YAOUNDE, Mar 20 – Pope Benedict XVI led the first giant mass of his Africa tour on Thursday, warning the world’s poorest region not to succumb to materialism but steering clear of his controversial denunciation of condoms.,
The pontiff told around 60,000 pilgrims packed into a football stadium in the Cameroon capital Yaounde that although Africa was "a continent of hope," it risked losing its traditional moorings from people seeking to "impose the tyranny of materialism."
He did not mention Africa’s AIDS epidemic or his opposition to the use of condoms which sparked an global furore and clouded the start of his first visit to Africa as pope.
"At a time when many people have no qualms about trying to impose the tyranny of materialism, with scant concern for the most deprived, you must be careful," the 81-year-old pontiff said, expressing solidarity with the continent’s teeming poor and refugees.
"Africa in general, and Cameroon in particular, place themselves at risk if they do not recognise the True Author of Life.
"Take care of your souls, do not let yourself be captivated by selfish illusions and false ideals!"
After the mass, the Vatican lambasted globalisation’s "organised destruction of the African identity" in a document released to African bishops, which will form the basis of an African synod at the Vatican in October.
It said unnamed "military and economic powers" were imposing their will on Africa, fomenting wars through arms trafficking and stripping the continent of its huge natural resources.
Thursday’s mass at the Amadou Ahidjo stadium was Benedict’s first contact with the masses since his arrival in Cameroon. The reception was noisy and festive as he waved from his white popemobile as it circled the stadium.
Many wore T-shirts and other items of clothing sporting Benedict’s picture.
"For me, it’s the summit. We don’t get a chance like this every day, to come to a mass celebrated by the supreme head of the Church," said Dieudonne Nkoa, from Yaounde.
In the stands, pilgrims from further afield waved a banner declaring "Long live the pope. Nigeria," dwarfed beside a huge canvas banner with a photo of an open-armed Benedict.
Some said they had queued outside the stadium all night to be sure of getting in. Marshalls struggled to contain the rush for the best seats when the gates were opened and thousands were left outside when the mass began.
Benedict later visited a centre for the handicapped where he offered succour.
"You are not alone," he said. "I also think of the ailing and especially in Africa of those who are victims of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis."
Benedict has been criticised by European governments and international AIDS charities for comments he made Tuesday in which he said condoms aggravated the spread of AIDS.
The Vatican has sought to play down the controversy, saying Benedict had merely been expressing the Catholic Church’s policy on contraception.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pontiff had been kept informed of the critical international reaction to his remarks.
Lombardi said there was "a dichotomy" between what was happening around the the pope in Cameroon "and that which is being spoken about abroad".
The pope, who leaves for Angola on Friday for the second and last leg of his Africa tour, said during the three-hour mass that the family "in your country and across Africa, is experiencing a difficult time.
"Certain values of the traditional life have been overturned," he said and the younger generation had been left "uprooted and fragile" and cut off from family.
"Is this an irreversible, inevitable development? By no means! More than ever, we must hope against all hope," he said.
Benedict, who met members of Cameroon’s Muslim community before the mass, said the two religions co-existed peacefully as they shared core beliefs and teachings.
These were "family, social responsibility, obeying God and taking care of the weak."