.- Pope Benedict XVI has called upon the political leadership of Africa to govern with wisdom and integrity.
“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,” the Pope told a gathering of political and religious leaders in Benin’s Presidential Palace in the city of Cotonou Nov. 19.
Alluding to the continent’s history of corruption and cronyism amongst its elites, the Pope recognized that it is “not easy to live the life of a servant, to remain consistent amid the currents of opinion and powerful interests.” Power, he warned, “easily blinds,” especially when private, family, ethnic or religious interests are at stake.
The event was the Pope’s first public engagement on the second day of his visit to Benin.
His audience included Benin president Thomas Boni Yayi along with members of the country’s government and diplomatic corps. The presidential palace in Cotonou was constructed in 1960 to mark Benin’s independence from France.
Despite its troubled past, the Pope contended that Africa is “a continent of hope.” He added that he was not “indulging in mere rhetoric,” but was “simply expressing a personal conviction which is also that of the Church.”
This hope is to be found both in the continent’s economic life and in interreligious dialogue.
The Pope reflected upon recent events across Africa. He said many of its people have shown their desire for liberty, their need for material security, and their wish to “live in harmony according to their different ethnic groups and religions.”
In the north of the continent many dictatorial regimes have recently been swept away as part of the “Arab Spring,” while the people of South Sudan have gained their independence.
In charting a new socio-economic way forward for Africa, the Pope said, “the Church does not propose any technical solution and does not impose any political solution,” given that “we know that no political regime is ideal and that no economic choice is neutral.”
What the Church can provide, however, is “a message of hope,” which “generates energy, which stimulates the intellect and gives the will all its dynamism.” For while despair is individualistic, he said, hope is communion.
He quoted Cardinal Jules-Géraud Saliège, the mid-twentieth century Archbishop of Toulouse in France, who said that “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,” explained the Pope.
So while Catholicism takes on great works in education and care across Africa “above all,” he said, the Church is “she” who “prays without ceasing, who points to God and to where the authentic man is to be found.”
Turning to the issue of interreligious dialogue, the Pope rejected intolerance and violence between religions.
“Aggression is an outmoded relational form which appeals to superficial and ignoble instincts.”
The starting point of dialogue, he suggested, is a greater knowledge and practice of one’s own faith. Someone cannot love unless he loves himself, and this love “can only begin by sincere personal prayer on the part of the one who desires to dialogue.”
In this prayer the believer should ask God “for the gift to see in the other a brother to be loved and, within his tradition, a reflection of the truth which illumines all people.”
The Pope rejected “muddled thinking” and “syncretism,” saying these can result from “interreligious dialogue when badly understood.” He charted practical ways in which religions can work together, such as cooperation in social or cultural areas. This collaboration can advance mutual understanding and help people “live together serenely.”
In ordinary life in Africa, he said, many families have members who profess different beliefs, and yet remain united.
He concluded by using the image of a hand to explain himself. “There are five fingers on it and each one is quite different,” yet “each one is also essential and their unity makes a hand.”
There is a “vital duty,” he said, to have good understanding between cultures, consideration for each other that is not condescending, and respect for the rights of each person.
“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.”
After his address, Pope Benedict held a brief private meeting with President Yayi Boni where he met the president’s family and exchanged gifts.