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Pope urges African faithful to be ‘apostles of reconciliation’

The Pope arrives at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Ouidah, Benin (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Benedict XVI has urged Catholics to become “apostles of reconciliation, justice and peace” in a wide-ranging document on the Church’s future in Africa,

The key to the Church’s mission in Africa, the Pope said, is for all Catholics to know the faith and the Church’s social doctrine well, then witness it in daily life.

The document, called an apostolic exhortation, explored the themes treated by the 2009 Synod of Bishops for Africa. the The 138-page text, called Africae Munus (“The Commitment of Africa”), offered what it called “guidelines for mission” in virtually every pastoral area, including the sacraments, social justice and inter-religious dialogue.

The Pope signed the document today during a ceremony in Ouidah, Benin, a slave trade city on the Atlantic coast. He was making a three-day visit to Benin, where he met bishops from the African continent.

The document said that Africa, like the rest of the world, was experiencing a culture shock that strikes at traditional values and ways of life. But faced with this “crisis of faith and hope”, it said, Africa has the ability to be a spiritual inspiration because of the human and religious resources of its peoples.

The Pope said the Church should lead the way, promoting respect for human dignity and life at every stage, fighting against economic imbalance and environmental degradation, providing health care to those with Aids and other diseases, educating the young and reconciling human hearts in places of ethnic tension.

These actions are the heart of the Church’s evangelising efforts, which include witness, words and service, and which must be based on the personal encounter with Christ, he said.

One specific proposal in the document was for a continent-wide “Year of Reconciliation” to beg God ‘s forgiveness for “all the evils and injuries mutually inflicted in Africa” and for the reconciliation of people who have been hurt in the Church and in society.

Two separate sections of the document addressed men and women, in language that reflected the synod’s concerns over discrimination against women in many African countries.

Women and girls have fewer opportunities than men and boys in Africa, and their dignity and essential contributions to the family and society are often unappreciated, the Pope said. Too many ancestral practices debase and degrade women, he added.

“Unfortunately, the evolution of ways of thinking in this area is much too slow. The Church has the duty to contribute to the recognition and the liberation of women, following the example of Christ’s own esteem for them,” he said. He called women the “backbone” of local Church communities in Africa.

The document reminded men to be faithful to their wives and to make a real contribution to the upbringing of their children. In an apparent reference to polygamy, it urged men to reject traditional practices that are “contrary to the Gospel and oppressive to women in particular”.

The document touched on many other issues raised at the 2009 synod. It promised the Church’s continuing assistance to Aids patients and the Church’s support for affordable treatment. But it said Aids was an ethical as well as a medical problem, requiring “change of behaviour”, including sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity and fidelity within marriage.

It said that abortion, the “destruction of an innocent unborn child,” is against God’s will, and it encouraged Africans to be wary of confusing language in international documents on women’s reproductive health that goes against the Church’s teaching.

It urged Africans to continue to protect the institutions of marriage and the family and to maintain their traditional respect for the elderly.

“This beautiful African appreciation for old age should inspire western societies to treat the elderly with greater dignity,” it said.

The document said the Church must be present wherever human suffering exists and “make heard the silent cry of the innocent who suffer persecution, or of peoples whose governments mortgage the present and the future for personal interests”.

It said that African countries rightly expect outside assistance in dealing with their problems, but at the same time must themselves implement political, social and administrative justice at home.

On the issue of ecology, the document said private business and government groups have enriched themselves by exploiting resources in a way that causes pollution and desertification, putting countless species at risk and threatening the entire ecosystem.

“The plundering of the goods of the earth by a minority to the detriment of entire peoples is unacceptable, because it is immoral,” it said.

The document said that Catholic relations with Muslims were a mixed picture across Africa; in some countries, members of the two faiths get along well, while in others Christians are treated like “second-class citizens”. It asked church leaders to work through patient dialogue with Muslims toward juridical and practical recognition of religious freedom.

It said that witchcraft is enjoying a revival in Africa, in part because of people’s anxiety over health, the future and the environment. It asked bishops to face the challenge of Christians who have a “dual affiliation” to Christianity and traditional African religions. The Church must clearly reject any “magical elements”, which cause division and ruin for families, it said.

It called on African bishops to find a correct response to the growing popularity of African independent churches, which have adopted elements of traditional African culture. It distinguished between those churches and religious sects, which it said were leading people of good faith astray. The Church needs to study this phenomenon in order to “stem the hemorrhage of the faithful from the parishes to the sects,” it said.

It denounced the “intolerable treatment” of many children in Africa, who are subjected to forced labor, trafficking and various forms of discrimination. “The church is mother and could never abandon a single one of them,” it said.

The document also decried the rising crime rate in urban areas of Africa, but also said prisoners are frequently mistreated. It said society’s leaders need to “make every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and to reform the penal system so that prisoners’ human dignity is respected.