By Arlene Edmonds

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Cardinal Justin Rigali shared his first-hand experiences traveling through the African continent at a celebration in honor of Black History Month Sunday, Feb. 22 at St. Cyprian Parish in West Philadelphia. A standing-room-only crowd came to hear Cardinal Rigali’s address at the event sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics.

During Sunday’s program, the Cardinal passed around a wood- framed photograph of his friend, the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of Benin, alongside then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Rigali shared anecdotes about the African trips where he served as English translator for the late Pope John Paul II. His other extemporaneous remembrances included some from when he served in Madagascar for more than three years.

Among those who was busily taking photographs of Cardinal Rigali and the other special guests was Fred Banks, a longtime member of St. Cyprian and the parish’s photographer for the past year. He said he hopes that those in attendance walked away with the knowledge that the Church is an international body.

“Catholic means universal,” said Banks, after photographing a group of religious sisters, originally from Kenya. The five nuns live in West Chester and have been studying at Immaculata University for the past two years. They sang two songs in their native languages during Sunday’s program.

“I am just overjoyed to have Cardinal Rigali here,” Banks said. “I am glad that he took the time to come to an African-American church to speak about his experiences. This is so gratifying that I wish that Black History Month was year round. We need programs like this all the time.”

Also present at Sunday’s event was Renee Edwards, who grew up in Sierra Leone. She said that even though she is not Catholic, when she heard about the program she decided to come out.

“I really enjoyed hearing about all the Cardinal’s experiences in Africa,” she said. “I had no idea that he traveled through Africa like that. It was refreshing to hear his first-hand accounts and how he developed great respect for those in so many different countries in Africa. Christianity is strong in Africa and he articulated that well.”

Sunday’s program opened with a cheering crowd that greeted the Cardinal as he made his way to the front of the parish hall. The roll of conga drums also filled the air. The stage area was draped with large flags representing about a dozen African nations.

The evening’s welcome was delivered by Father Stephen D. Thorne, director of the Office for Black Catholics. Among those in the audience that were singled out by Father Thorne was Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Cistone. Also acknowledged by Father Thorne were several archdiocesan priests in the audience, including those of African and African-American heritage.

“I can claim to be a lover of Africa,” said Cardinal Rigali in his address. “I am grateful to John Paul II for taking me to Africa on many occasions. I have had many wonderful experiences. I would like to give you some of my impressions.”

Cardinal Rigali said he was happy that he got to know Cardinal Gantin quite well until his death in May of last year. He pointed out that the Benin native was the most prominent African in the modern Catholic Church. He was the first African to head a major Vatican department, preside over the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission and served as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.

Cardinal Gantin was a young priest when he was sent to Rome, according to Cardinal Rigali. He was named a bishop at the age of 34. He soon became auxiliary bishop of Benin and later served as archbishop for nearly 14 years. “He was the first archbishop named in black Africa,” said Cardinal Rigali.

“The Catholic Church is so catholic,” the Cardinal said of the Church’s universality, as he traced his many trips to countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and the former Zaire (now the People’s Republic of Congo).

Cardinal Rigali remarked that Pope Benedict XVI will be making his first papal visit to the African continent next month when he will tour Cameroon and Angola. While in Cameroon he will “present a new document, Volume Two, to the Synod of Bishops on Africa,” he said. The Pope will also mark the 500th anniversary of evangelization in Angola.

In his concluding remarks, Cardinal Rigali read a 1982 letter to an African child in Nigeria, written by Pope John Paul II. In it, the pontiff said that the child “had the power to bring peace and happiness to the world” through love.

“God bless African and African-American Catholics,” Cardinal Rigali said in closing.

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at