With visit to continent, Pope Benedict highlights Africa's challenges

Pope Benedict XVI travels to Africa this month for a brief visit intended to give a boost to the Church there and draw attention to the challenges facing the continent. 

His destination is Benin, a French-speaking country in West Africa smaller than the state of Ohio. Catholics represent the largest religious group in the country, with about 27 percent of the population of 8.5 million people, according to a 2002 census. (Muslims make up about 24 percent.) 

The high point of the visit, which is less than 50 hours between scheduled arrival and departure, will be the formal signing of the pope’s “apostolic exhortation” to African Catholics following a 2009 gathering of bishops from the continent at the Vatican. 

The more than 200 participating bishops published a message to the world Oct. 23, appealing for a fairer global order based on Gospel values and telling corrupt Catholic politicians in Africa to “repent or resign” in the name of the common good. 

At a closing Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 25, Pope Benedict XVI said if the Church wants to change hearts and minds in Africa it must itself be a model of unity with “no divisions based on ethnic, language or cultural groups.” 

The pope, who presided over most of the synod sessions, lunched with participants Oct. 24 and thanked them for “a good job.” He also received 57 final propositions from the synod, to be used as the basis for a papal document on pastoral directions in Africa. 

The propositions called for a new spirituality to counter bad government, ethnic tensions, disease, exploitation by multinational companies and the cultural agenda of foreign aid organizations. 

The pope encouraged the bishops to return to their African dioceses and broadcast their 11-page message, which denounced moral and social ills while reminding Africans of their traditional values, particularly regarding the family. 

The message said poverty, misery, war and chaos are most often caused by “a tragic complicity and criminal conspiracy of local leaders and foreign interests.” 

Africa needs “saintly politicians who will clean the continent of corruption, work for the good of the people and know how to galvanize other men and women of good will from outside the church to join hands against the common evils that beset our nations,” the message said. 

The bishops called on international corporations operating in Africa to stop “their criminal devastation of the environment in their greedy exploitation of natural resources.” They lamented that no international body or world leader has come forth to stop “these crimes against humanity” that “foment wars in order to make fast gains from chaos at the cost of human lives and blood.” 

The synod’s message noted the church’s valuable work in fighting HIV and AIDS and caring for those affected, and expressed agreement with Pope Benedict that condoms would not beat the pandemic. It asked people to recognize the success obtained by prevention programs advocating abstinence and fidelity within marriage. 

The synod’s propositions also spoke about AIDS, calling for efforts against anything “that helps the spread of the disease, such as poverty, the breakdown of family life, marital unfaithfulness, promiscuity and a lifestyle that is devoid of human values and Gospel virtues.” 

One of the strongest synod propositions condemned a section of the 2003 Maputo Protocol, adopted by the African Union in Maputo, Mozambique, on women’s rights in Africa for encouraging the continent’s governments to provide abortion services in cases of rape, incest or danger to a woman’s physical or mental health. 

While thanking international aid agencies for their assistance, the bishops also criticized aid programs that come with strings attached that violate the recipients’ moral and cultural values. 

The propositions said the family in Africa is threatened today by the practice of abortion, the denigration of childbearing, “the distortion of the notion of marriage and the family itself,” and divorce. The bishops called for better education of Catholics in the meaning of Christian marriage, improved marriage preparation programs and better support for families. 

The propositions condemned all acts of violence against women, including “the battering of wives, the disinheritance of daughters, the oppression of widows in the name of tradition, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, trafficking in women and several other abuses such as sex slavery and sex tourism.”