On March 17, 2009 – almost exactly four years after taking office – the recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI. on his first trip to Africa. This took him to Angola and Cameroon, but Benedict made statements to journalists on the plane that initially earned him little sympathy on the continent. The pontifex claims that the AIDS problem in Africa cannot be solved by distributing condoms, on the contrary: there is even a risk of increasing the problem through contraception. Rather, the solution lies in a “spiritual and human awakening” and in “friendship for the suffering.”
Condom statement causes excitement
“With this lifeless message, Pope Benedict caused astonishment and even indignation,” says Thomas Tasse, a practicing Christian and composer of gospel music from Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. Nevertheless, Tasse drove to the airport to receive the Pope with a Cameroonian flag in his hand. “For me, as a Catholic Christian, it was an honor that the Holy Father was the first to visit our country in Africa.” With his opposition to contraception, Benedict has shown that religious dogma is very important to him. “From then on, at the latest, the whole of Africa knew that Benedict was a very conservative man. One who didn’t want any changes or reforms.”
Domingos das Neves, Vatican expert for the Angolan broadcaster “Rádio Ecclesia”, can also remember the media echo that the pope’s statement on condoms caused in 2009: “His position was sharply criticized at the time, including here in Angola. But Benedict’s statements were nothing New and consistent with the official position of the Catholic Church.” Incidentally, the topic of contraception and AIDS is not about dogmas, but about the fact that some topics require an interpretation from a Catholic point of view. And the Pope delivered this interpretation unequivocally, according to Domingos das Neves.
Poverty, hunger, abuse of power: “Never keep silent”
However, Benedict’s problematic position on the question of contraception cannot be equated with indifference towards the African continent. “There was never the slightest doubt about Benedikt’s interest in Africa and the Africans,” says Thomas Tasse from Cameroon. Upon his arrival in Cameroon, Benedict told the faithful present that he wanted to bring a “message of hope” to the poorest continent on earth. Christians should never remain silent in the face of suffering, poverty, hunger, violence, corruption and abuse of power.
He also criticized the regional conflicts that devastated Africa, described human trafficking as a “new form of slavery” and lamented the lack of food. “They were words of hope and comfort,” remembers Tasse.
Africa – continent of Catholic hope
Pope Benedict XVI had visited just three out of 54 countries in Africa: Cameroon, Angola and, two and a half years later, Benin. His predecessor, John Paul II, had traveled the entire continent with few exceptions. But that doesn’t mean that Benedict wasn’t aware of the importance of Africa for the Catholic Church, says Angolan Vatican expert Domingos das Neves.
Nowhere in the world is the number of Catholics growing as fast as in Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century there were only two million Catholics in Africa. Today the continent has an estimated population of more than 180 million – and it is estimated that the number could more than double in the next 25 years: “There is an impressive number of priestly and religious vocations, as well as numerous conversions to Christianity,” says Neves, describing the situation in his native Angola.
Benedict therefore described the Church in Africa as the “Church of Hope”. He was very aware that Africa was a stronghold of the faith and was also very impressed by the large number of missionaries from Africa who were being sent to other continents. “Africa was once evangelized and now sends missionaries all over the world. Benedict XVI gratefully emphasized this fact,” said Domingos das Neves.
A great friend of Africa
The Catholic priest Père Raymond Goudjo, who was directly entrusted with organizing Benedict’s visit to Benin in 2011, remembers that he appeared as a great hope in Benin, the third African country that Benedict visited as pope. “It’s true: Benedict was a very dogmatic pope, a very intellectual person, but not the most temperamental, not exuberant,” Goudjo told DW. “But one who knows exactly what friendship means.”
This is evidenced not least by the fact that during his visit to the country the Pope honored a Beninese friend with whom he had worked for many years in Rome: Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who had been buried three years earlier in the Ouidah cemetery in Benin and who Benedikt paid his last respects in 2011.
Many African Catholics Benedict XVI. however, are remembered primarily for statements made before he became pope. Because Joseph Ratzinger, as cardinal, had repeatedly brought up the possibility of an African pope. The then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in an interview in April 2002 about a potential pope from Africa: “Personally, I think this would be a nice sign for all of Christianity.” In view of Benedict’s South American successor, the incumbent Pope Francis, this scenario seems more likely than ever today.
Collaboration: Prince Rodrigue Guézodjè (Cotonou), Henri Fotso (Yaoundé)