Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Gantin Gone

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the Benin native who rose to become the most influential African prelate in the church's modern history, died this afternoon in a Paris hospital.

The dean-emeritus of the College of Cardinals, long a close ally and collaborator of Pope Benedict, was 86.

Ordained a bishop at 35 and promoted to the archbishopric of his native Cotonou in the West African country three years later, Gantin -- the surname means "iron tree" in his ancestral tongue -- was brought to Rome by Pope Paul VI, who named him in 1971 as #2 of the Propaganda Fide, the Vatican dicastery that supervises the activities of the missions. Six years later, at his final consistory, Papa Montini gave him the red hat and the merged leadership of the Holy See's humanitarian and social-justice arms, the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, and Cor Unum.

In 1984, John Paul II thrust the railway worker's son into the Curia's top rank by naming him prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, an appointment that put the reserved, stately prelate in the driver's seat as the global episcopate was gradually remade in Wojtyla's image. Given the traditional coupling of Bishops with the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, his purview included the responsibility of serving as Rome's top point-man for affairs south of the border, an agenda then topped by the Vatican's battle against liberation theology.

In time, each of his deputies at Bishops became cardinals, two of whom would succeed him as prefect: first the Brazilian Dominican Lucas Moreira Neves, then the Italian Giovanni Battista Re, the high-hat shop's current head. Shortly after arriving at the congregation, Gantin likewise took under his wing a young minutante from Pittsburgh who, late last year, became the first cardinal of the American South.

While the cardinal served as the late pontiff's lead bishop-maker until his retirement in 1998, Gantin made further history five years earlier by becoming the highest-ranking African in church history on his election as "first among equals" of the papal senate -- a post which would've seen him preside over John Paul's funeral and the subsequent conclave, and garnered him wide press as a potential papabile. The dean's obligation to live in Rome, however, led the cardinal to petition the then-Pope to be released from the task to return to the place he often called "my Africa."

John Paul weighed the request for several months, only acceding after Gantin's 80th birthday in 2002.

To succeed him, the six cardinal-bishops -- the senior curialists who serve as titular heads of the suffragan dioceses surrounding Rome -- elected then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his "classmate" from the "Benelli consistory" of 1977 (below), whose performance as dean during the 2005 interregnum arguably soothed many doubts among the college that wound up electing him to the papacy.

Despite being a conciliatory figure with a powerful, serene presence (which some called "saintly"), the former dean wasn't afraid of the candid quote... or several.

Speaking with 30 giorni from his homeland in 2006, he wryly observed that while "at one time the bishops moved little, today they travel too much"; "sitting down, listening, praying with their own believers is more than ever necessary and urgent for them," he added, citing the canons on "the obligation of residence... [that] they can also be an example to their own priests." During another chat to the journal, the cardinal noted the "collapse of vocations in the churches of Europe and North America," unpacking the effect of said downturn on the African missions.

However, in what became his most-cited intervention, shortly after his retirement from Bishops Gantin lashed out at what he called the "amazing careerism" he saw on the part of some prelates, including those who placed a "definite pressure for advancement" on him as prefect.

The cardinal's call for a marked return to the ancient tradition of a bishop being wedded to his first diocese was subsequently backed up by the then-prefect of the CDF -- who "sadly" admitted that "I myself have not remained faithful in this regard." In the end, the years since haven't so much seen a reinforcement of policy on the "matrimonial bond" of bishops to their charges as a distinct change of profile among those getting the promotions. In a word, albeit in a more muted form, the fidelity push bore long-term fruit.

Following his return home, Gantin admitted to his favored magazine that "materially I don’t have anything anymore.

"Better that way! This material poverty helps me to live spiritual poverty better."

The Pope's customary condolence telegrams will appear in the morning. According to early reports, the cardinal's funeral will take place in Benin.

SVILUPPO: In comments to La Croix, the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ said that, in Rome, "we are very sad."

The director of the Holy See Press Office called Gantin "an extraordinary man, a great figure" who was "much loved in the Curia" and used his Roman service to "work for Africa."

"He left us all with wonderful memories," Lombardi said.