By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Shortly after the election of Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978, I had the joy of greeting Cardinal Giovanni Battista Benelli, the Archbishop of Florence, for whom and with whom I had worked in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Cardinal Benelli, along with the other Cardinals, was just leaving the Conclave that had elected the new Pope. The Cardinals had been part of an historic moment because in electing Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, they had elected the first non-Italian Pope in four hundred and fifty years. Accompanying Cardinal Benelli to his car, I was present as a reporter asked him: “Your Eminence, what do you think of the fact that a foreigner has been elected Pope?” His immediate and decisive reaction is imprinted on my mind: He said, without hesitation: “There are no foreigners in the Church.”
As we know, Pope Benedict XVI recently completed his Apostolic Journey to Africa. In particular, he visited the African countries of Cameroon and Angola. Whenever we see the Successor of Saint Peter in different parts of the world, especially parts of the world with which we may not be familiar, we would do well to remember the words of Cardinal Benelli. They beautifully reflect the spirit of the Church founded by Christ when He commanded His apostles and their successors to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Church in Africa in the context of the Church’s history
Upon his arrival in Cameroon, Pope Benedict recalled the role of Africa in the early history of the Church, reminding us that the presence of the Gospel in Africa is not as young as we may think.
He said: “I come among you as a pastor, I come to confirm my brothers and sisters in the faith. This was the role that Christ entrusted to Peter at the Last Supper, and it is the role of Peter’s successors. When Peter preached to the multitudes in Jerusalem at Pentecost, there were visitors from Africa present among them. And the witness of many great saints from this continent during the first centuries of Christianity – Saint Cyprian, Saint Monica, Saint Augustine, Saint Athanasius, to name but a few – guarantees a distinguished place for Africa in the annals of Church history. Right up to the present day, waves of missionaries and martyrs have continued to bear witness to Christ throughout Africa, and today the Church is blessed with almost a hundred and fifty million members. How fitting then, that Peter’s successor should come to Africa, to celebrate with you the life-giving faith in Christ that sustains and nourishes so many of the sons and daughters of this great continent” (Address, Welcoming Ceremony, 17 March 2009).
Confirming us in the Faith
We are accustomed to the use of the term “Holy Father” for the Pope. It is a most appropriate term in so many ways. A good father of a family does not create arbitrary expectations based upon his own whims but guides those for whom he is responsible along a path of virtue that will ultimately be a blessing for them, even if they do not understand this at the moment.
In a document he issued as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, long before being elected Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger summarized the thoughts of those who had recently taken part in a Symposium on the role of the Successor of Peter in the Church. In particular, he wrote about the Pope as the one who guarantees the faith of the Church, according to God’s plan. Like a good father, he is called to protect the faithful from arbitrary or misleading words and movements which may be ultimately harmful and, like a good father, he may experience misunderstanding and false accusation.
We read in this document: “The Roman Pontiff – like all the faithful – is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servant of the servants of God. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man and woman in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, his primacy has limits set by spanine law and by the Church’s spanine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation. The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence there is always an element of martyrdom in his primacy” (The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1996).
It is in this spirit that the Successor of Peter teaches and preaches and, following the Lord whose Passion and Death we celebrate these days, and Saint Peter himself, who died a martyr’s death, he will experience misunderstanding and persecution.
Outstanding characteristics of the African Church
Within the family of the Church, we can always learn from one another. There were two characteristics of the local Church in Cameroon and Angola, which the Holy Father found to be particularly indicative of the strength of the faith on the African continent: their obvious Christian joy and their spirit of recollection. Great crowds of the faithful welcomed the Pope, as you may have seen on television. Indeed, at one of the Masses he celebrated, one million people were present. Their faith was reflected in their joyful welcome of Peter’s Successor and the exuberance of their expression. However, reflecting the fact that there was an understanding of what the Pope’s visit was all about, and not merely a spectacle, their exuberance was joined with another spirit at the appropriate times: their spirit of recollection. In reflecting on his journey during his flight from Angola, the Pope said that he was touched by the strong sense of the sacred that he found in the Catholics of Africa and that during the Liturgies there was “no group representation or personal leadership, but the presence of the sacred, of God himself. Their movements were also movements of respect and awareness of the spanine presence.”
The Pope among the sick
We know that our faith must be expressed in works of charity. The Letter of Saint James reminds us: “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). As part of his journey, Pope Benedict visited the Paul-Emile Leger Center, a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities, founded by Cardinal Leger of Canada. During this visit, the Pope united himself with all the suffering in Africa, especially those afflicted with AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, who were represented at the meeting with the sick that took place at the Center. Recently, in many of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a collection was taken up for the Church in Africa, precisely to assist in these works of charity among the people of that suffering and war-torn continent. We are reminded also of the many works of charity that take place in our own local Church of Philadelphia and the generosity of those who make it possible as well as the sick, whose union with the suffering Christ brings untold blessings to the Church.
The challenges presented by Pope Benedict to the Church of Africa
During his Apostolic Journey to Africa, Pope Benedict challenged the peoples of that continent to be the architects of their own development. He warned against their being merely the receivers of the plans of other nations, with the imposition of the values, or lack thereof, that often come with the aid that is received. The Church has traditionally brought the tools of development with her when evangelizing the nations. Education and medical aid have been the great gifts that have been brought along with the Gospel. However, those material gifts do not deny or forget the gift of the family, the gift of children born and raised in the bosom of the family and the life shown to us in the Gospel, whose virtues truly make us free.
The Pope also gave a very important address to women in the course of his Journey and praised them for preserving human dignity, defending the family and protecting cultural and religious values in times of poverty, war and situations resulting from migrations. He urged men to accept their responsibilities as husbands and fathers and stated that society must hold husbands and fathers accountable for their responsibilities towards their families.
We will hear more about the mission of the Church in Africa when the Second Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Africa takes place in Rome from October 4 to 25 of this year. However, these thoughts will hopefully help to unite us in spirit with that great continent, which contains so many brothers and sisters in the Faith.
2 April 2009
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