Dare to Decide

Pope Benedict’s March visit to Africa.

As epic events shook Europe in the sixteenth century, the evangelization of Latin America took place quietly. Today, 510 million of the world’s 1.13 billion Catholics live in Latin America.

As equally epic events shook Europe in the twentieth century, the evangelization of Africa took place quietly. In1900, there were two million Catholics in Africa; today, there are over 158 million. Fourteen percent of Catholics worldwide now live there, nearly half of the children in Catholic elementary schools study there, and 43 percent of the world’s adult baptisms—more than a million a year—take place there. There are more Catholic hospitals in Africa than there are in North and Central America combined. Since 1978, the number of African seminarians has more than quadrupled from 5,636 to 24,034, and Africa is now the world’s second most vocation-rich continent, bested only by Asia.

The Church in Africa, as in every continent, faces particular challenges. To analyze and confront these regional challenges, Pope John Paul II convoked seven special assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. The 1994 Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops—whose primary purpose was to foster evangelization, including the evangelization of other areas of the world by African missionaries—led to the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, which Pope John Paul promulgated during a visit to Cameroon in 1995.

In 2004, Pope John Paul announced the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops in light of “the remarkable expansion that the Catholic Church in Africa has seen in the past 10 years” and the “terrible scourges” that afflict the continent.

After his election, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that the synod would take place and decided its theme would be “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace: ‘You Are the Salt of the Earth…You Are the Light of the World.’” Pope Benedict announced in October 2008 that he would travel to Cameroon to present the instrumentum laboris (working document) to the continent’s bishops and then proceed to Angola to commemorate the fifth centenary of its evangelization.

The Pontiff’s apostolic journey began on March 17. During his six-hour flight from Rome to Cameroon’s capital of Yaoundé, Pope Benedict took questions from six journalists. French public television correspondent Philippe Visseyrias asked, “Holiness, among the many evils that scourge Africa, there is also and in particular that of the spread of AIDS. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight against this is often regarded as unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this topic during the trip?”

In remarks destined to overshadow everything he would say in Cameroon or Angola, the Pope replied, according to the Vatican Press Office’s transcript:

I would say the contrary. I think that the most efficient reality, the most present at the front of the struggle against AIDS, is precisely the Catholic Church, with her movements, with her various organizations. I am thinking of the Sant’Egidio Community that does so much, visibly and also invisibly, for the struggle against AIDS, of the Camilliani, of all the sisters who are at the disposition of the sick. I would say that this problem of AIDS can’t be overcome only with publicity slogans. If there is not the soul, if the Africans are not helped, the scourge can’t be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship, also and above all for those who suffer, the willingness—even with sacrifice and self-denial—to be with the suffering. And these are the factors that help and that lead to visible progress.

The Pontiff’s comments about AIDS and condoms find scientific support. In a study conducted for the UNAIDS program and published in 2004 in Studies in Family Planning, Professor Norman Hearst of the University of California at San Francisco concluded, “In countries like Uganda that have curbed generalized epidemics, reducing numbers of partners appears to have been more important than condoms. Other countries continue with high HIV transmission despite high condom use.” Dr. Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, defended the Pope’s remarks, as did the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nonetheless, a media firestorm erupted. The French, German, and Belgian governments joined in the criticism— the Pope’s comments manifested “a dangerous doctrinaire vision,” said Belgian health minister Laurette Onkelinx—and Spain pledged to send a million condoms to Africa.

The media flames were fanned by charges that the Vatican Press Office altered the Pontiff’s words by adding the word “risk” to the transcript and changing the word “money” to “publicity slogans.” Catholic News Service reported that the press office’s director, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, attributed the
changes to the Secretariat of State.


When he touched down in Yaoundé, Pope Benedict was greeted by Cameroon President Paul Biya, who has ruled the West African nation of 18 million since 1982. “Biya’s long years in power have encouraged high levels of corruption and cronyism,” according to a 2008 Freedom House report. While religious freedom is respected in the Frenchand English-speaking nation—Cameroon is 27 percent Catholic, 13 percent Protestant, and 20 percent Muslim, with 40 percent retaining indigenous beliefs—“genuine freedom of expression remains elusive,” and “torture, illtreatment of detainees, and indefinite administrative or pretrial detention under extremely harsh conditions are routine,” Freedom House states.

In his opening address, Pope Benedict condemned corruption and oppression while paying tribute to Cameroon as a “land of hope” because of its internal harmony, hospitality to refugees, and legal defense of the unborn.

Pope Benedict also recalled the continent’s Christian heritage (“When Peter preached to the multitudes in Jerusalem at Pentecost, there were visitors from Africa present among them…”) while addressing the problems— among them, hunger, disease, poverty, and human trafficking—from which the continent suffers.

These problems, the Pontiff said, “cry out for reconciliation, justice, and peace, and that is what the Church offers them. Not new forms of economic or political oppression, but the glorious freedom of the children of God. Not the imposition of cultural models that ignore the rights of the unborn, but the pure healing water of the Gospel of Life. Not bitter interethnic or interreligious rivalry, but the righteousness, peace, and joy of God’s kingdom.”

Pope Benedict then retired to the apostolic nunciature, where he offered Mass privately the following morning before paying a courtesy visit to President Biya. He then traveled to a parish church to address the nation’s bishops, whose flock of 4.7 million is blessed with 1,230 seminarians. The Pope emphasized “the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel to everyone. This mandate, which the Church received from Christ, remains a priority, for there are countless people still waiting to hear the message of hope and love that will enable them to obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Each bishop, the Pope emphasized, is also called “to be the defender of the rights of the poor, to call forth and encourage the exercise of charity, which is a manifestation of the Lord’s love for the ‘little ones.’”

Later that afternoon, the Pontiff traveled to a minor basilica to celebrate Vespers with priests and religious. In his address there, Pope Benedict reflected on how St. Joseph, “a father without fatherhood according to the flesh,” is an example to priests and religious.

The following morning, Pope Benedict met at the nunciature with representatives of Cameroon’s Islamic community. “I believe a particularly urgent task of religion today is to unveil the vast potential of human reason, which is itself God’s gift and which is elevated by revelation and faith,” Pope Benedict said, evoking a theme of his 2006 Regensburg address. “Belief in the one God, far from stunting our capacity to understand ourselves and the world, broadens it.… It rejects all forms of violence and totalitarianism: not only on principles of faith, but also of right reason. Indeed, religion and reason mutually reinforce one another since religion is purified and structured by reason, and reason’s full potential is unleashed by revelation and faith.”

Pope Benedict then traveled to a soccer stadium and celebrated Mass in the presence of an overflow crowd of 40,000. Preaching on St. Joseph and the family, Pope Benedict reflected on the challenges African families face. “Certain values of the traditional life have been overturned. Relationships between different generations have evolved in a way that no longer favors the transmission of accumulated knowledge and inherited wisdom. Too often we witness a rural exodus not unlike that known in many other periods of human history. The quality of family ties is deeply affected by this.” In the face of these challenges, Pope Benedict urged African families not to abandon hope and to view every child as a blessing from God. At the conclusion of Mass, Pope Benedict promulgated the synod’s instrumentum laboris.

That afternoon, the Pontiff offered a meditation on the meaning of suffering as he visited the Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger National Center for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. Recalling that an African—Simon of Cyrene— helped Jesus carry his cross, he reflected, “Every African who suffers, indeed every person who suffers, helps Christ to carry his cross and climbs with him the path to Golgotha in order one day to rise again with him.”

In the evening, he returned to the nunciature to meet with Church leaders from around the continent. Proclaiming Africa “the continent of hope,” Pope Benedict recalled Africa’s Christian heritage, including the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, before reflecting upon the continent’s need for reconciliation, justice, and peace.

Following a private Mass the following morning, Pope Benedict departed from Yaoundé. “People of Cameroon, I urge you to seize the moment the Lord has given you!” he said in his farewell address. “Answer his call to bring reconciliation, healing, and peace to your communities and your society! Work to eliminate injustice, poverty, and hunger wherever you encounter it!”


After a flight of over two hours, Pope Benedict arrived in Angola’s capital of Luanda, where he was greeted by President José Eduardo dos Santos, an erstwhile Marxist who has ruled the former Portuguese colony since 1979. According to a 2008 Freedom House report, “corruption and patronage are endemic in the government,” “the educational system barely functions,” and “journalists are often subject to intimidation, dismissal, detention, and legal sanction by authorities.” A 27-year civil war that ended in 2002 left one million dead. Today, the average life expectancy is 38— markedly lower than Cameroon’s 53.

In an atmosphere of religious freedom, 55 percent of the nation’s 14 million people are Catholic, with the majority of remaining citizens retaining indigenous beliefs. Denouncing “inhuman and destructive ideologies, which, under the false appearance of dreams and illusions, caused the yoke of oppression to weigh down upon the people,” the Pontiff urged Angolans to forgive one another, to “recognize your neighbor as a brother or sister, born with the same fundamental human rights,” and to remember “the multitude of Angolans who live below the threshold of absolute poverty.” Pope Benedict recalled the early history of the Church in Angola: in 1506, King Alphonsus I Mbemba-a-Nzinga—whose family had been evangelized by Portuguese priests—made his Kingdom of Kongo, in what is now northern Angola, a Catholic kingdom that would endure for two centuries.

Traveling later that afternoon to the presidential palace, Pope Benedict met with government leaders and the diplomatic corps. President dos Santos could not have been comfortable when he heard the Pope say:

Friends, armed with integrity, magnanimity, and compassion, you can transform this continent, freeing your people from the scourges of greed, violence, and unrest and leading them along the path marked with the principles indispensable to every modern civic democracy: respect and promotion of human rights, transparent governance, an independent judiciary, a free press, a civil service of integrity, a properly functioning network of schools and hospitals, and—most pressing—a determination born from the conversion of hearts to excise corruption once and for all.

Pope Benedict urged developed nations to address climate change, lower trade barriers, and live up to a promise made in 2000 to dedicate 0.7 percent of their gross domestic products to development assistance. The Pontiff also condemned sexual violence against women and girls and decried “the policies of those who, claiming to improve the ‘social edifice,’ threaten its very foundations. How bitter the irony of those who promote abortion as a form of ‘maternal’ health care! How disconcerting the claim that the termination of life is a matter of reproductive health!”

That evening, Pope Benedict retired to the nunciature, where he addressed the bishops of Angola and the nearby island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. “Continue to raise your voice in defense of the sacredness of human life and the value of the institution of marriage,” he urged them, “as well as in promotion
of the family’s proper role in the Church and in society, at the same time demanding economic and legislative measures to support the family in bearing and raising children.”

On March 21, the Pope concelebrated Mass at a Luanda parish church and urged the assembled priests, religious, members of ecclesial movements, and catechists to evangelize their nations. “Offer the Risen Christ to your fellow citizens,” he said. “So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers. Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers?… Indeed, we must do this. It is our duty to offer everyone this possibility of attaining eternal life.”


That afternoon, Pope Benedict preached to more than 30,000 Angolan youths in a soccer stadium built to seat 12,000. Reminding them that their doubts about the efficacy of the Gospel are similar to the apostles’ doubts about Christ, he reminded them that societal renewal is the fruit of personal renewal. “The idea of risking a lifelong commitment, whether in marriage or in a life of special consecration, can be daunting…. Yet when young people avoid decisions, there is a risk of never attaining to full maturity! I say to you: take courage! Dare to make definitive decisions.”

The address to youth was marked by tragedy: two youths were trampled to death when the stadium’s gates were unlocked before the Pontiff’s arrival. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, went to the morgue to console family members.

On Sunday morning, an estimated crowd of one million attended an open-air Mass on the outskirts of Luanda. During the homily, Pope Benedict challenged the crowd to become instruments of reconciliation, justice, and peace. Infidelity to God’s law and a refusal to listen to his word, said the Pontiff, have led to a “maelstrom of hatred and revenge”:

The clouds of evil have also overshadowed Africa, including this beloved nation of Angola. We think of the evil of war, the murderous fruits of tribalism and ethnic rivalry, the greed which corrupts men’s hearts, enslaves the poor, and robs future generations of the resources they need to create a more equitable and just society—a society truly and authentically African in its genius and values. And what of that insidious spirit of selfishness which closes individuals in upon themselves, breaks up families, and, by supplanting the great ideals of generosity and self-sacrifice, inevitably leads to hedonism, the escape into false utopias through drug use, sexual irresponsibility, the weakening of the marriage bond and the break-up of families, and the pressure to destroy innocent human life through abortion?

Friendship with Christ, meditation on Sacred Scripture, prayer, and fidelity to God’s law will strengthen Angolans as they continue with the arduous task of rebuilding their society. “May Mary, Queen of Peace, continue to guide Angola’s people in the task of national reconciliation following the devastating and inhuman experience of the civil war,” the Pontiff said during his Angelus address following the Mass.

Late Sunday afternoon, Pope Benedict traveled to a Luanda parish to meet with Catholic movements for the promotion of women. Paying tribute to two Catholic women—one of whom had resisted the Marxist “ideological and political propaganda” that almost forced the closure of her parish in the 1970s—the Pontiff emphasized the need to “recognize, affirm, and defend the equal dignity of man and woman: they are both persons, utterly unique among all the living beings found in the world.” Pope Benedict continued:

This acknowledgment of the public role of women should not however detract from their unique role within the family…. The presence of a mother within the family is so important for the stability and growth of this fundamental cell of society, that it should be recognized, commended, and supported in every possible way. For the same reason, society must hold husbands and fathers accountable for their responsibilities towards their families.

After a private Mass at the nunciature the following morning, the Pontiff bade farewell to President dos Santos, the Angolan people, and all of Africa. “I thank God that I have found the Church here to be so alive and full of enthusiasm, despite the difficulties, able to take up its own cross and that of others, bearing witness before everyone to the saving power of the Gospel message,” he said.

If I may be permitted to make one last appeal, I would ask that the just realization of the fundamental aspirations of the most needy peoples should be the principal concern of those in public office, since their intention—I am sure—is to carry out the mission they have received not for themselves but for the sake of the common good. Our hearts cannot find peace while there are still brothers and sisters who suffer for lack of food, work, shelter, or other fundamental goods….

Dear brothers and sisters, friends from Africa, dear Angolans, take heart! Never tire of promoting peace, making gestures of forgiveness and working for national reconciliation, so that violence may never prevail over dialogue, nor fear and discouragement over trust, nor rancor over fraternal love. This is all possible if you recognize one another as children of the same Father, the one Father in heaven. May God bless Angola!


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.