OUIDAH, Benin – In a basilica built in the heartland of Africa’s Voodoo religion, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday unveiled a treatise outlining the role of the Roman Catholic Church on the continent, explaining how the faith can help address Africa’s chronic wars and interact with indigenous practices.
The immediate backdrop for the release of the 87-page guide for the faithful in Africa was the soaring basilica in this coastal town, a symbol of the church’s roots on the continent. But just 100 yards from the nave where Benedict was introducing the papal text, Voodoo priests in flowing robes sat inside their own temple, carefully listening to his words as they wafted outside across the basilica’s sound system.
Among the messages contained in the pope’s road map for Africa is an attempt to show how Catholicism has evolved from the rigid religion missionaries first brought to Ouidah, considered the cradle of Voodoo, a state religion in Benin alongside Christianity and Islam.
Catholics need to cultivate respect both for Islam and for traditional practices, the pope said in the document. He also encourages the study of indigenous beliefs to determine what aspects are helpful to the human condition. But he told bishops they must nevertheless discern which traditional practices clash with church doctrine so they can “separate the good seed from the weeds.”
“The church is open to cooperation with all the components of society, particularly with the representatives of the churches and ecclesial communities not yet in full communion with the Catholic church,” the pope said as African priests and nuns held up camera phones in the pews of the packed basilica to record his message. “As well as with the representatives of the non-Christian religions, above all those of traditional religions.”
As he signed the papal treatise, several dozen Voodoo practitioners sat in plastic chairs in the Temple of the Pythons located at the opposite end of the basilica’s square. The high priest, who sat with his foot on a bottle of gin, a traditional Voodoo spirit offering, said they listened carefully as the pope’s message was projected outside through massive speakers mounted on the basilica.
“This is a positive message which will bring peace to Africa,” said Houkpon II Houawamenod. “I am a baptized Catholic, but I can’t turn my back on where I come from. When I was a child if I attended a Voodoo ceremony, I used to get flogged at school the next day,” he said.
Houawamenod, who like many in Benin practice a combination of Voodoo and Catholicism, said: “We are simply taking a different road to get to the same place.”
The 84-year-old pope’s three-day trip is his second to Africa, the most rapidly growing region for the Roman Catholic Church. While congregations are graying in Europe and orders are struggling to recruit future priests, there are not enough spots in seminaries in Africa to accommodate all those wishing to pursue a religious life.
“Africae munus,” Latin for “Africa’s Commitment,” is the pope’s attempt to tailor the faith to the needs of a continent shattered by war and crippled by corruption. The pope is proposing a reconciliation which draws on the church’s doctrine of forgiveness to stem the cycle of retribution at the core of many of the region’s most recent conflicts.
Among the ideas he suggested is surveying local ceremonies used to resolve conflicts in Africa, though he made clear that these cannot take the place of the church’s sacrament of penance.
Earlier on Saturday at the country’s largest seminary located a few miles from the basilica, the pope addressed the aspiring priests, and explained how they can become an instrument for changing Africa.
“Dear priests, the responsibility for promoting peace, justice and reconciliation falls in a special way to you,” he said. “As crystal does not retain the light but rather reflects it and passes it on, in the same manner the priest must make transparent what he celebrates.”
Rev. Gabriel Dobade, a priest from Chad which has seen repeated coups and wars said the Biblical principle of turning the other cheek is a perfect instrument for resolving Africa’s cycle of violence.
“Africa needs to stop fighting. We need to assume responsibility for peace,” he said. “The pope’s message is a strong one. And it should be heard throughout Africa.”
The document also dealt with the toll AIDS has taken on the continent, though it made no mention of the role of condoms. Benedict’s first trip to Africa in 2009 was derailed before his plane had even landed, after he told reporters during an in-flight news conference that condoms made the problem of AIDS worse.
He issued a clarification of sorts last year, saying that a male prostitute who intends to use a condom might be taking a first step toward a more responsible sexuality because he is looking out for the welfare of his partner.
No such language appeared in the document; instead the pope repeated previous suggestions that abstinence until marriage and fidelity within marriage were the best ways to prevent a disease that has decimated Africa.
The pope’s trip to Benin, a place that has added more than 500,000 new converts in the past decade, comes in the context of a crisis of faith in the Western hemisphere. Congregations in Europe are dwindling including in the pope’s native Germany, which lost around 2 million members in the same period that Benin’s churches grew by around 50 percent, according to the World Christian Database.
The number of people joining orders in Europe is in steep decline, said Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, who points to France’s most famous seminary of Saint Sulpice. With room for 200, the seminary today houses just 50 — many of them from Africa, he said.
In “Africa’s Commitment,” Benedict says there is potential for Africa to become a resource for the rest of the world, acting as “a spiritual lung for humanity.” Among the traits he praised in Africans is their love of family on a continent where its rare to find only children, and their deeply felt faith, whether it is in the context of Christianity or not.
“However, if it is to stand erect with dignity, Africa needs to hear the voice of Christ who today proclaims love of neighbor, love even of one’s enemies,” the pope writes in the exhortation.
The pope didn’t mince his words when it comes to Africa’s leaders. At a meeting with Benin’s government inside the presidential palace on Saturday morning, Benedict made a plea to the continent’s ruling class: “I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries,” Benedict said in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou.
“Do not deprive your people of hope. Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present. Adopt a courageous, ethical approach to your responsibilities.”