Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic World News News Feature

Back Home to Africa December 27, 2002

By CWR Staff

For years he was considered papabile: the man deemed most likely to become the first black African pope. He has spent 31 years at the Vatican, including 15 years as the powerful prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and nearly a decade as dean of the College of Cardinals. Now Cardinal Bernardin Gantin is quietly closing out his career in Rome, and preparing for retirement in his native Benin.

On December 4, Cardinal Gantin will leave the Vatican, where he has served four different popes, fulfilling his own cherished wish to spend his last years at home in Africa. His departure will leave a substantial void, because he has become a powerful presence in Vatican affairs, symbolizing both the rising influence of the Third World, and the continuity of the Roman Curia.

Advancing age and declining health have forced Cardinal Gantin to curtail his activities during recent years, and today he does his work at home in his apartment near the back of St. Peter's basilica. In May, when he celebrated his 80th birthday, he wrote to Pope John Paul II asking for permission to retire to Africa. Since he was no longer eligible to vote in a papal election, the cardinal reasoned, his presence at a conclave would not be essential, and he could relinquish his administrative duties as dean of the College of Cardinals. After a few months of delay the Pope acceded to his request, and Cardinal Gantin began preparing for his final departure from Rome.


Today, Cardinal Gantin's residence might be considered a small slice of Africa within the grounds of the Vatican. Inside the apartment one finds a few striking African sculptures, chairs with the images of native animals carved into their wooden arms, photographs and small mementoes from Benin on walls and tables. Nuns from Benin run the small household with a cheerful simplicity that also seems distinctively African.

A quiet, introspective cleric, with a reputation as a man of simple piety and steady prayer, the cardinal is not ordinarily accessible to reporters. But he has always enjoyed the company of his friends in Rome, and talked freely with them about his native country and his work at the head of Congregation for Bishops: his most important assignment at the Vatican, and the one he held the longest. The walls of Cardinal Gantin's study are decorated with pictures of each of the popes under whom he has served: all of the Roman pontiffs from John XXIII through John Paul II. He has vivid memories of his dealings with each pope--especially with Pope John Paul I, with whom he spoke just a few hours before that Pontiff's sudden death.

But now the African cardinal--who retains surprising intellectual and spiritual vigor, even if his body is beginning to fail him--believes that his service to the Vatican is ended, and a new challenge awaits him. Of his years of service in Rome, he now says simply: "Mission accomplished." But he chose his new "career," he says, after careful deliberation.

"At the end of the Jubilee, John Paul II called upon us to 'set out into the deep,'" Cardinal Gantin relates. "This is how I am responding to his call--by returning to my own country." He hopes to use his remaining years to help build up the growing Catholic Church in Africa, especially in Benin.


In 1978, shortly after the election of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Gantin spoke to a group of African journalists about the missionary ambitions that he will now be able to fulfill. He told the reporters that "my 14 years of experience at the end of a diocese in my own country, to which I can now add my service here in Rome for the universal Church, has convinced me that the essential question is the question of faith. If we do not accept the essential premise that God called us through Jesus Christ, nothing else matters."

Cardinal Gantin has been hoping for years to return home, and his yearning for Benin has grown steadily since 1998, when he was replaced as the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. He remained the dean of the College of Cardinals, and a close confidant of Pope John Paul II. So in May, when he wrote to ask for permission to retire to Africa, he wondered whether the Pope would allow the move. "When I sent my letter to the Pope," he recalls, "I suspected that he would not be anxious to let me go. I waited for three months, and then he asked me to lunch and told me that I could finally go back to Benin."

The cardinal downplays the significance of his own departure from the Roman Curia, saying that he will "leave room" for someone else. "Men come and go; the Church remains," the Vatican veteran observes. He adds with a chuckle that he has been "paying into his retirement account" for years, and should now "spend it while I can."

In October, as the Vatican celebrates the 24th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Gantin will deliver a congratulatory message to the Pope, in his capacity as dean of the College of Cardinals. Then, sometime late in November, he will preside over the voting that will determine his replacement as dean of the College. With the transfer of that title, a remarkable Vatican career will end.



Born on May 8, 1922, in Dahomey--now known as Benin--Bernardin Gantin was ordained to the priesthood in 1951. Just five years later he was selected by Pope Pius XII to become auxiliary bishop of Cotonou, and became, at the age of 34, one of the youngest bishops in the world. In 1960, during the pontificate of John XXIII, he became the Archbishop of Cotonou.

In 1971, the young African archbishop was called to Rome by Pope Paul VI, to serve as secretary of the Congregation for Evangelization. (Pope Paul VI had met him in Africa in August 1969, during his unprecedented papal visit to that continent.) At the end of 1976, Paul VI raised the African prelate to the College of Cardinals. (The same consistory saw the elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now the vice-dean of the College.)

During the short pontificate of John Paul I, Cardinal Gantin was named president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. But in his mind that month-long pontificate is marked by the fact that he met with John Paul I just a few hours before the Pope died in his sleep.

Cardinal Gantin had become acquainted with the Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla during Vatican II, and when the Polish prelate was elected as Pope John Paul II he became one of his close confidants. In April 1984 he was named the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, a post he held until 1998.

During his 15 years in that post, Cardinal Gantin's most painful act may have come on July 1, 1988, when--along with Cardinal Ratzinger--he signed the decree announcing the excommunication of the Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Having become acquainted with Archbishop Lefebvre in Africa, where the traditionalist leader had been a powerful force for evangelization in French-speaking countries during his years as an apostolic delegate there, Cardinal Gantin had hoped for an eventual reconciliation between the Holy See and the renegade prelate. Long before the final schism, he had sought unsuccessfully to dissuade Archbishop Lefebvre from opening his seminary at Econe, Switzerland.

In June 1998, having passed the mandatory retirement age of 75, Cardinal Gantin was replaced by the late Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. Since that time he has continued to serve as a member of six different bureaus of the Roman Curia, as well as dean of the College of Cardinals. [SIDEBAR 2]


On October 1, Pope John Paul II named Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re as a "cardinal-bishop," replacing the late Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves in the exclusive group of prelates bearing that rank. Cardinal Re will now be eligible to participate in the election of a new dean for the College of Cardinals.

The title of "cardinal-bishop" is mostly honorific. But the six men who hold that title elect the dean of the College of Cardinals. The dean is responsible for convening the College of Cardinals in the event of a conclave, administering the process of a papal election, and asking the newly elected pontiff if he will accept the position. (In the unlikely event that the conclave chooses a pope who is not yet a bishop, the dean is also responsible for ordaining him.)

The new dean will be elected by the six cardinal-bishops. In addition to Cardinals Re and Gantin, they are: Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Angelo Sodano, Roger Etchegaray, and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo. The two patriarchs of Eastern churches who have been named to the College of Cardinals--Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir of the Maronite Church and Patriarch Ignace Moussa Daoud, the prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches--also carry the honorary title of cardinal-bishop, but do not participate in the election of the new dean. Cardinal Ratzinger is currently the vice-dean of the College of Cardinals. If he is elected as dean, the cardinal-bishops must also elect a new vice-dean.

The title of "cardinal-bishop" is one of three categories in the College of Cardinals. The distinctions between "cardinal-bishops," "cardinal-priests," and "cardinal-deacons" derive from the historic origins of the College of Cardinals, which was originally the consultative body made up of the clergy from around Rome. The clerics who advised the Pope, were called "cardinals"--from the Latin word meaning "hinge"--because they occupied a pivotal role in the life of the Church. The "cardinal-bishops" were originally the bishops of dioceses surrounding Rome; the "cardinal-priests" and "cardinal-deacons" occupied those positions in the Diocese of Rome.