Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

The Pope's trip to Africa: ignore at your own risk March 16, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Rome tomorrow, March 17, for a week-long trip to Cameroon and Angola: the 11th foreign voyage of this pontificate, and the first to Africa. Judging by their near-complete silence about the papal trip, the mass media evidently are not expecting much interesting news. They should know better by now.

When he first announced his plan to visit Africa, as the Synod of Bishops wrapped up its business in October 2008, the Pope gave a few formal reasons for his trip. In Cameroon he will unveil the instrumentum laboris for the next Synod meeting, which will be held this October and will focus on Africa. In Angola he will join in the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of that country's first evangelization. To be sure, those sound like routine events-- not the stuff of headline news.

But then, when Pope Benedict traveled to Regensburg, to speak on faith and reason, no one anticipated the fireworks that ensued. This Pope is capable of surprises.

The problems that afflict Africa-- and particularly sub-Saharan African-- are well known: poverty, disease, and violence. It is all too easy to slip into the habit of thinking that the only way to bring change to the continent is by spurring economic development, stopping the spread of AIDS, and ending bloody civil wars. In a week's time Pope Benedict cannot produce that sort of miracles.

But those large political issues do not completely define the lives of individuals and families in Africa-- any more than political issues define the entire lives of people in Europe or North America. Daily life in African countries is marked by many other influences. From the Pope's perspective, the most interesting influence is the powerful sense of religious faith that pervades African society.

While the influence of the Church is shrinking in the Western world, in Africa it is growing. New converts are coming to the faith. The numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life are steadily growing. Missionary activity is simmering throughout the region, and with only a bit more encouragement it might boil over, transforming whole societies.

As he prepared to leave for Africa, Pope Benedict told his Sunday public audience that he did not plan to propose grand political or economic solutions there. He said:

I leave for Africa with the awareness of having nothing to propose or to give to those I will meet save Christ and the Good News of His cross, the mystery of supreme love, of divine love which overcomes all human resistance and even makes it possible to forgive and love our enemies. This is the grace of the Gospel, capable of transforming the world; this is the grace that can also renew Africa, because it generates an irresistible force for peace and profound and radical reconciliation. The Church, then, does not pursue economic, social or political objectives; the Church announces Christ, certain that the Gospel can touch and transform everyone's heart, renewing people and society from within.

How will the Holy Father approach that evangelizing mission during this trip? He has not offered a preview of the public talks he will deliver in Cameroon and Angola. But he has established a track record. His style is to offer a challenge, in gentle but unmistakable form. He will undoubtedly challenge the people of Africa to unleash the power of the Gospel.

From the first days of his pontificate, Pope Benedict has emphasized the importance of maintaining continuity in the faith. In Europe, continuity means bringing the Christian heritage of past generations to bear on the problems of today. But continuity does not always mean looking to the past; it means caring for the future as well. So it is not surprising that Pope Benedict has shown a special interest in Africa. He has frequently offered his opinion that Africa could hold the key to the future of Christianity.