Pope Benedict gave his customary papal visit press conference on the flight to his three-day trip to Benin on Nov. 18, addressing topics such as the African Church's role in evangelization, peacekeeping efforts on the continent and his friendship with the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.
These in-flight briefings give journalists a rare chance to take part in a direct question-and-answer session with the Pope. The questions are submitted beforehand to the Vatican’s head of media, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J.
Pope Benedict was first asked why Benin had been chosen out of all the countries in Africa from where to launch his Post-Apostolic Exhortation on the future of the Church in the continent.
He replied that Benin was, in many ways, a model African state as it is a country “at peace, external and internal peace,” where “democratic institutions work, in a spirit of freedom and responsibility and thus justice and the common good are possible and guaranteed by a democratic system and a sense of responsibility in freedom.”
He said it is also a country where “the presence of different religions” lived in “peaceful coexistence.” Benin has significant numbers of Christians, Muslims and also those who follow traditional African religions.
“It seems to me that this coexistence of religions and interreligious dialogue as a factor of peace and freedom is an important aspect,” said the Pope, “just as it is an important part of the Apostolic Exhortation.”
His final “personal” reason for choosing Benin was that it is the country of origin of his “dear friend” Cardinal Bernardin Gantin. The two men worked together for many years in the Roman curia where Cardinal Gantin was Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
“I have always wanted to one day be able to pray at his tomb. He really was a great friend of mine,” said Pope Benedict, describing the late Cardinal as “a great representative of Catholic Africa, civilized and human Africa.”
Pope Benedict was then asked about the growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Africa sometimes at the expense of Catholicism.
The Pope said that “these communities are a global phenomenon,” but are particularly prevalent in Latin America and Africa.
He attributed their apparent success to giving “little weight to institutions,” while preaching a message “that’s simple, easy, and understandable, and apparently concrete,” within a “participative liturgy,” that expresses “the sentiments of the local culture.”
On the one hand this brings some success, he said, but it “also implies a lack of stability,” such that some members return to the Catholic Church or quickly move onto another Evangelical or Pentecostal community.
The response of the Catholic Church, he said, should not be to imitate these communities but to ask how “to give new life to the Catholic faith.”
First, this requires a “message that’s simple and understandable, but also profound. It’s important in places like Africa, he said, that Christianity “doesn’t come as a difficult European system,” which cannot be understand or realized but, instead, is “a universal message that God exists, God matters, God knows us and loves us, and that in concrete, religion provokes collaboration and fraternity.”
He said “it is also important that our institutions not be too heavy,” but, instead, apostolic initiatives should stem from “the community and the person.”
As for the form of worship, the Pope said that while a “participative liturgy is important,” it should also be “one that’s not sentimental.”
“Worship must not be simply an expression of sentiments, but raise up the presence and the mystery of God into which he enter and by which we allow ourselves to be formed.”
As for the notion of “inculturation”—the marrying of Christianity with elements of local culture—the Pope warned that the Church “mustn’t lose this grand thing that is Catholicity,” which recognizes that “in all parts of the world we are brothers and sisters, we are one family, where we know each other and collaborate in a spirit of fraternity.”
Pope Benedict was then asked about the responsibility that lies with the political class in Africa to help reverse the fortunes of the continent.
The Pope recognized that there has often been a mismatch between “the words, the desires and good intentions” of African leaders and “what’s been accomplished,” by them.
Hinting at a history of corruption among African elites, he explained that the “human person, after original sin, wants to possess himself—to have life, not to give life. I want to keep whatever I have.”
With this mentality, however, “things don’t work,” as “it’s only with love, and the awareness of a God who loves us and gives to us, that we can arrive at a capacity to give ourselves away.”
Pope Benedict was next asked about his reference at the 2009 Synod of African Bishops in Rome to Africa being a “great spiritual lung for a humanity experiencing a crisis of faith and hope.”
In response he noted that while African society had faced “great problems and difficulties,” over the past 50 to 60 years there was still “a freshness, a ‘yes’ to life, in Africa, a youthfulness that’s full of enthusiasm and hope.”
“There’s a sense of humor, a joy,” he said, that “shows a freshness, too, in the religious sense.” African society, he said, still has “a metaphysical perception of reality, meaning reality in its totality with God,” which gives it a “fresh humanism,” in its “young soul,” despite its problems.
He compared this African mentality to that of the more prosperous West which is often gripped, he said, by “a rigid positivism, that restricts our life and makes it a little arid, and also turns off hope.”
“If I think about my youth, it was a completely different world than that of today, so much so that I sometimes think I’m living on a different planet from when I was a young man!”
Finally, Pope Benedict was asked to reflect further upon his friendship with the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.
He explained that he first saw Cardinal Gantin at his installation as Archbishop of Munich in 1976. “On that important day of my episcopal ordination, it was beautiful for me to meet this young African bishop full of faith, full of joy and courage.”
During their years together in Rome, the Pope said he always marveled at Cardinal Gantin’s “deep and practical intelligence, his sense of discernment, to not trip over beautiful ideological phrases but to grasp what’s essential and what doesn’t make sense,” as well as his “beautiful” sense of humor and life of “deep faith and prayer.”
“All this made Cardinal Gantin not just a friend, but an example. He was a great African Catholic bishop, and I’m truly happy now that I’m able to pray at his tomb and to feel his closeness, his great faith, which will always make him an example for me and a friend.”