By Caroline Wyatt*
Pope Francis was determined to bring light and hope to one of the bleakest conflicts in Africa, in the Central African Republic, whatever the risks to his own safety – and his visit to this continent has been an illuminating one.
It has revealed much about this Pope and about the Roman Catholic Church in Africa.
The Pope’s message was heard loud and clear, and embraced by the faithful in the countries he visited: Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.
Just as Saint John Paul II became a beacon for freedom from tyranny, Pope Francis has become the pontiff who speaks for and to the poor and the disenfranchised.
Everywhere he went in Africa, he made sure that he visited the children of the slums, and the families unable to afford sanitation.
On the plane on the way back to Rome, the Pope spoke of meeting malnourished children at a UN-run paediatric hospital in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.
He spoke with feeling about the way that humans – and the economies they create – can contribute to injustice and severe imbalances in the way the earth’s resources are shared.
Pope Francis said he “loved Africa”, even as he termed it a “victim” that had always been exploited by other powers, be it the slaves “sold to America” or the exploitation of the continent’s mineral wealth.
Pope Francis went to Africa as a peacemaker, focusing his energy on trying to bring together Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic at a time that reverberations from the battle within Islam (between Sunni and Shia, and between fundamentalists and moderates) are threatening both Muslims and Christians in Africa and elsewhere.
Militant Islamist groups seek to stir divisions between communities, using the justification of religion to exploit existing territorial, political and ethnic grievances.
Asked about Islam during his flight back, the Pope said that one could not banish a religion because it had fundamentalists within it.
“Wars of religions have always existed. We Christians need to apologise too. How many wars have we had?” he said, stressing that Muslims and Christians shared many of the same values.
“Fundamentalism is a sickness in every religion.”
He also mentioned that he had given a ride on the Popemobile to the imam who invited him to pray at his mosque in Bangui, and meet the Muslim refugees who have sought sanctuary in the area.
The security situation remained calm throughout the Pope’s visit to the city, to the relief of his security detail, and all those who came in their tens of thousands to see Pope Francis for themselves.
As for the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, Pope Francis will have found a church in rude health, with its congregations expanding, and enough African seminarians to provide priests where needed, even as those numbers decline within Europe.
The Pope will also have felt the immense enthusiasm and religiosity amongst both the clergy and the faithful, who lined the streets to cheer him in every country he visited, none with more fervour than the people of Bangui.
“The Pope’s visit to Africa demonstrated that the Church – through its schools, hospitals and clinics – is often one of the few stable institutions in some countries,” says Christopher Lamb of Catholic weekly, The Tablet, who followed the Pope on his visit.
“This was particularly the case in the Central African Republic. This fact, combined with its numerical growth, means that Africa is likely to emerge as a major force within global Catholicism.”
However, Catholicism is losing ground in many parts of Africa to evangelical churches, whose more expressive rituals appeal to the young in particular, although this Pope is one of the most evangelical of recent years.
Highlights of the Pope’s tour of Africa:
Thurs 26 Nov:
- 1000: Holy Mass on the Campus of the University of Nairobi
- 1545: Meeting with clergy, religious men and women, and seminarians, at the athletic field of St Mary’s School
Fri 27 Nov:
- 0830: Visit to the poor neighbourhood of Kangemi in Nairobi
- 1000: Meeting with young people in Kasarani Stadium
- 1115: Meeting with the Bishops of Kenya in the VIP room of the Stadium
Sat 28 Nov:
- 0930: Holy Mass for the Martyrs of Uganda in Namugongo
- 1515: Meeting with youth at Kololo Air Strip in Kampala
- 1800: Meeting with the Bishops of Uganda
Sun 29 Nov:
- 1215: Visit to a refugee camp at Bangui in the Central African Republic
- 1300: Meeting with the Bishops of the Central African Republic
- 1700: Holy Mass with priests, religious men and women, catechists, and young people at the Cathedral of Bangui
- 1900: Confessions of some young people; and the beginning of the Vigil of Prayer in front of the Cathedral
Mon 30 Nov:
- 0815: Meeting with the Muslim community at the Koudoukou mosque in Bangui
- 0930: Mass in the Barthelemy Boganda Stadium
The Pope will also have learned of some members of the clergy in Africa who do not live out his message of a poor church for the poor – remaining keen to display the earthly signs of wealth and status.
Occasionally, priests in some parishes are known to live with women and even to have fathered children, in defiance of the rule of priestly celibacy.
Yet overall, the Catholic Church in much of Africa is, according to one priest, “more Roman than the Pope,” or more socially and theologically conservative than the Pope himself.
The views of the African church will certainly be of increasing importance in Rome in the coming years, as developing nations gradually play an ever more influential role at the Vatican – something this Pope is keen to promote.
However, one thing that the pontiff steered clear of discussing in Africa was homosexuality.
It was a subject the Pope did not address directly during this visit, although LGBT activists believe he should have.
They had hoped he would bring his leadership and moral authority to bear on an issue that can see homosexuals imprisoned for life for having gay sex in Uganda, or beaten up in Kenya.
Asked whether he might change the church’s stance on the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the transmission of HIV/Aids, the Pope said the world should first deal with hunger, poverty and the lack of clean water for much of the population of Africa, and the unequal distribution of its wealth, before worrying about condoms.
As well as becoming the first Pope to visit an active war zone in the hope of promoting peace, this visit may also have been aimed at reassuring Africa’s Catholics that Pope Francis cares about them and their fate.
Perhaps he also wished to try to make clear that the recent Synod on the Family in Rome does not herald a global split between the more socially conservative African churches and less traditionalist believers elsewhere.
Asked what struck him most on this papal visit, Pope Francis paused briefly as he thought about it.
“It was the joy. The crowds. The capacity to celebrate, even with an empty stomach.”
Religion in sub-Saharan Africa:
- Christian population is 517 million (63% of total)
- Protestants make up more than half that number
- Catholics make up about a third
- Muslim population is 248 million (about 30% of total)
- 1.1 billion Christians expected by 2050
- 670 million Muslims expected by 2050
Source: US-based Pew Research Center 2011 survey