Benin: Pope Benedict XVI is returning this week to Africa, the Roman Catholic Church's fastest-growing region whose pool of aspiring priests is helping to replenish orders in Europe, where congregations are dwindling.
The 84-year-old pope arrives on Friday and will visit a seminary in this tiny nation on Africa's western coast that is emblematic of the church's growth spurt. In the past decade, Benin's Catholic population has grown by half, more than half-a-million converts while congregations in Europe including in Germany and Poland, the countries that produced both the current pope and his successor, are declining.
Benedict is planning to release a document outlining the future of the church in Africa, a pastoral guide which is expected to use the church's doctrine of penance and forgiveness to address Africa's numerous ills, especially the cycle of violence. The pope's position will likely be guided by the 57 recommendations of the 2009 synod held in the capital of Cameroon, where bishops met to articulate the future of the African church.
Among the proposals is the creation of a "sacrament of reconciliation" by organizing both individual and collective acts of forgiveness, a strategy intended to stem the acts of retribution common to many of Africa's conflicts.
"The message of reconciliation is very apropos in Africa, because our tradition is to seek revenge. Ours is a history of divisions and wars," said Nicolas De Dravo, who heads the organization representing Benin's seven choirs. "For there to be reconciliation, first you should do an exam of your own conscience. And see how did I hurt that person? We need to recognize our error."
Benin itself is a rare model of good governance, a country where people are deeply committed to democracy. When a power outage threatened to disrupt the presidential election five years ago, citizens used their motorcycles to light up vote counting centers. It's also a place where the church played a positive role in bringing reform: It was a Catholic bishop who headed the committee in 1990 that helped draft the country's new constitution, allowing multiparty democracy for the first time.
Harvard Divinity School professor Jacob Olupona, an expert on African religious traditions and a native of Nigeria, said that although Benin provides a positive backdrop for the pope's trip, it's a country in a turbulent region where violent ethnic-related clashes have killed thousands in recent years.
Ivory Coast is just emerging from a near-civil war pitting the mostly-Christian followers of strongman Laurent Gbagbo against the Muslim supporters of his successor. Waves of violence have repeatedly crashed down on the belt separating Nigeria's Muslim north from its Christian south. And in Congo, a mostly-Christian nation, armed militias have turned rape into a weapon of war.
"The Pope can send a message, calling the faithful and members of the Catholic community to be more true to their Christian faith. What is the purpose of loving God and hating your neighbor?" said Olupona.
The three-day trip is Benedict's second to Africa. In 2009, he made a pilgrimage to Cameroon and Angola, a trip where his impassioned plea to corrupt leaders to let the poor share in their nation's wealth was overshadowed by his controversial comments on condoms. On the plane to Africa, Benedict said that the problem of AIDS was being aggravated by the distribution of condoms, provoking criticism from the governments of France, Germany and the European Union.
In Cotonou, Benin's sleepy capital where motorcycles outnumber cars and women in block print dresses sell plantains from platters on their head, public service announcements enjoined citizens to clean their city. One billboard showed a picture of the pope next to three suggestions: Sweep your street, pick up the garbage and repaint your house.
Workers and residents say police forces destroyed the Zongo market in Cotonou without warning on Tuesday, citing an order from the city to make the area presentable ahead of the pope's arrival.
The lawns on the medians separating major boulevards had been removed, after the mayor's office determined that it was easier to simply rip out the grass rather than trying to pick out the thousands of cigarette butts and pieces of trash. It means that most of the highways are now separated by a band of dirt, decorated with fresh tractor tracks.
Starting Thursday, trucks are no longer allowed to enter the downtown core, because they not only slow traffic but are also considered unattractive.
At the cathedral where Benedict is expected to make a stop, pilgrims were holding prayer books. Their mouths were moving as they silently read the words. Inside, workers on ladders were adding a coat of olive color to the nave.
"I cannot describe to you the emotion that I feel as I paint these walls," said one of the painters Luc Vittou, 24, the logo on his stretched T-shirt no longer legible due to the paint stains. "I feel privileged to be able to do something that proves to the pope how much we welcome him. ... It's a sentiment of pure, crazy, over-the-top joy."
In a country where more than half of the population of 9.6 million is illiterate and where more than seven local languages are spoken, church leaders are looking for other ways to communicate the pontiff's message of reconciliation.
De Dravo, the head of the country's seven choirs, commissioned them to compose songs on the topic.
"It's only because day accepted night, and the night accepted day," says the chorus of one of the songs that will be performed for Benedict, "That we can put the two side-by-side, and experience a day on Earth."
First Published: Friday, November 18, 2011, 16:12