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Pope's apostolic exhortation offers a guide to reconciliation in Africa

Catholic World News - November 21, 2011

“Be the salt of the African earth,” Pope Benedict XVI challenged Catholics as he formally released his apostolic exhortation, Africae Munus, summarizing the key insights of the 2nd African Synod.

Pope Benedict signed the apostolic exhortation on November 19, at the basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Ouidah, Benin, during a 2-day trip to the African nation. He had chosed Benin as his destination because that country is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its evangelization. The faith first spread from there to surrounding nations, and the Immaculate Conception basilica is the first cathedral in the region of west Africa.

The next day—Sunday, November 20, the feast of Christ the King—the Pope formally released the document, at an outdoor Mass in Cotonou, the nation’s capital, which he concelebrated with more than 200 African bishops. As he described the apostolic exhortation to the congregation of over 20,000, he said that the key priority for the Church in Africa must remain “the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus.” This evangelizing effort, he continued, “is not just a message or a word. It is above all an openness and adhesion to a person: Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word.”

Evangelization was also the key theme of Ecclesia in Africa, the apostolic exhortation with which Pope John Paul II concluded the work of the 1st African Synod. But Pope Benedict noted that evangelization “cannot be separated from the work of human promotion.” Thus the 2nd African Synod had built on the work of the first by concentrating on “reconciliation, justice, and peace.”

In this new apostolic exhortation, the Pope writes, “Africa is led to explore its Christian vocation more deeply.”

The theme of reconciliation is particularly crucial in Africa because of the continent’s troubled past and its continuing conflicts today, the Pope observes. “Africa’s memory is painfully scarred as a result of fratricidal conflicts between ethnic groups, the slave trade and colonization. Today too, the continent has to cope with rivalries and with new forms of enslavement and colonization.” (9)

The wounds made by violent conflicts are aggravated by the urgent need for economic and social development, the Pope notes. Thus, he says, the continent today faces an “anthropological crisis.” As strong cultural traditions collide with contemporary ideas, he writes: “Africa is experiencing a culture shock which strikes at the age-old foundations of social life, and sometimes makes it hard to come to terms with modernity.”

Africae Munus stresses the need for reconciliation to address past and present wrongs, noting that “human consciences are challenged by the grave injustices existing in our world as a whole and within Africa in particular.” However, the Pope makes it clear that he does not intend to offer a political program. Instead he calls for a spiritual approach to reconciliation, based upon conversion, penance, and reconciliation. “It is God’s grace that gives us a new heart and reconciles us with him and with one another,” he reminds his readers.

Rather than embracing any social or economic scheme, Africae Munus urges African Christians to base their activities on the principles set forth in the Sermon on the Mount:

In the spirit of the Beatitudes, preferential attention is to be given to the poor, the hungry, the sick – for example, those with AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria – to the stranger, the disadvantaged, the prisoner, the immigrant who is looked down upon, the refugee or displaced person…

In the apostolic exhortation the Pope observes that Africa’s traditions provide some strong bases for the building of strong and healthy communities, pointing out for example that “the elderly are held in particular veneration.” On the other hand there are areas in which Africa lags badly behind the world; he notes that “overall, women’s dignity and rights as well as their essential contribution to the family and to society have not been fully acknowledged or appreciated.”

Pope Benedict underlines the importance of family life as the fundamental resource for a healthy society. Applying that insight to the theme of the 2nd African Synod he says: “The family is the best setting for learning and applying the culture of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.”

Africae Munus includes particular exhortations directed toward bishops, priests, religious, catechists, lay people, and youth. Remarking that young people account for the majority of Africa’s population, the Pope makes a special appeal: “Dear young people, enticements of all kinds may tempt you: ideologies, sects, money, drugs, casual sex, violence... Be vigilant: those who propose these things to you want to destroy your future!”

To Africans at large, the Pope issues an appeal to protect human life (putting them on guard against “questionable elements found in certain international documents, especially those concerned with women’s reproductive health”), safeguard the natural environment, and root out corruption in government.

Pope Benedict calls for new efforts to promote inter-religious harmony in Africa. But he issues warnings about the influence of witchcraft and of new “syncretistic movements and sects” that have sprung up more recently. Of these new sects, the Pope writes:

Sometimes it is hard to discern whether they are of authentically Christian inspiration or whether they are simply the fruit of sudden infatuation with a leader claiming to have exceptional gifts. Their nomenclature and vocabulary easily give rise to confusion, and they can lead people in good faith astray. These many sects take advantage of an incomplete social infrastructure, the erosion of traditional family solidarity and inadequate catechesis in order to exploit people’s credulity, and they offer a religious veneer to a variety of heterodox, non-Christian beliefs. They shatter the peace of couples and families through false prophecies and visions. They even seduce political leaders.

The Vatican has released the full text of Africae Munus, a document of over 30,000 words. The Vatican Information Service also provided a summary by Archbishop Nicola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.

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