Friday, November 18, 2011

Off to Benin, B16 Returns to His "African Soul"

Early today, the Pope leaves Rome for a weekend trip to Benin: B16's 22nd overseas visit, and his second to Africa.

While the journey features some rich official business, like celebrating the 150th anniversary of the country's first evangelization, as well as the Pope's presentation of Africae Munus ("The Commitment of Africa") -- Benedict's concluding text of the 2009 Synod of Bishops dedicated to the continent -- what could be considered the visit's key purpose in the pontiff's mind isn't so much ecclesial as personal.

Far from Sunday's exuberant closing Mass in a Cotonou stadium or tomorrow's signing of the Synodal document at Ouidah, the coastal town where the first two French missionaries arrived in April 1861, what's likely to be the trip's most significant moment for the Pope will take place in the relative quiet of a seminary chapel, as Joseph Ratzinger pays a long-desired "farewell visit" Saturday morning at the tomb of the old friend who -- so it's been said -- "made him Pope."

In the annals of history, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin will be recalled as one of the first two native Africans to be named an archbishop in modern times, going on to become the continent's highest-ranking Catholic in some 1,700 years after his 1993 election to the Roman church's #2 post. On a personal level, meanwhile, the longtime head of the Congregation for Bishops and Dean of the College of Cardinals became then-CDF chief's closest friend and ally in the Curia, initially as both remained far more attached to their respective homelands than the cultural ambit of working at the Vatican. (Replete with his land's art and furniture, Gantin's Roman apartment was once described as "a small slice of Africa" on the Pope's turf.)

As friends and colleagues alike, the bond between the Bavarian and the Beninese remains the stuff of legend in the famously-fractious Curial world. Yet while Gantin got to make good on his wish to finally flee Rome, returning home on his 2002 retirement, Ratzinger -- who had the same plan in mind -- obviously didn't get to follow suit. And now, nearly four years after Gantin's death at 86, the Pope himself will make a rare personal visit in tribute.

His surname meaning "iron tree," Gantin was ordained an auxiliary of Cotonou, the country's largest city, in 1957, at the age of 34. In less than three years, he became archbishop there; today the local airport bears his name. A decade later, Pope Paul VI brought him to the Curia as the #2 official at the Propaganda Fide, the congregation that oversees the global church's massive missionary work.

By 1976, he was the first African to ever to head a Vatican office on his appointment as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The following year, he received the red hat at Paul's last consistory as one of only four new cardinals, joining the Curial favorite Giovanni Benelli of Florence (below center) -- whose creation was widely believed to be the sole reason the event was had at all -- and the freshly-ordained archbishop of Munich and Freising, 50 year-old Joseph Ratzinger.

At the time, many saw Paul's preferred heir in Benelli. As things turned out, though, the biglietto's less prominent duo would end up having the infinitely greater impact, both at the Vatican and well beyond.

"Many personal memories bind me to this brother of ours," Benedict said in his homily at a 2008 Vatican Memorial Mass for Gantin. While the shared consistory made for the first of those, many more would follow after Ratzinger was called to Rome in 1981 to head up the CDF, and especially from 1984, when John Paul II uprooted his "iron tree" from the Curia's second rank to oversee the all-powerful Bishops' office.

As one longtime Vatican observer once characterized the reaction to the move, "Jaws dropped."

To be sure, given their overlap of concerns, the work of the two congregations always requires an especially close collaboration. That was especially true amid the tides of the time -- with Rome's pushback against both the rise of liberation theology in Latin America and the perceived excesses of the post-Conciliar period elsewhere both in full swing, the dual trends often required either an enhanced supervision of bishops or an added scrutiny in the choice of their successors.

Accordingly, in their meetings, the two Curial chiefs were said to have had a uniquely hand-in-glove way of "playing off each other." The tag-team dynamic once made waves in public during a 1999 exchange, when Gantin famously rapped "careerism" in the episcopacy, urging a return to the practice of a bishop's lifelong union to the diocese for which he was initially named.

As the then-papal vicar for Rome Cardinal Camillo Ruini sought to rebut the just-retired prefect, Ratzinger interjected to voice his agreement with Gantin's line, memorably conceding nonetheless that "I myself have not remained faithful in this regard."

The media spat was a rarity, however. Gantin's normally ironclad reticence at taking on a public profile saw his fellow, albeit less-senior, African -- Nigeria's colorfully loquacious Cardinal Francis Arinze -- become more widely perceived as the continent's key figure in the Vatican, and the one with the best odds in a Conclave. Still, the enduring media frenzy over the prospect of a Black Pope is the enduring fruit of a trail first blazed by Gantin... and when that day finally comes, it won't be the first time the late Dean cut a path to Peter's chair that wasn't his own.

Having retired as prefect of Bishops shortly after his 75th birthday in 1998, the cardinal's role as the College's first among equals required him to remain in Rome, a demand explicitly stated in canon law. Yet on turning 80 -- at which time he became ineligible to enter a Conclave, despite bearing the title that made him a papal election's presiding officer -- Gantin asked to be released from the Deanship to return home.

They say John Paul II took three months to assent to the move. The Cardinal-Dean doesn't just preside over the election of the next Pope, but the funeral of the previous one, as well as the very important daily meetings of the entire College that conduct the church's business during the interregnum. One didn't need to be an elector to carry out any of those tasks, and among other things, the now-Blessed Pope's innate sense of the visual likely understood well that an African at the forefront of the transition after him would provide a powerful testimony to the universality of the church, not to mention highlighting the place where Catholicism under his watch experienced its most vigorous growth.

As his final Vatican act, Gantin oversaw the election of the new Dean. And even as others among the field of five cardinal-bishops brought more extensive records of Curial service or diplomatic finesse to the post, the ballot went to the most forthright, intense and, indeed, polarizing of the group -- and, above all, Gantin's preferred candidate.

Of course, the new Dean was Joseph Ratzinger. And just over two years later, when death came for John Paul, the so-called Panzerkardinal's smooth, evenhanded tending of the barque over 17 days as the Holy See's de facto administrator is still seen as a crucial factor in convincing some very skeptical red-hats that, controversial as the choice would be at first, the temporary frontman had the right stuff to emerge from their number clad in white.

In the end, the conclave only lasted 30 hours. And were it not for the German Dean's elegant yet self-assured turns leading John Paul's funeral and the pre-electoral Mass -- which showcased his comfort in his own skin under the bright lights -- backed up by an efficient, consultative navigation of the daily private sessions over the intervening fortnight, odds are the church wouldn't have seen the ascent of the first lead cardinal to the papacy since 1555.

Three years later, as Gantin was given a hero's sendoff in Benin with full state honors, the most resonant part of his Vatican memorial was the eulogy of his longtime confidant and sounding board:
His human and priestly personality was a marvellous synthesis of the characteristics of the African soul with those proper to the Christian spirit, of the African culture and identity and the Gospel values. He was the first African ecclesiastic to have eminently responsible roles in the Roman Curia and he always carried them out with his typical simple and humble style, whose secret is probably to be found in the wise words his mother chose to address to him when he became a Cardinal on 27 June 1977: "Never forget the little faraway village from which we come"....

Even a rapid glance at the biography of Cardinal Gantin who, in addition to the offices already mentioned, also made a contribution to various other Offices and Dicasteries of the Curia, reminds us of St Paul's assertion that we heard in the Second Reading: "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1: 21). The Apostle interprets his life in the light of Christ's message, for Christ has made him totally "his own" (cf. Phil 3: 12). We can say that this friend and brother, to whom today we are paying our grateful homage, was also imbued with love for Christ; love that made him loving and ready to listen to and engage in dialogue with all, love that impelled him always to look, as he was in the habit of repeating, at the essential of the life that endures, without losing himself in the incidental which instead is fleeting; a love that made him perceive his role in the various Curial Offices as a service free from human ambition. It was this spirit which on 30 November 2002, when he reached the venerable age of 80, prompted him to submit his resignation as Dean of the College of Cardinals in order to return to his people in Benin where he resumed the evangelizing activity he had begun on the day of his priestly ordination in Ouidah, on that long ago, 14 January 1951.

A constant love for the Eucharist, a source of personal holiness and sound ecclesial communion which finds its visible foundation in the Successor of Peter, came to the fore in Cardinal Gantin. And it was in this very same Basilica that in celebrating his last Holy Mass before leaving Rome he stressed the unity that the Eucharist creates in the Church. In his homily he cited the famous sentence of St Cyprian of Carthage, the African Bishop, which is engraved in the dome of St Peter's: "From here a single faith shines throughout the world; from here is born the unity of the priesthood". This could be the message we inherit from venerable Cardinal Gantin as his spiritual testament....

May our prayers to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Africa, for whom he had a tender devotion, accompany him in the last stage of his earthly journey - he died on an important Marian day, 13 May, the Memorial of Our Lady of Fatima. May Our Lady deliver him into the merciful hands of the Heavenly Father and introduce him joyfully into the "House of the Lord", for which all of us are bound. In the encounter with Christ, may this Brother of ours implore the gift of peace for us and especially for his beloved Africa. Let it be so!
Notably, the Pope's address that day referred to Gantin four times as "venerable" -- the term traditionally reserved in the church for those found to have lived a life of heroic virtue, as part of their path to being declared saints. As another of the cardinal's own once described it, his was a witness of "pure integrity."

To underscore his enduring impact, as of this writing, all but one of the 12 American cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave were either made bishops during Gantin's tenure at the Congregation for Bishops, or received the posts from which they were elevated to the College on his advice to John Paul II.

Of these, one in particular stands out. In his waning months at the Bishop-shop, the cardinal-prefect quietly took care of a long-held personal project, securing an inconspicuous appointment for perhaps his most cherished US-born staffer, who managed to escape the Vatican some years earlier to return to the simple life of a pastor among his own.

Ten years later, by which point Gantin had followed his aide's example, Benedict created said minutante as the first cardinal of the American South.

The move might've shocked many -- well, elsewhere... but just like the Vatican said this week of Benedict's desire to visit Benin, "The choice [was] not by chance."

Hailed among his own even today as the "Father of the Nation" -- even as Catholics comprise just a third of Benin's population -- such is Gantin's legend at home that pop songs have been recorded in his honor....

Yet when the Pope visits his friend's tomb at the seminary where the cardinal was ordained, no liturgy, speeches or music are planned -- nothing more than the silence of memory.

SVILUPPO: Both on the plane and after touching down on Beninese soil, true to form, memories of Gantin loomed particularly large on Benedict's mind.