By Helen Blakesley
“God is neither absent nor irrelevant” as Pope Benedict arrives in Benin
As the Papal plane touched down onto the sun-baked tarmac of Cotonou airport, the ‘press pack’ were jolted into action. There was scurrying and weaving about as journalists tried to find the best spot, with lenses as big as my head tucked under their arms.
I took my place in the scrum, just behind the Guard of Honor who would welcome Pope Benedict XVI when He stepped from the plane. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here I was, camera around my neck and video camera in hand, meters away from the dais where His Holiness would soon be standing. It felt surreal. And so exciting.
The door to the plane opened and the Pope emerged into the blazing afternoonheat. With that first glimpse of his white-clad figure, descending the steps, I caught my breath. A cheer went up from the crowd. Hundreds of women dressed in material bearing his image, waved handkerchiefs and started to sing and dance. They wore brightly colored headscarves, each representing a different parish.
The Pontiff himself had added a splash of color to his formal dress—he wore a pair of bright red shoes.
The military band struck up as Pope Benedict was greeted by Benin’s President Thomas YayiBoni and some of Africa’s cardinals and bishops who’d made the journey to welcome him. The 21 gun salute gave me a bit of a scare.
When it was time for the Holy Father to address the crowd and dignitaries assembled at the airfield, his gentle but clear voice was carried on the air, grabbing the attention of all, as he spoke in perfect French. His words were relayed by loudspeaker to the hundreds more who were waiting patiently outside the airport, lining the streets, to mark his arrival.
He spoke of his affection for Africa, of the “delicate transition currently under way from tradition to modernity.”
“Modernity must not cause fear, but it cannot be built by forgetting the past,” he said.
He warned against the pitfalls’ of “unconditional surrender to the law of the market or finance, nationalism or exaggerated and sterile tribalism which can become destructive, a politicization of interreligious tensions to the detriment of the common good, or finally the erosion of human, cultural, ethical and religious values.”
These words will resonate in a region that suffers its own inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts.
Pope Benedict stressed the importance of being guided by “recognized virtues…firmly rooted in the dignity of the person, the importance of family and respect for life.”
He spoke about the document He has brought with him, The Pledge for Africa (Africae Munus in Latin), outlining recommendations made at the special Synod for Africa in 2009 on the future of the Church in the continent.
“May this document fall into the ground and take root, grow and bear much fruit,” he said.
And he emphasized the role of the Church in contributing to the common good “in honesty and justice.”
“By her presence, her prayer and her various works of mercy, especially in education and health care, she wishes to give her best to everyone. She wants to be close to those who are in need, near to those who search for God. She wants to make it understood that God is neither absent nor irrelevant as some would have us believe but that He is the friend of man,” he said.
Words of comfort for all believers, especially, perhaps, for those in the northern hemisphere where congregations are declining.
Later, on the street, as I watched His Holiness pass by in the inimitable Popemobile, an amusing thought came to me. I already know what the Pope is having for dinner! No, not a premonition or a vision from On High. By chance, the other day, I met the honored team who’ll be preparing it.
The Mama Mia restaurant is a favorite lunchtime haunt of CRS Benin staff. Run by the Salesian Sisters of St John Bosco, it’s also a training center for disadvantaged young men and women, to equip them for a career in hospitality.
And so, I have it on very good authority that the Papal entourage can expect eggplant parmesan, stuffed chicken and gnocchi with pesto. And fresh orange juice–that’s the Pope’s favorite.
Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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