Pope Benedict XVI is set to visit the small West African nation of Benin Friday on his second visit to the continent. Benin represents a success story for Catholicism and its extraordinary growth in Africa – an increase of almost 7,000 per cent during the twentieth century. Catholic Relief Services spoke with Benin country representative Christophe Droeven about CRS’ work in Benin and what the Pope’s visit means for the country.
What is the Catholic Church’s role in Benin?
People tend to think of the Church in terms of its spiritual role but in Benin, it’s much more than that. The service to the poor is really important. The Church is playing an important part in the education sector, running formal and informal schools, as well as in the health sector, running health care centers and hospitals. The Church is also playing a really important role during elections when they act as peacekeepers.
What is the main focus of CRS and Caritas in Benin?
CRS is in Benin at the invitation of the Episcopal Conference of Benin and our main partner is the national and diocesan Caritas. Currently we have several important emergency operations with Caritas. One of our projects is to address the effects of the flooding that took place last year. We’re helping affected people to find their way back to normal life. We’re providing them with food, safe water and are helping them with shelter.
We also have an important health program with two main components: One is working on alleviating the effects of HIV through the local Church, and the second one is an anti-malaria program, in which we are reaching the poorest through the community network in Benin. We’re working out of the health center at the community level to reach young boys and girls as well as pregnant women.
What does the Pope’s visit mean for a small country like Benin?
Africa is one of the most dynamic continents in terms of the Catholic Church, and the Church has an important role in Africa. And the Pope’s visit really reinforces the action of the Church in Africa. For Benin, a small country with nine million citizens, the Pope’s visit is really symbolic. The recent election in Benin went well and the transition between different presidents was done in a peaceful way. And I think that’s a strong message for Africa where that’s not always the case.
More so, different communities in Benin are living together in harmony. There are Muslims, animists, Christians, and other religions, and everybody is living peacefully together. And I think the Pope’s visit is recognizing the importance Benin had in the past in the Vatican. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, who died in 2008, was one of the key persons in the Vatican. Benedict’s visit also recognizes the importance of African bishops and priests inside the Church.
Read more about CRS’ work in Benin.