In the last week, Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication has elicited a lot of reflection and commentary on the legacy of his pontificate in the Church as well as the world. Amidst all these, we have heard some of the unfortunate and unfavourable criticisms in the mainstream media, particularly on his work and mission in Africa. I call them unfortunate because these criticisms are predicated upon so many inaccurate assessments and conclusions rashly made by people from first world countries without duly seeking the thoughts and opinions of the Africans or even their reactions or relationship to the Holy Father.
So, what do the Africans have to say to the world about this Pope whose mission in Africa has been grossly misunderstood and largely mischaracterised? And what is the true impact of Pope Benedict XVI on Africa and Africans ?
A day after the announcement of the resignation, I got together with some of my African friends so as to discuss and reflect together on how the Pope’s mission of words and works swept across our Continent and touched the lives of millions in the course of his pontificate. In fact, contrary to the claim of the harsh critics, his legacy in Africa is one of abundant life, fatherly love and overwhelming light and we Africans have nothing less than profound reverence and gratitude for the many gifts and treasures received from him, gifts and treasures that we are sure to continue to unpack and tap into for decades to come .
So before taking the negative criticisms to heart , I would invite you to consider how the Africans have felt his fatherly love.
In March of 2009 , he visited Yaoundé, Cameroon and Luanda, Angola, and what a visit!
He was welcomed with so much jubilation , singing and dancing by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The tides of joy were high throughout his stay in Africa and the atmosphere was electric in and around the countries he visited .
He reached out in graciousness to clergy and lay faithful, Christians and Muslims, women and workers, the youth and the dying. He embraced Africans even as they embraced him. His message of life and authentic development echoed across Africa and was accepted by so many.
But as our celebrations peaked, a shadow was cast on the august apostolic visit by the critics from some of the western first world mainstream media expressing outrage over the Pope’s response to a question concerning the use of condoms in Africa as a solution to the AIDS epidemic. The Holy Father’s exact words were:
“If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help by responsible behaviour, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics. On the contrary, they increase it.”
Only a few words, but enough to elicit an avalanche of harsh criticism and acidic headlines such as “Pope’s anti-condom message is sabotage in fight against Aids–stance makes Catholic church a major global public health problem“, published by the Guardian newspaper.
Funny that most of the rage came from the western countries whereas the Africans who were really the primary subject of the discourse listened and heard the Pope’s words as those of a Father insistent on a true solution in this fight to eradicate a scourge so vicious. Since then, some prominent researchers in the field of AIDS prevention have come forward to support the Pope’s stance. Professor Edward Green, medical anthropologist and former Director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, in an interview with National Review Online, clearly stated:
“We have seen HIV decline in Africa when the number of multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships has declined and when more people have been faithful. The role of condoms in HIV success stories such as Uganda and Zimbabwe has been debated, but we have certainly never seen more condom use alone bring about declines in HIV. The parts of the continent with the highest condom use — in southern Africa — have the highest HIV rates.”
Thank God that many Africans began to see through the haze of the aggressive condom promotion campaigns by the rich western donors. More and more people are opting for a sexually responsible life style through abstinence, fidelity and monogamy .
We thank you, Holy Father, for speaking to our hearts as only a father can.
Another gift that Pope Benedict gave to us was in his convocation in 2009 of a Synod for Africa on Reconciliation, Justice and Peace. A triple jab most needed in Africa!
It was in fact during this Synod that the Pope described Africa as the spiritual lung for humanity:
“Africa constitutes an immense spiritual “lung” for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope. But this “lung” can also become ill. And at this moment at least two dangerous pathologies are infecting it: in the first place, a disease that is already widespread in the Western world, in other words practical materialism, combined with relativist and nihilistic thought.
Without discussing the genesis of such sickness of the spirit, it is nevertheless indisputable that the so-called “first” world has sometimes exported and is exporting toxic spiritual refuse which contaminates the peoples of other continents, including in particular the population of Africa.”
These are the words of a man with a special appreciation, love, and concern for Africa especially within a rapidly changing global moral climate.
Throughout his pontificate , Pope Benedict XVI continuously affirmed, invigorated and fortified the Catholic Church in Africa , but without a doubt, his most precious gift and legacy to us was Africae munus – the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation which he signed and presented in Contonu Benin Republic in November 2011. A tremendously rich teaching document which charts a future for the Catholic Church in Africa, addressed to virtually every member of the African society. For decades to come it is sure to be a well-spring of profound wisdom which we will continue to draw and drink from for the continuous growth and strengthening of our Continent on the sure path of reconciliation, justice and peace.
So as the Africans join the rest of the world in reflecting on the Holy Father’s works and legacy, we wish that the harsh critics who speak from the vacuum of their remote observations, would stop for once and listen to the thoughts and words of the Africans in their reverent love and respect for a man who has given them so much in the last 8 years.