporters, papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said the Pope is keen to focus “not only on the negative but what is positive” about Africa, such as the continent’s “dynamism, values and love of life.”
Benedict XVI is scheduled to celebrate two large open-air Masses. He will also meet Muslim representatives, leaders of other Christian denominations, and diplomats from across the continent. Fr. Lombardi told reporters he will also be allocating a day devoted to many Africans suffering from disease, and take the opportunity that day to address the Church’s efforts in caring for HIV/AIDS patients.
An estimated 22 million adults and children were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2007, and some 11.6 million African children were orphaned by the disease that year. Church commentators say the Pope is not expected to refer to the Church’s teaching against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS but rather stress the Church’s record in AIDS, and that the "only failsafe way" to prevent spread of the disease is to follow the Church's traditional teaching on sexual responsibility.
A lighter moment of the trip will be when the Pope meets young people and those involved in organizing the African Nations Cup, a soccer championship Angola will host in 2010.
African Catholics have often seen the Pope and the papacy as too Euro-centric in the past. Commentators therefore believe this visit will allow Benedict to show his broader concerns and love for Africa, and the universality of the Church.
Speaking to crowds at the Vatican last Sunday, the Pope said he was visiting "to show the concrete closeness of myself and of the Church to the Christians and other peoples of that continent, which is particularly dear to me."
And even though he will only be traveling to just two countries on this vast continent, many Africans are said to be eagerly awaiting his visit. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Nigerian bishop Ignatius Kaigama tells Newsmax. “Africa is Africa, and once he has visited one country, we believe he has visited all of us.”
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