, COTONOU, Nov 19 – A pope perceived as reserved and even cold, seemed happy and reinvigorated by the warm welcome he received Friday from the faithful of Benin, a young church for which he has great hopes.
Pope Benedict XVI told reporters that he had chosen Benin for what is only his second visit to Africa because it “knows interior and external peace”. It had, he said, achieved peaceful coexistence between Christians, Muslims and traditional religions.
The pope, now 84, braved a long tour in his popemobile through ecstatic crowds in the crushing, humid heat, many wearing tee-shirts or dresses bearing his image, while others read: “Reconciliation, peace, justice.”
The cries of joy from the thousands of people who turned out for him visibly moved the pope, used to the more reserved atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Square, Rome.
As he entered the Notre Dame Cathedral, Cotonou, he responded to the effusive welcome with his customary reserve, but he was also visibly pleased.
Speaking in a strong voice, in heavily accented French, he implored the Virgin Mary — “Mother of Mercy… Queen of Hope” — to:
“Fulfil the most noble aspirations of the young people of Africa;
“Fill the hearts of those who thirst for justice, for peace and for reconciliation;
“Fulfil the hopes of children, victims of hunger and of war.”
He bowed before the tombs of two great figures of the Catholic Church in Benin: the bishops Isidore de Souza and Christophe Adimou.
Both bishops were deeply involved in the democratisation process after the end of the Marxist dictatorship under Mathieu Kerekou.
“They were heroic workers in the vineyard of the Lord, and their memory lives on in the hearts of Catholics and innumerable other citizens of Benin,” he told the assembled worshippers.
While recognising Africa’s problems, he paid tribute to a continent marked by freshness, embracing life and “a youth full of enthusiasm, hope, and also joy and humour.”
He contrasted that with the West, where relativism had “restricted life and killed off hope”.
At the start of his second trip to Africa as pope, he said he saw a fresh form of humanism in the “young soul of Africa”, a continent which was “a reserve of life and vitality for the future.”
Like pope John Paul II before him, who during his papacy visited most African countries, Benedict seemed to relish the fervour of the African faithful, a sign of hope in a church wracked by multiple crises.
“You know well the affection which I have for your continent and for your country,” he said during the welcoming ceremony earlier Friday at Cardinal Gantin Airport.
He paid tribute to Benin’s “ancient and noble traditions” and to the country’s traditional chiefs, too.
“Their contribution is important in the construction of the country’s future,” he said.
“I would like to encourage them to contribute, with their wisdom and understanding of local customs, in the delicate transition currently under way from tradition to modernity.”
While condemning the practice of witchcraft, the pope took a benevolent view of the African spiritualist beliefs that give a central role to people’s ancestors and the sacred character of the natural world.
But he had harsher words for the evangelical and Pentecostal churches competing with the Catholic Church for hearts and minds in Africa.
Such movements he said, “have success, but little stability.”
The Church “must have a simple, concrete, understandable message,” he added.