Pope Paul VI chose Uganda as his destination, a country where one-third of the population was Catholic, and was the homeland of the 22 Martyrs of Uganda, a group of young men and boys who were murdered by their chief in the 1880s (Pope Paul had canonized the martyrs in 1964).
Ugandans turned out in record numbers to greet the pope. They purchased souvenirs such as Pope Paul coins and pushed a Pope Paul-inspired folk song to the top of the charts. Even corporate conglomerates celebrated the papal visit: Along the pope's route from Entebbe airport to the capital city Kampala, shops sported signs reading "Pepsi Welcomes the Pope!"
Pope Paul came to Uganda with a long "to-do" list. He dedicated the shrine of the Ugandan martyrs; he baptized, confirmed and gave first Communion to a group of Ugandan converts; and as Time magazine put it, "he cut the umbilical of four centuries." Speaking to African bishops, clergy, Religious and laity, he declared: "You are missionaries to yourselves now. The Church of Christ is well and truly planted."
Twice the pope met with representatives of Nigeria and Biafra, nations locked in a vicious civil war. Pope Paul hoped he would be able to broker a treaty, or at least a cease-fire. He made the delegates an offer: He would stay in Africa for a month to help them bring the war to an end; the delegates did not invite him stay.
By 1978, the year Pope John Paul II was elected to the papacy, it was clear that the Church was growing faster in Africa than in any other part of the world. To encourage this tremendous increase and to turn the spotlight of the industrialized world upon Africa's many troubles and challenges, he made 14 trips to the continent between 1980 and 2000, visiting most of the continent's 53 countries.
Without exception, huge crowds greeted Pope John Paul with enthusiasm, yet for all the music and dancing, the surge in religious vocations, the extraordinary number of converts, the pope was obliged to remind African Catholics that they must not go their own way. He stressed that priests must be celibate; in parts of the continent where polygamy and common-law marriages are common even among Catholics, he reminded congregations that monogamy and sacramental marriage is the law of Christ and his Church.
Africa's problems could be read as overwhelming: exploitation of the poor, violent regimes, limited access to health care, education or even clean water, ancient tribal animosities that erupt into genocide, and for much of his reign, apartheid.
"The Christian faith does not provide you with ready-made solutions to the complex problems affecting contemporary society," Pope John Paul told a crowd in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1980, "but it does give you deep insights into the nature of man and his needs, calling you to speak the truth in love, to take up your responsibilities as good citizens and to work with your neighbors to build a society where true human values are nourished and deepened."
Observers of the pope's journeys through Africa never failed to comment that the pope seemed to fall under the spell of exuberant African Catholicism. Once again, striking a balance between local culture and traditional Catholic norms became an issue. As one Vatican watcher said to a Time magazine reporter, "If too much Africanization is permitted, the Church will pull away from Rome; but if Africanization is not permitted, the churches here will be empty."
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author "Saints Behaving Badly" (Doubleday, $15.95) and Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Cardlinks series.