With less than three days to the end of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI I will like to return to what to many can become a vexed question. The last time it was “Will the Pope come from Africa?” today I am asking instead if there are perhaps values that an African Pope can offer the Church and the world. This is because in the end, the answer to such a question would indicate the new direction, if any, that the Catholic Church will take and how faithful the new Pope will be to its founder.
I am also emboldened to go this route, not because I want an African Pope but because to a large extent much of Africa still has her moral compass right, a fact Pope Benedict XVI has himself acknowledged on many occasions.
In the homily he gave at the opening of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops on 4 October 2009 Pope Benedict XVI said that Africa “”represents an enormous spiritual ‘lung’ for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope”.
Africans have values they consider inalienable and which for want of a better term they call “African values”. It might be because these values existed long before Christianity came to us, or because since most of Europe from whom we learnt them have abandoned these, we need to protect them with a name that is independent. And so “African values” refer to our belief in the sanctity of matrimony, as a union between a married man and woman, a belief in agreement with the teachings of the Bible. This union is the source of the family, the wellspring of society and hence determines the direction of social, economic and political decisions, and if they respect the dignity of man or not. Modernization and improved travel and communication is of course exposing Africa to values contrary to these “traditional” ones, a fact the Pope also acknowledged in the same aforementioned address. Two of such dangers being imported from Europe to Africa are those of practical materialism laced with relativist and nihilist thinking and that of religious fundamentalism. Ending therefore on a note of hope he concluded, “In as much as it protects and develops its faith, Africa will discover immense resources to support the family built on matrimony”.
Related to this is of course the respect for life from the moment of conception to its natural end. This is a Christian value but something, which Africans take very much as their own.
In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africa Munus that he gave during his 2011 visit to Benin Republic in Africa, Pope Benedict XVI enumerated countless virtues and values that are natural to Africa and which he wished we would sustain and if possible transmit to the rest of the world. It is telling that he prefaced his words in that document with these words of the gospel, “«you are the salt of the earth …You are the light of the world » (Mt. 5: 13-14). Does Africa hold the key for a new hope for the Catholic Church?
Against the backdrop of the loneliness and rejection many aged people in Europe experience, leading some to consider euthanasia a work of “mercy”, the Pope said: “In Africa, the elderly are held in particular veneration. They are not banished from families or marginalized as in other cultures. On the contrary, they are esteemed and perfectly integrated within their families, of which they are indeed the pinnacle. This beautiful African appreciation of old age should inspire Western societies to treat the elderly with greater dignity.”
About women: “Women in Africa make a great contribution to the family, to society and to the Church by their many talents and unique gifts.”
About young people he said: “Young people make up the majority of Africa’s population. This youthfulness is a gift and a treasure from God for which the whole Church is grateful to the Lord of life.”
As subjects for a speculative exercise consider Ghana’s Cardinal Turkson and Nigeria’s Arinze. Besides their contribution and experience, serving the Church at various levels, in the eyes of many in the label-loving liberal world, both have the disadvantage of being “ultra conservatives”, meaning that they both strive to be faithful to Orthodox Church teaching. That in my book would be positive attributes. Both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger were guilty of this and both were elected Pope, so clearly the ways of the world may not always translate to the votes of the Cardinals. As we stated in an earlier post, Cardinal Arinze is already 80 years old. If the present Pope cites age as a reason for retiring, my thinking is that the cardinal electors would want to do their best not to have another conclave any time soon, even though such desires counted for nothing in 1978 with two conclaves. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have to their credit the efforts they have made to foster Christian unity, a recent example being the creation of the Ordinariates for the acceptance of Anglicans desirous of returning to the Church. This should count in the favor of these cardinals.
At the 1979 episcopal ordination of Guinean Cardinal Sarah he was the youngest bishop in the world so clearly both his holiness and maturity have long been recognized. Before coming to Cor Unum, he was secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. If it is Europe that now needs to be “re-evangelized”, who might be better prepared? Therefore as far as credentials are concerned, Cardinal Sarah is not doing badly.
But these are mere speculations, food for fertile human minds. What is however clear is that whoever it is that the Holy Spirit choses as Pope, when the cardinals meet to be his instruments, he ought clearly to look towards Africa and breath there the clean, fresh air of faith and moral uprightness that still exist in many of its parts.