Back to Africa – three days in Benin

Today will see the return of Pope Benedict XVI to the continent where the Catholic Church only seems to know growth, as he departs Rome for an apostolic journey to Benin. Apart from the usual courtesies and meetings, there are several important points in this three-day visit. As the relevant page on the Vatican website indicates, this visit takes place “on the occasion of the signing and publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops”. Said Assembly took place during most op October of 2009, and the upcoming Apostolic Exhortation, said to be titled Africae Munus, will collect its conclusions and form something like a game plan for the African Church.

Cardinal Gantin (1922-2008)

Another personally important part of the visit, at least for the Holy Father himself, will be the opportunity to visit and pray at the tomb of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the Beninese prelate who was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s immediate predecessor as Dean of the College of Cardinals from 1993 to 2002. Cardinal Bernardin died in 2008 and his tomb is in the chapel of the St. Gall seminary in Ouidah, about 40 kilometers west of the capital, Cotonou, where the rest of the papal visit will take place.

Following the previous papal visit to Africa (Cameroon and Angelo in March of 2009) many media eyes and ears seem only open to whatever shockingly ‘new’ statement the pope will make now about condoms or some such interesting topic. If there will be such a statement that the media will take and run with, there is a high risk that the more important elements of this journey will be completely snowed under. It happened in the past, it will happen again. Better be aware of it.

Benin, which will host a pope for the third time (Blessed John Paul II visited in 1982 and 1993), has a population of some 8.8 million, of whom 27.1% is Catholic. Other main religions are Islam and Vodun (Voodoo). Many Beninese practice a combination of Muslim, Christian and local beliefs, and it seems likely that Pope Benedict will warn against that. To other African prelates, those of Angola and São Tomé and Principe during their ad limina visit in October, he spoke firmly against the practice of witchcraft in their countries and the threat it is to especially children:

“[T]he hearts of the baptized are still divided between Christianity and traditional African religions. Afflicted by problems in life, they do not hesitate to resort to practices that are incompatible with following Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2117). An abominable effect of this is the marginalization and even the killing of children and the elderly who are falsely condemned of witchcraft.” [To the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Angola and São Tomé and Principe (C.E.A.S.T.) on their ad Limina visit, October 29, 2011]

The Church in Benin consists of two metropolitan archdioceses and eight dioceses. The two metropolitans are Archbishops Antoine Ganyé of Cotonou and Pascal N’Koué of Parakou. Archbishop Michael Blume is the Apostolic Nuncio to Benin, and also to neighbouring Togo.

Photo credit: 30giorni.it

Shepherding the Synod

As next year major Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation slowly creeps closer, the Holy See appoints prelates to make sure the entire affair proceeds smoothly. One of the more important jobs, certainly the most visible, is that of Relator-General, in essence the spokesman for the Synod.

The Relator-General is responsible for the main opening address, and also for collecting the conclusions and results of the Synod for its final message and ultimately the ultimate papal document, today still some three or four years away.

For past Synods, the Holy Father has appointed prelates which subsequently received high postings in Rome, prelates held in high esteem by the pope. Among these illustrious names are those of Cardinal Angelo Scola (who was moved from Venice to Milan this year), Cardinal Peter Turkson (called to Rome to head the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace), and Cardinal Marc Ouellet (now heading the Congregation of Bishops).

The latest name on this list, appointed to be the Relator-General for the 2012 Synod, is that of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington DC, United States (pictured at right having a laugh shortly before his elevation to cardinal last November). Rocco Palmo has more on the cardinal, who received the red hat last November.

Another important role in the Synod is that of the Secretary, who records the goings-on of the Synod and as such plays a vital role for the Relator-General too. Appointed for that job is Msgr. Pierre-Marie Carré (left), the archbishop of Montpellier, France. Msgr. Carré has been an archbishop since 2000, first of Albi, and since May 2010 as Coadjutor Archbishop of Montpellier. In June of this year he took over the reins from Archbishop Guy Thomazeau.

Two fairly recent appointments, a recently-created cardinal and a fairly recently-appointed archbishop, given high-profile duties at a Synod of Bishops from the entire worldwide Church. Ones to watch, I would say.

Photo credit: [1] Alex Wong/Getty Images,  [2] Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

The CCEE about the new evangelisation

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (the CCEE in its official abbreviation), has held  a plenary assembly in Tirana, Albania, from 29 September to 2 October. The reason for their assembly was to discuss the new evangelisation so desired by the Holy Father.

A full account of their resolutions is available here, but I want to highlight the section that directly speaks about the new evangelisation (emphasis mine):

The 41st CCEE Plenary Assembly was held in Tirana on the theme of the New Evangelisation. Preparation for this meeting included a major survey: each Bishops’ Conference had responded to a questionnaire, a summary of which was presented to the participants.

From this it emerged that the New Evangelisation is a major concern for European bishops, and that consequently all kinds of work has already taken place: diocesan synods and reflection at the level of Bishops’ Conferences, the publication of documents (in almost every country), and many practical projects.

Evangelisation is the manifestation of the Church’s life and vitality. It should not be understood simply as a pastoral activity, but as the manifestation of its very nature and mission. The New Evangelisation is not only aimed at Christians who have strayed from the faith, but at all. It seeks to proclaim Christ, true God and true man, crucified to bear every human grief, raised from the dead that we might have life. Through their baptism, all believers are called to take part in the New Evangelisation: families; young people who are generally the most open to being missionaries; but also parishes, the movements, and new communities. Places of catechesis and Catholic schools must also be and become ever more places of evangelisation. Finally, the sacraments are the privileged place of establishing this New Evangelisation. There is also question of seeking new ways to evangelise, such as, for example, new technology, the internet, and social networking sites. But all this is only possible if, following the example of the Christians of the Acts of the Apostles, we open ourselves up in a new way to the Holy Spirit: “There will be no new evangelisation without a new Pentecost!”.

The choice of Albania, land of martyrs, was particularly significant for the discussion of the theme of the new evangelisation. It was an opportunity for all bishops present to recall the missionary witness borne by the Albanian Church, and also by all the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches under communist regimes.

Mgr Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, addressed the meeting. He pointed out that many Europeans today no longer know anything about Christianity, and that while the word “crisis” was currently being much used, this should also be seen as an opportunity for growth. According to him, “the New Evangelisation is an opportunity given to us to read and interpret the current historical moment in order that the Church’s work might become extraordinary. In other words, we are called to live, in an extraordinary way, the ordinary event in the life of the Church, which is evangelisation.” He concluded by recalling the initiatives of the “Missions Metropoli”, which will take place in 12 major European cities during next Lent.

Well, it’s good that virtually all bishops’ conferences are taking the topic seriously. But, discussion is one thing. The new evangelisation still needs to be transformed into reality to a large extent. The 12 Missions Metropoli that Archbishop Fisichella mentioned can play an important role in the first step towards that realisation, but it’s not the end of it. Not even the end of the beginning, I think. There is still much work to do, both on the level of the CCEE, as on the level of individual conferences. But “all believers are called to take part in the New Evangelisation”, which means that this can’t be left to the bishops in their conferences. Now, we must all do it; we must all evangelise, reclaim the continent for Christ, Who is its foundation.

The chairmen: Cardinal Bagnasco, Cardinal Erdö and Archbishop Michalik

The next major meeting about the new evangelisation will be the Plenary Assembly of the worldwide Synod of Bishops in 2012.

While meeting, the members of the Council also elected a new presidency. Péter Cardinal Erdö, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, was re-elected as chairman, while Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, and Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemyśl were chosen as vice-chairmen. All three men also chair their respective bishops’ conferences of Hungary, Italy and Poland.

Introduction to “Verbum Domini” translated

The first part of Verbum Domini (the introduction) is translated into Dutch and available here. In it, Pope Benedict XVI grounds the text and the Synod that preceded it in the Gospel of John and the Tradition of the Church. He recalls preceding papal documents (most notably “Dei Verbum”), and reflects on the actual proceedings of the Synod of Bishops. With these two lines of thought, Verbum Domini no longer stands alone; it is a development, a part of the ongoing Tradition of the Church, the ongoing development in man’s relation to God (and His word), and an ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Apostolic Exhortation is available in several languages, such as English, on the Vatican website.

Verbum Domini

In case you were wondering, dear reader: yes, I am very much aware of yesterday surprise (well, to me) publication of the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini about “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. It is the lengthy document which is the result of 2008’s 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The Exhortation is the second from Pope Benedict XVI, following 2007’s Sacramentum Caritatis.

Verbum Domini fits into a lineage of Exhortations and other documents relating to the Word of God, dating back to the the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century.

Time constraints mean that I am slowly working through it, and I intend to post thoughts about Verbum Domini semi-regularly. If possible, I will also provide Dutch translations of individual chapters. Something to look forward to then.

Papal Soundbytes, part 2

Part two of my collection of interesting snippets from the addresses and homilies  given by Pope Benedict XVI in Cyprus. Again, you may read the full texts here.

On the Cross:

“The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a philosophy by force. It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly, empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love. A world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would have the final word. Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence. Only the Cross puts an end to it. While no earthly power can save us from the consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer.” (Holy Mass attended by priests, religious, deacons, catechists and representatives of Cyprian ecclesial movements in Nicosia)

Sheik Nazim Sufi, spiritual leader of the Muslims in the north of Cyprus, came to meet with the pope before Mass at the Church of the Holy Cross. He apologised for not getting up. "I am an old man," he said, to which the pope replied with a simple "I am old too." The two conversed briefly and the pope assured the sheik of his prayers.

On proclaiming Christ:

“When we proclaim Christ crucified we are proclaiming not ourselves, but him. We are not offering our own wisdom to the world, nor are we claiming any merit of our own, but we are acting as channels for his wisdom, his love, his saving merits. We know that we are merely earthenware vessels, and yet, astonishingly, we have been chosen to be heralds of the saving truth that the world needs to hear. Let us never cease to marvel at the extraordinary grace that has been given to us, let us never cease to acknowledge our unworthiness, but at the same time let us always strive to become less unworthy of our noble calling, lest through our faults and failings we weaken the credibility of our witness.” (Idem)

A baby seemingly transfixed by the shiny mitre on the pope's head

On the three meanings of Corpus Christi:

Corpus Christi, the name given to this feast in the West, is used in the Church’s tradition to designate three distinct realities: the physical body of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, his eucharistic body, the bread of heaven which nourishes us in this great sacrament, and his ecclesial body, the Church. By reflecting on these different aspects of the Corpus Christi, we come to a deeper understanding of the mystery of communion which binds together those who belong to the Church. All who feed on the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist are “brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer II) to form God’s one holy people.” (Holy Mass on the occasion of the publication of the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in Nicosia)

On the murder of Bishop Luigi Padovese:

“Before I begin, it is only fitting that I recall the late Bishop Luigi Padovese who, as President of the Turkish Catholic Bishops, contributed to the preparation of the Instrumentum Laboris that I am consigning to you today. News of his unforeseen and tragic death on Thursday surprised and shocked all of us. I entrust his soul to the mercy of almighty God, mindful of how committed he was, especially as a bishop, to interreligious and cultural understanding, and to dialogue between the Churches. His death is a sobering reminder of the vocation that all Christians share, to be courageous witnesses in every circumstance to what is good, noble and just.” (Consignment of the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in Nicosia)

On the hope of Mary that caused her to say ‘yes’ to God:

“Some thirty years later, as Mary stood weeping at the foot of the cross, it must have been hard to keep that hope alive. The forces of darkness seemed to have gained the upper hand. And yet, deep down, she would have remembered the angel’s words. Even amid the desolation of Holy Saturday the certitude of hope carried her forward into the joy of Easter morning. And so we, her children, live in the same confident hope that the Word made flesh in Mary’s womb will never abandon us. He, the Son of God and Son of Mary, strengthens the communion that binds us together, so that we can bear witness to him and to the power of his healing and reconciling love.” (Angelus in Nicosia)

On ecumenism with the Orthodox Church:

“I hope that my visit here will be seen as another step along the path that was opened up before us by the embrace in Jerusalem of the late Patriarch Athenagoras and my venerable predecessor Pope Paul the Sixth. Their first prophetic steps together show us the road that we too must tread. We have a divine call to be brothers, walking side by side in the faith, humble before almighty God, and with unbreakable bonds of affection for one another.” (Farewell ceremony at Larnaca International Airport)

Italian undersecretary Gianna Letta welcomes Pope Benedict XVI upon his return to Rome

A preview of the pope’s trip to Cyprus

Tomorrow morning the pope departs for a three-day visit to Cyprus. What’s he going to do there and why is that important?

Before the trip to Portugal, John L. Allen already noted that this year’s papal visits seem to be “laid out in ascending order of difficulty”. Malta was a home game (although it included an unscheduled meeting with victims of sexual abuse), and Portugal was deemed a general success, nationally and internationally (although the Portuguese government did choose to allow same-sex marriage not even a week after the pope had spoken against it). Cyprus, though, seems of a different order of difficulty. Here, the Catholic Church is very much a minority. The 25,000 faithful in the island nation make up 3.15% of the entire population.

Archbishop Chrysostomos and the pope pictured at a meeting in 2007

It is the Orthodox Church which dictates the Christian landscape here. And there is protest in their ranks against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI: At least five of the eighteen members of the Holy Synod are opposed, causing Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus to issue a warning to these bishops that they place themselves outside the Church by not welcoming the pope as a visitor to Cyprus.

There is tension aplenty which dates back, in some respects, to the Great Schism of 1054. And while there has been rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches since the pontificates of Blessed John XXIII and Paul V (and a possible meeting between the pope and Moscow Patriarch Kirill I seemingly just over the horizon), the disagreements go deep, centering on the authority of the bishop of Rome and certain theological teachings, for example about the Trinity.

The visit to Cyprus will obviously have a very strong ecumenical nature, and the things discussed here will, at least on the short term, be quite important for the ongoing relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For Pope Benedict, the Orthodox Christians, who are closest to us in faith, are natural partners in many matters facing the western world today. Ecumenism with them is therefore of prime importance.

Back to my first question: what’s the pope going to do in Cyprus? Well, there will obviously be the official receptions and meetings with heads of state and Church, as well as meetings with the Catholic community. The liturgical celebrations planned in Paphos and Nicosia are all described as ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Eucharistic Celebrations’ – not Masses: a sign that representatives from the Orthodox Church will be involved, perhaps?

On Saturday, the pope will visit and have a luncheon with Archbishop Chrysostomos II and on Sunday morning the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, planned for this autumn, will be published. The fact that that publication will happen in the presence of the pope and in Cyprus, and island that in ecclesiastic history has always had close ties with the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East, is an indication of the importance that Pope Benedict XVI attaches to this special assembly. The Instrumentum laboris (meaning ‘working instrument’), is basically an outline of the topics, with notes and addenda, to be discussed at the assembly).

The two ‘legs’ – ecumenism with the Orthodox and the future of the Church in the Middle East – will both have important repercussions for the near future. This weekend’s papal visit will be one to watch.

In Rome: A rising star

This is the first installment of a series of who’s who in the Vatican, a series that will very likely appear quite irregularly. In it, I take a look at the men – and women – in Rome, who work to guide and shepherd the Church all over the world.

He is considered one of the rising stars in Rome and inevitably plays his part in the guessing game called ‘who will be the first African pope in modern times?’. He is Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson, 61 years old, born in Ghana, where he was ordained a priest in 1975. In 1992 he was appointed as Archbishop of Cape Coast and in the consistory of 2003, the last one convened by Pope John Paul II, he received the red cardinal’s hat. He left Ghana last year to become prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which works to promote justice and peace in the world, “in the light of the Gospel and of the social teaching of the Church”(Apostolic Constitution Pastor  Bonus, art. 142). He also has a link to the Netherlands, since in 1994 he was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop Tiny Muskens, the previous bishop of Breda.

Cardinal Turkson’s appointment as prefect came after he had chaired the three-week Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. During the preparation of that assembly he obviously made a good impression in Rome.

Considering both his function and his background, it is no surprise that Cardinal Turkson remains deeply involved with the Church in Africa. Only last week, he travelled to a village in Nigeria, to offer Mass for the victims of bloody clashes between Muslims and Christians earlier this month*.

Like Francis Cardinal Arinze before him, Cardinal Turkson is considered in many circles to be a very good candidate for the first modern African pope. Of course, a pope is not, or at least should not, be chosen simply for his place of origin, but in general it is not illogical to expect a pope with African (or Asian or South American) roots. These are the places where the Church is young and full of growth. As the  faithful increase there and decrease in Europe, the chances of influential Church leaders from those areas grows equally. For now, though, Africa still has the numbers against it. Out of the 182 Cardinals, only 13 hail from Africa. But still, in 1978, the Cardinal elected an outsider to the Chair of St. Peter…

Cardinal Turkson is young (for a cardinal, clearly) and unafraid to live his faith. These are the men the Church needs, and the Holy Spirit provides and inspires them.

*The reason for the clashes, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos said, is not religious in nature: “The fact that the Fulani are Muslim, and the villagers are mostly Christians, is an incidental fact. The real motivation for the massacre is the alleged theft of the livestock.”  

“I am concerned about the fact that the large international press continues to present the clashes that take place in Plateau State as a religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. This is not so.”