It is no longer news that Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel his visit to La Sapienza University in Rome to inaugurate the academic year for what the Vatican Secretary of State called a lack of the "prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome." Richard Bastien in Where did universities come from? described the incident as being not simply the rejection of "a religious institution but of the very foundations of Western culture". I rather see it as a case of ingratitude.
I am not oblivious to the right of the 67 academic staff (out of 4,500) and some of the student body to protest. Nor do I think that they should be forced to sit through a ceremony they would rather not attend. Nevertheless, in the part of the world where I come from, there is a saying according to which one does not deny a guest entrance to the house, especially when (s)he has been invited. In this case, the pope is not just any type of visitor but a link to the past which made the present of this particular university possible.
Africa seems to have a lot to offer the West. We may be plagued by
hunger, disease, wars, political instability and a host of other evils,
but the typical African will not offer to bite the hand that fed him —
not even to prove his modernity or 'secularity'.
I recall with nostalgia the visit of John Paul II in 1982 to the first university in Nigeria — the University of Ibadan. The university is a secular institution founded by the British colonists and initially affiliated to University College, London. In that august visit, the pope addressed the university community who held various religious and ideological convictions. The university authorities — both students and professors — were certainly not all Catholics. As a matter of fact, the majority of them were Christians of different denominations (Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals), members of African traditional religion, Muslims and atheists. Being members of an intellectual community that prides itself on the pursuit of knowledge, they saw the pope's visit for what it was and did everything to make it successful.
This African hospitality is not only reserved for popes alone. The high school I attended in South East Nigeria — Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha — was founded by Anglican missionaries. The school bears the name of one of them, Archdeacon T. J. Dennis. Although the school was forcefully acquired by the state during the dark era of military dictatorship, we the alumni still refer to the Anglican Bishop on the Niger as the proprietor. Naturally we still retain the school song – an anthem from the classic Anglican hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern. The school also hosted the then Primate of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye. Some of us, non-Anglicans, not only participated but were proud to do so. The frenzy that preceded the visit was so contagious and one would have thought that we all were Anglicans.
This attitude is not only engrained in the African value system of showing affection to strangers, foes and friends alike, it is also a manifestation of our gratitude, a way of saying thanks to the thousands of missionaries who flocked to the continent to labour and die there. They were not cowed by the bleak prospects of converting and educating those who had no relationship with them and could not even pay them back.
We bear a debt of appreciation to these church men/women because they were instrumental in phasing out many harmful practices in my country. Mary Slessor, a Methodist missionary, is revered in Calabar, Nigeria for her efforts in stopping the killing of twins. Now twins are celebrated. How can one forget the labours of many Irish priests and nuns who set up schools that expanded our world view and provided many Africans the opportunity to get better jobs? Nor can one but be ever thankful to the men and women who improved the lot of the Nigerian woman. Blessed Cyprian Tansi, a Catholic priest, had to confront the attitude of regarding women as the property of their husband in Igboland, the abuses associated with widowhood and the excesses of polygamy. Does this positive regard for the church mean we are less African? On the contrary, it solidifies our identity as a people.
Given this background (and this is not being priggish or naively claiming to possess a superior culture) I was shocked to learn that the faculty and students of La Sapienza University refused to receive a guest — on the pretext of the university's secularity, supported by the trumped-up charge that Benedict is not "friendly to science". It defies logic because the truth is that their university was founded by Pope Boniface VIII and only later developed as an institute of the Italian state. No amount of semantics can change that, any more than they could change the fact that many from my generation who were non-Anglicans profited from the magnanimity of the Anglican Church.
Why then did the students want to deny Benedict XVI access to their university? Were they afraid that he would declare a holy war and force all of them to become Christians? I think that their bias is fallout from the ongoing fierce battle in the West to confine religion to the closet. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case, as we have left God in the public square but shut him out from our private life. The vocal minority of this Italian institution have only succeeded in negating the concept of a university, which is a community of intellectuals who are open to the truth. It seems that what is presently being cultivated in these ivory towers is a group of dictators who will only listen to the version of truth that coincides with theirs. Who said that the monster of dictatorship is the exclusive preserve of African tyrants?
In any case their suspicions were unfounded. In the text of the address, which was read out at the commencement ceremony and received a standing ovation, Benedict XVI stated: "What does the Pope have to do with, or have to say to the university? Surely he must not attempt to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way since it can only be bestowed in freedom. Beyond his office as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral office, there is his duty to keep the sensitivity to truth alive; to continually invite reason to seek out the true, the good, God, and on this path, to urge it to glimpse the helpful lights that shine forth in the history of the Christian faith, and in this way to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us to find the way to the future."
Africa seems to have a lot to offer the West. We may be plagued by hunger, disease, wars, political instability and a host of other evils, but the typical African will not offer to bite the hand that fed him — not even to prove his modernity or "secularity". To have dredged up a pretext for rejecting a visitor who represents an institution that invested so much material and human resources to nurture a university into existence does not speak well of those professors and students at La Sapienza. Regrettably, they seem to reflect the wider Western society. Europe is gradually losing not only her roots but her sense of gratitude.
Nwachukwu Egbunike is a book editor in Ibadan, Nigeria.