Friday, May 23, 2008

A Hero's Sendoff

Yesterday was a national holiday in Benin, as thousands converged on a Cotonou stadium to attend the funeral liturgy for Cardinal Bernardin Gantin. The dean-emeritus of the College of Cardinals -- the highest-ranking African prelate in the church's modern history -- died last week in Paris at 86.

Dispatched to preside at the rites as papal legate was Gantin's onetime #2 and eventual successor at the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who led a phalanx of red-hats that included Cardinals Francis Arinze, the Ghanaian Peter Appiah Turkson, Kenya's John Njue and Tanzania's Polycarp Pengo, all joined by the nuncio, Indiana-born Archbishop Michael Blume SVD. Mixing the military pomp of a state occasion with the solemnity of high-church worship, the days-long rites ended with the cardinal's burial in the chapel of his alma mater, the national seminary of St Gall at Ouidah.

In Rome, the cardinal was mourned at a Memorial Mass held this morning at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter's. While the current Cardinal-Dean Angelo Sodano celebrated the liturgy, Pope Benedict emerged at its close to deliver the homily.

Remembering his close ally as a "friend and brother," the pontiff said that Gantin was "permeated with love for Christ," with a "typical humble, simple style" that made him "affable and ready to listen and talk to everyone."

A railway worker's son, Benedict said that "his personality, human and priestly, made for a magnificent synthesis of the qualities of the African soul with those of the Christian spirit, of the culture and identity of Africa and the values of the Gospel." Despite being, at age 38, the first native-born African archbishop and the continent's first son to assume a top role in the Roman Curia, the Pope said that Gantin never let the accolades get to his head, adding that the "secret" to his humility likely lay in "the wise words that his mother repeated when he became a cardinal... 'Never forget the little faraway village from which you came.'"

For the second time in a month, the pontiff has a vacancy to fill in the top rank of his "senate," the order of cardinal-bishops. If the usual practice of curial seniority is followed, the appointment would go to the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada.

No US cardinal has ever been tapped to join the senior group within the college, whose six members are given the titles to the suffragan sees of Rome (and, once upon a time, were the sole electors of the Popes). As cardinal-bishops are bound in a particular way to the Roman church, naming Levada to the first order would have the practical side benefit of snuffing out once and for all the nagging buzz that the California native could be making a return to these shores as archbishop of New York.