Potpourri of Popery, End of Year & Heart of Voodoo Edition


Having got too busy to comment on the three great papal events of the year: World Youth Day in Spain, the triumphant return to Germany, and Assisi III (excellent round-ups at those links), I'm determined to complete a potpourri before the liturgical year closes this evening.

The Pope was in Benin last weekend. For a guy who promised himself the year before Bl. John Paul the Great passed that he was never crossing the ocean again, he sure has made a lot of trans-oceanic journeys. Time has a good slideshow here. I love the kids sneaking under the bottom rung of this fence to try to catch a glimpse of the Pontiff as he passes by.
Benin, as all the news agency headlines blared at me when I googled, is "the home of voodoo."  If that's true, it's all the more fitting that the vicar of Christ was there at the close of the liturgical year, to claim the lost in the name of the One who gathers the tribes unto himself.  

The official occasion, however, was the dedication of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus and to celebrate with the people of Benin the 150th anniversary of its evangelization. The pope also had the personal intention of praying at the tomb of his old friend Cardinal Gantin. (Whispers has two nice posts with pictures about that aspect of the trip: the visit to his friend; and an earlier post about the Ratzinger-Gantin friendship.)

All the Benin addresses are collected here, but here are some highlights.

Sometimes the interview on the airplane en route is really interesting. He's asked, "Why Benin?" and responds that Benin is a model of well-functioning democratic institutions and a place where Catholics, other Christians, Muslims and tribal religions are at peace with one another. He talks about Cardinal Gantin:
I have always wanted, one day, to pray at his tomb.  He was really a great friend – perhaps I will speak of him at the end, and so to visit the country of Cardinal Gantin, a great representative of Catholic Africa, and of African civilization at its most humane, is a further reason for me to go to Benin.
Thoughtful answer to the question about inculturation and Catholicism not really being able to compete against Pentecostal Christianity, too. On the one hand, there's a lot to admire; but it's important not to be too impressed:
These communities are a worldwide phenomenon, found in all continents. In particular, they have a strong presence, in different forms, in Latin America and in Africa.  I would say that the characteristic elements are minimal institutional character, few institutions, lightweight teaching, a straightforward message, simple, easily grasped, apparently concrete and then – as you say – a participative liturgy with the expression of personal emotions and of the native culture, with combinations of different religions, sometimes in a syncretistic way.  All this, on the one hand, guarantees success, but it also implies instability. 
What is there for Catholics to learn then? He takes it point by point.
We also know that many people come back to the Catholic Church or else migrate from one of these communities to another. Hence, we must not imitate these communities, but we must ask what we can do to give fresh vitality to the Catholic faith.  And I would say that an initial point is certainly a simple, profound, easily grasped message; it is important that Christianity should not come across as a difficult European system that others cannot understand and put into practice, but as a universal message that there is a God, a God who matters [to us], a God who knows us and loves us, and that concrete religion stimulates cooperation and fraternity.  So, a simple concrete message is very important.
That's very much in the vein of his 2006 message to Swiss bishops which so impressed me, as well as his message to bishops at Fatima and elsewhere. Don't let the beauty and grandeur of the faith be obscured by its rules and regulations. Furthermore, he goes on, 
Another very important point is that the institution should never be too heavy, that is to say, the initiative of the community and of the individual should be predominant.   And I would also say that a participative but not emotional liturgy is needed:  it must not be based merely on the expression of emotions, but should be characterized by the presence of the mystery into which we enter, by which we are formed.
"Participative but not emotional." My new motto! 

As for inculturation, he doesn't like the word:
it is important for inculturation not to lose universality.  I would prefer to speak of interculturalism, rather than inculturation, that is, a meeting of cultures within the shared truth of our humanity and our era, giving rise to a growth in universal fraternity; we must not lose the great gift of catholicity, meaning that in every part of the world we are brothers, we are a family, knowing one another and working together in a spirit of fraternity.
Someone asks a good question -- how can you speak of hope in Africa? He seems to pooh-pooh the difficulties. Or not the difficulties themselves, but the idea that Africa's are worse than anyone else's: just different. Where are there are human beings there are serious problems, always.
As mankind moves forward, so do the difficulties.  Yet the freshness of Africa’s yes to life and the youthfulness that is found there, so full of enthusiasm and hope as well as humour and liveliness, show us that Africa has a reserve of humanity, there is still a freshness about its religious sense and its hope; there is still a perception of metaphysical reality, total reality, including God: not this reduction to positivism, that constricts our life and makes it somewhat dry, extinguishing hope in the process.  So I would say that the fresh humanism found in Africa’s young soul, despite all the problems of today and tomorrow, shows that Africa still has a reserve of life and vitality for the future, on which we can depend.
I have zero experience of Africa, but my experience of African Catholics here confirms the Holy Father's assessment. They are alive and joyful in a way that the West isn't. It's attractive and infectious. At our parish's 125th anniversary recently, the Nigerian community (which normally has its own mass) joined us. They don't merely recite the Creed. They proclaim it.

Once on the ground, there was of course the airport welcome ceremony, where he lays out for the people of Benin the main themes of his visit. Next he visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mercy and delivered a simple, lovely reflection on mercy and on Mary as Queen of Mercy.

Given the background of the airport interview -- the Pope's concern for democracy and control of corruption and  religious tolerance and religious freedom-- I think the meeting with government leaders is the most important address of the trip. Here's the passage that attracted the most attention in the secular media, though, unsurprisingly the headlines didn't capture the spirit of the address:
When I say that Africa is a continent of hope, I am not indulging in mere rhetoric, but simply expressing a personal conviction which is also that of the Church. Too often, our mind is blocked by prejudices or by images which give a negative impression of the realities of Africa, the fruit of a bleak analysis. It is tempting to point to what does not work; it is easy to assume the judgemental tone of the moralizer or of the expert who imposes his conclusions and proposes, at the end of the day, few useful solutions. It is also tempting to analyze the realities of Africa like a curious ethnologist or like someone who sees the vast resources only in terms of energy, minerals, agriculture and humanity easily exploited for often dubious ends. These are reductionist and disrespectful points of view which lead to the unhelpful “objectification” of Africa and her inhabitants.
In reportage, this amounted to "We're No Better Than Africa": cultural relativism. Of course that's not what he's saying at all. What he's doing is apologizing to Africa for the gross cultural imperialism of the perky little tyrant types at the UN and elsewhere who do things like tie foreign aid to contraception distribution, or try to bully African countries into legalizing abortion.

The actual teaching of the address however is here, where we have a hint of his view of the Arab spring and civic unrest in our day, generally:

During recent months, many peoples have manifested their desire for liberty, their need for material security, and their wish to live in harmony according to their different ethnic groups and religions. Indeed, a new state has been born on your continent. Many conflicts have originated in man's blindness, in his will to power and in political and economic interests which mock the dignity of people and of nature. Human beings aspire to liberty; then to live in dignity; they want good schools and food for their children, dignified hospitals to take care of the sick; they want to be respected; they demand transparent governance which does not confuse private and public interests; and above all they desire peace and justice. At this time, there are too many scandals and injustices, too much corruption and greed, too many errors and lies, too much violence which leads to misery and to death. These ills certainly afflict your continent, but they also afflict the rest of the world. Every people wishes to understand the political and economic choices which are made in its name. They perceive manipulation and their revenge is sometimes violent. They wish to participate in good governance. We know that no political regime is ideal and that no economic choice is neutral. But these must always serve the common good. Hence we are faced with legitimate demands, present in all countries, for greater dignity and above all for greater humanity. Man demands that his humanity be respected and promoted.
You don't get this greater respect for humanity, however, by substituting the other guy's dominating passions for your ethnic group's, nor by making your grandchildren pay for you to live as you choose. You have to submit those passions to the common good so as not to rob your people of hope:
From this place, I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries and the rest of the world. Do not deprive your peoples of hope! Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present! Adopt a courageous ethical approach to your responsibilities and, if you are believers, ask God to grant you wisdom! This wisdom will help you to understand that, as promoters of your peoples’ future, you must become true servants of hope. It is not easy to live the life of a servant, to remain consistent amid the currents of opinion and powerful interests. Power, such as it is, easily blinds, above all when private, family, ethnic or religious interests are at stake. God alone purifies hearts and intentions.
The Church does not propose any technical solution and does not impose any political solution. She repeats: do not be afraid! Humanity is not alone before the challenges of the world. God is present. There is a message of hope, hope which generates energy, which stimulates the intellect and gives the will all its dynamism. A former Archbishop of Toulouse, Cardinal Saliège, once said: "to hope is never to abandon; it is to redouble one's activity". The Church accompanies the State and its mission; she wishes to be like the soul of our body untiringly pointing to what is essential: God and man.
He goes on to address relations between the various religious believers, offering hope for the end of endless skirmishes on that front and a pointed rebuke of extremists:
I do not think it is necessary to recall the recent conflicts born in the name of God, or deaths brought about in the name of him who is life. Everyone of good sense understands that a serene and respectful dialogue about cultural and religious differences must be promoted. ... Aggression is an outmoded relational form which appeals to superficial and ignoble instincts. To use the revealed word, the Sacred Scriptures or the name of God to justify our interests, our easy and convenient policies or our violence, is a very grave fault.
He has often said with respect to ecumenism that Christian unity is not the work of man but of God, and therefore the best thing for it is for each Christian to be the best disciple he knows how to be. As we grow in union with God, he lifts us to himself, and thus will union come. Now he makes a similar point with respect to inter-religious dialogue. To be genuine, it has to spring from confidence that God is the Lord of history and there is nothing to fear in mutual submission to the truth. And sometimes the "dialogue" is not a matter of formal arguments, but of simple practical cooperation and kindness:
In your continent, there are many families whose members profess different beliefs, and yet these families remain united. This is not just a unity wished by culture, but it is a unity cemented by a fraternal affection. Sometimes, of course, there are failures, but there are also many successes. In this area, Africa can offer all of us food for thought and thus become a source of hope.
To finish, I would like to use the image of a hand. There are five fingers on it and each one is quite different. Each one is also essential and their unity makes a hand. A good understanding between cultures, consideration for each other which is not condescending, and the respect of the rights of each one are a vital duty. This must be taught to all the faithful of the various religions. Hatred is a failure, indifference is an impasse, and dialogue is an openness! Is this not good ground in which seeds of hope may be sown? To offer someone your hand means to hope, later, to love, and what could be more beautiful than a proffered hand? It was willed by God to offer and to receive. God did not want it to kill (cf. Gen 4:1ff) or to inflict suffering, but to care and to help live. Together with our heart and our intelligence, our hand too can become an instrument of dialogue. It can make hope flourish, above all when our intelligence stammers and our heart stumbles.
Love that last line!  Good deeds are inter-religious dialogue. I love this close, too:
To be afraid, to doubt and to fear, to live in the present without God, or to have nothing to hope for, these are all attitudes which are foreign to the Christian faith and, I am convinced, to all other forms of belief in God. Faith lives in the present, but it awaits future goods. God is in our present, but he is also in the future, a place of hope. The expansion of our hearts is not only hope in God but also an opening to and care for physical and temporal realities in order to glorify God. Following Peter, of whom I am a successor, I hope that your faith and hope will be in God. This is my wish for the whole of Africa, which is so dear to me! Africa, be confident and rise up! The Lord is calling you.
He met with priests, religious and seminarians, urging them to be holy and not reduce their mission to social work. He formally signed the post-synodal document. And he had the sweetest encounter with children. You have to read it and savor it; after some encouraging words about how to speak to Jesus and carry him with you in your heart each day, he says this, which makes me smile:
Dear young people, Jesus loves you. Ask your parents to pray with you! Sometimes you may even have to push them a little. But do not hesitate to do so. God is that important!
I always pay special attention to what the Pope tells bishops. Here he tells them to take care of their priests, pay special attention to their formation, maintain unity with the Church and each other, and be sure all the faithful have a personal relationship with Christ:
It is the crucified and glorious face of Christ which ought to guide us, so that we may witness to his love for the world. This attitude requires a constant conversion in order to give new strength to the prophetic dimension of our proclamation. To those who have received the mission of leading the people of God, falls the responsibility of quickening this attitude in them and helping them to discern the signs of the presence of God in the heart of persons and events. May all the faithful have this personal and communal encounter with Christ, and become his messengers. This meeting with Christ must be solidly rooted in openness to and meditation on the Word of God. The Scriptures must have a central place in the life of the Church and of each Christian. Hence, I encourage you to help them to rediscover Scripture as a source of constant renewal, so that it may unify the daily lives of the faithful and be ever more at the heart of every ecclesial activity.
The relationship with Christ necessarily entails a flowering of zeal and missionary activity:
Apostolic zeal, which should animate all the faithful, is a direct result of their baptism, and they cannot shirk their responsibility to profess their faith in Christ and his Gospel wherever they find themselves, and in their daily lives. Bishops and priests, for their part, are called to revive this awareness within families, in parishes, in communities and in the different ecclesial movements. ...as I emphasized in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, “In no way can the Church restrict her pastoral work to the ‘ordinary maintenance’ of those who already know the Gospel of Christ. Missionary outreach is a clear sign of the maturity of an ecclesial community”. The Church, therefore, must reach out to everyone.
In other words, he wants a Church alive.  Which brings us to the final big event of the visit: the Mass of Christ the King. From the homily:
The Church exists to proclaim this Good News! And this duty is always urgent! After 150 years, many are those who have not heard the message of salvation in Christ! Many, too, are those who are hesitant to open their hearts to the word of God! Many are those whose faith is weak, whose way of thinking, habits and lifestyle do not know the reality of the Gospel, and who think that seeking selfish satisfaction, easy gain or power is the ultimate goal of human life. With enthusiasm, be ardent witnesses of the faith which you have received! Make the loving face of the Saviour shine in every place, in particular before the young, who search for reasons to live and hope in a difficult world! The Church in Benin has received much from her missionaries: she must in turn carry this message of hope to people who do not know or who no longer know the Lord Jesus.
In all, a series of challenging addresses, but shot through with love and hope. It seems he entrusted to the peoples of Benin a mission, as expressed in a single question from his airport farewell.
Why should an African country not show the rest of the world the path to be taken towards living an authentic fraternity in justice, based on the greatness of the family and of labour?
I can't help notice the contrast between the Pope's attitude and that of the perky little tyrants he criticized at the outset of the trip. They come to say, "You're hopelessly backwards and messed up. Stop breeding and we'll give bread to those who remain." He says, "Your problems are great, but there is no reason at all you can't conquer them. Rise!"
  • Throughout Summer & Fall, the pope has also continued an enlightening series of catecheses on prayer. No doubt they'll be gathered in a book when they're completed, but for now scroll around at Zenit to find them. Here's the most recent.
  • He's declared next year a Year of Faith. I jokingly said I dread this. The year of the priest turned into a year of terrible trials and purification for priests due to scandal (one priest friend of mine said he was hoping for a year of the laity so we'd see what it was like).
  • BXVI on stem cell research. And on charitable work.
And finally: Well said!  And the blessing of the beer.