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VATICAN LETTER Mar-6-2009 (1,070 words) With graphics posted Feb. 12 and 20 and photos posted March 2 and 3. xxxi

Focusing on Africa: Papal trip to highlight challenges, possibilities

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI opens a new chapter in his papal travels when he visits Cameroon and Angola in mid-March, a trip designed to highlight the church's message of hope on a continent beset by problems.

The visit March 17-23 will mark the first trip to Africa for a pope who has sometimes been described as Eurocentric, and it launches a series of important church events in 2009 focusing on the African continent.

For Pope Benedict, who is completing work on his first social encyclical, the trip will bring him closer to populations that are struggling daily against poverty, disease, corruption and armed conflict.

The global financial crisis is aggravating the burden on Africa's poor, and the pope's words on economic justice may offer a preview of the encyclical's themes.

The trip will unfold in two parts. In Cameroon, the pope will meet with bishops from the entire continent and hand-deliver the working document for the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which will take place in Rome in October.

The synod's theme is justice, reconciliation and peace, and it offers the pope a seemingly endless choice of topics for the seven speeches and homilies he'll deliver during his four days in Cameroon. Certainly he will touch on the ethnic and political tensions that have afflicted areas like Darfur in Sudan, Somalia and the Great Lakes region, and address the responsibilities of governments to promote dialogue, reduce corruption and respond to the human needs of their populations.

But rather than read a laundry list of challenges, the pope is more likely to zero in on the church's specific mission to be a community that heals, reconciles, forgives and encourages. The point is to move evangelization past the stage of bringing people into the church, and toward the goal of witnessing the Gospel in personal lives and the life of society.

One small but significant event in Cameroon will be the pope's visit to the Cardinal Paul Emile Leger Center, also known as the National Center for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. Even more than the synod document's thousands of words on pastoral strategy, this is where the pope sees the church eloquently expressing the faith and affecting lives, through charity in action.

In Cameroon, the pope will also meet with representatives of the country's Muslim community, which comprises about 22 percent of the population. At this encounter and in meetings with the African bishops, the pope is expected to emphasize the need for interfaith collaboration in tackling the moral and material problems of the continent.

In Nigeria, which borders Cameroon, attacks between groups of Christians and Muslims have left hundreds dead in recent months, although church leaders have emphasized that the violence has been primarily political and not religious.

The second part of the pope's trip takes him to the Angolan capital of Luanda for a series of encounters with political and government officials, church leaders and groups of the faithful. Here the emphasis is on the 500th anniversary of Christian evangelization in a country where the faith arrived with Portuguese missionaries in the late 15th century.

Angola is still recovering materially, politically and spiritually from a disastrous 27-year-long civil war that ended in 2002. The first postwar presidential elections are scheduled for later this year, and many Angolans believe the pope's visit could bring a spark of hope and encouragement to the country as it continues to reconcile and rebuild.

One key event will be the pope's Mass with young people in a soccer stadium in Luanda. Trip planners realize that the papal program in Africa will be largely consumed by meetings with groups of bishops, and they want to make sure the pope also has an opportunity to build bridges to younger generations.

On his last full day in Angola, the pope is taking time to meet with Catholic movements that promote women's welfare. The encounter underlines the church's concern about the many forms of continuing discrimination and violence against women in Africa, and it offers the pope a chance to make clear church teaching on gender equality.

Health care is a major concern in Angola and throughout Africa, and the AIDS pandemic in particular has devastated the continent. The disease now kills about 1.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa each year, and has left more than 11 million children orphaned.

When it comes to the church and AIDS, the media often focus on the church's distrust of condoms as the answer to AIDS prevention. Pope Benedict has never mentioned the condom issue explicitly, but he spelled out his thoughts on AIDS in a talk to African bishops in 2005, noting that the church is in the forefront in treatment of this "cruel epidemic" and saying the "only failsafe way" to prevent its spread is found in the church's traditional teaching on sexual responsibility.

The German pope has made 10 trips so far, six of them to Europe (seven if one counts Turkey as part of Europe). This year his attention has turned to Africa. In addition to his March trip, the October synod and a major pre-synodal meeting of African church leaders in Rome, the pope has been meeting with groups of African bishops on their "ad limina" visits to report on their dioceses.

Under Pope John Paul II, the church in Africa grew by 160 percent and the number of priestly vocations tripled. Pope Benedict has spoken less of numbers and more about proper formation and a deepening of the faith -- in a sense, quality control. That's likely to be his focus in Cameroon and Angola, too.

What do African Catholics expect from the pope's visit?

Certainly they'll be listening to the pope as he speaks about their problems and the gifts they bring to the church. But African bishops say the importance of a papal visit is more than the sum of his speeches, sermons and liturgies.

"The Holy Father, wherever he goes, carries along with him this aura of God's representative on earth," Nigerian Bishop Michael Odogwu Elue of Issele-Uku told Catholic News Service.

"His nearness to us is almost equated with God's nearness to us. We do not talk about his political figure ... it's his spiritual presence that gives us a lot of encouragement and strength in the faith," he said.

Beyond the pope's message, many Africans will be looking for his blessing.


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