Sunday, March 15, 2009

Off to Africa

Tuesday morning, Papa Ratzi departs Rome for his pontificate's most extensive journey yet -- seven days in Angola and Cameroon. It's a trip that'll serve as a centerpiece of what's been dubbed a "Year of Africa" for the global church, a showcase for what's become Catholicism's emergent demographic future and, most keenly, an emphatic testimony to the vibrant presence of faith, hope and love in the midst of suffering, poverty and war.

Indeed, the trek -- the eleventh foreign jaunt of Benedict's 47-month reign -- hasn't attracted the visibility it deserves in the developed world, but for a universal church, the latest recipient of the Pope's spotlight bears especially close watching.

Sure, the visuals promise to be stunning, yet as tends to be the case with the "Pope of Words," the message will be even more important, one less likely to focus on the culture-war issues that dominate the church's public voice in the global north than the ever-pressing exigencies facing the continent: justice, peace, healing and reconciliation.

In sum, while the two countries on deck for the visit don't have the population of Nigeria, the conflicts of Sudan or the Congo nor the prominence of Kenya and South Africa, the PopeTexts of the next week will be one for all of Africa, directed not just to its 47 countries, but the whole world.

For some preliminary analysis, Catholic News Service's John Thavis provides a first look from Rome:
For Pope Benedict, who is completing work on his first social encyclical, the trip will bring him closer to populations that are struggling daily against poverty, disease, corruption and armed conflict.

The global financial crisis is aggravating the burden on Africa's poor, and the pope's words on economic justice may offer a preview of the encyclical's themes.

The trip will unfold in two parts. In Cameroon, the pope will meet with bishops from the entire continent and hand-deliver the working document for the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which will take place in Rome in October.

The synod's theme is justice, reconciliation and peace, and it offers the pope a seemingly endless choice of topics for the seven speeches and homilies he'll deliver during his four days in Cameroon. Certainly he will touch on the ethnic and political tensions that have afflicted areas like Darfur in Sudan, Somalia and the Great Lakes region, and address the responsibilities of governments to promote dialogue, reduce corruption and respond to the human needs of their populations.

But rather than read a laundry list of challenges, the pope is more likely to zero in on the church's specific mission to be a community that heals, reconciles, forgives and encourages. The point is to move evangelization past the stage of bringing people into the church, and toward the goal of witnessing the Gospel in personal lives and the life of society.

One small but significant event in Cameroon will be the pope's visit to the Cardinal Paul Emile Leger Center, also known as the National Center for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. Even more than the synod document's thousands of words on pastoral strategy, this is where the pope sees the church eloquently expressing the faith and affecting lives, through charity in action.

In Cameroon, the pope will also meet with representatives of the country's Muslim community, which comprises about 22 percent of the population. At this encounter and in meetings with the African bishops, the pope is expected to emphasize the need for interfaith collaboration in tackling the moral and material problems of the continent.

In Nigeria, which borders Cameroon, attacks between groups of Christians and Muslims have left hundreds dead in recent months, although church leaders have emphasized that the violence has been primarily political and not religious.

The second part of the pope's trip takes him to the Angolan capital of Luanda for a series of encounters with political and government officials, church leaders and groups of the faithful. Here the emphasis is on the 500th anniversary of Christian evangelization in a country where the faith arrived with Portuguese missionaries in the late 15th century.

Angola is still recovering materially, politically and spiritually from a disastrous 27-year-long civil war that ended in 2002. The first postwar presidential elections are scheduled for later this year, and many Angolans believe the pope's visit could bring a spark of hope and encouragement to the country as it continues to reconcile and rebuild.

One key event will be the pope's Mass with young people in a soccer stadium in Luanda. Trip planners realize that the papal program in Africa will be largely consumed by meetings with groups of bishops, and they want to make sure the pope also has an opportunity to build bridges to younger generations.

On his last full day in Angola, the pope is taking time to meet with Catholic movements that promote women's welfare. The encounter underlines the church's concern about the many forms of continuing discrimination and violence against women in Africa, and it offers the pope a chance to make clear church teaching on gender equality.

Health care is a major concern in Angola and throughout Africa, and the AIDS pandemic in particular has devastated the continent. The disease now kills about 1.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, and has left more than 11 million children orphaned.

When it comes to the church and AIDS, the media often focus on the church's distrust of condoms as the answer to AIDS prevention. Pope Benedict has never mentioned the condom issue explicitly, but he spelled out his thoughts on AIDS in a talk to African bishops in 2005, noting that the church is in the forefront in treatment of this "cruel epidemic" and saying the "only failsafe way" to prevent its spread is found in the church's traditional teaching on sexual responsibility....

Under Pope John Paul II, the church in Africa grew by 160 percent and the number of priestly vocations tripled. Pope Benedict has spoken less of numbers and more about proper formation and a deepening of the faith -- in a sense, quality control. That's likely to be his focus in Cameroon and Angola, too.
And, highlighting the challenge that awaits the pontiff, Reuters notes the growing prominence of Pentecostal churches in Angola, where Catholicism is said to be "losing ground":
The surge in worshippers at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in staunchly Catholic Luanda has prompted the pastor to buy a $20,000 grand piano and six loudspeakers for those outside to listen to his sermons.

In mountainous Huambo province, home to the fastest-growing evangelical churches in Angola, dozens of people crowd inside the Christ Vision Church, a small tin hut, singing: "You are poor but God loves you."

Like other evangelical churches across Angola, these two have flourished since the end of civil war in 2002....

Just over half Angola's 16.5 million people are Catholic, but the number of diversified sects has jumped to 900 from just 50 in 1992 -- the year the government abandoned Marxism, according to Angola's national institute on religion.

The Pope's visit will officially celebrate 500 years of evangelization in Angola, and may bring a boost to Catholic media as part of a Church bid for more hearts and minds.

"The Catholic Church lacks passion. It's really not a very exciting place," said Joao, from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Luanda, before holding his hands in the air to ask God to expel the evil demons from his body.

Less than a block away, a woman knelt down before a statue of Christ in a half-empty Roman Catholic Church and began her daily prayer in silence.

"These evangelical churches make too much noise and empty promises to attract people, but soon people will realize we are the only path toward God," said Madalena, 44, after finishing her hour-long prayer....

"The increasing number of sects is a threat to everyone, including the Catholic Church, because more and more people are being lured to these churches with empty promises," said Jose Queiroz Alves, archbishop of Huambo, after holding an hour-long mass in the local Umbundo language.

Some Catholic leaders see things from a different perspective. "The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God," Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento said in a recent interview with Reuters.

"But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water."
And, lastly, the traditional Visit Missal -- released online over the weekend by the Holy See -- contains the following prayer to Mary, Protectress of Africa that the Pope will offer in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé on Thursday's Solemnity of St Joseph, the patron of the universal church:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, Protectress of Africa, you have given to the world the true Light, Jesus Christ. Through your obedience to the Father and the grace of the Holy Spirit, you have given us the source of our reconciliation and our justice, Jesus Christ, our peace and our joy. Mother of Tenderness and Wisdom, show us Jesus, your Son and the Son of God. Guide our path of conversion, so that Jesus might shine his glory on us in every aspect of our personal, familial and social lives.

Mother, full of Mercy and Justice, through your docility to the Spirit, the Counselor, obtain for us the grace to be witnesses of the Risen Lord, so that we will increasingly become the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Mother of Perpetual Help, we entrust to your maternal intercession the preparation and fruits of the Second Special Assembly for Africa. Queen of Peace, pray for us! Our Lady of Africa, pray for us!
Texts and all, full coverage of the visit as it happens... and for video, EWTN will be streaming all events live.

PHOTO: Reuters(1); AP(2)