OUIDAH, Benin – In a basilica built in the heartland of Africa’s Voodoo religion, Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday unveiled a treatise outlining the role of the Roman Catholic Church on the continent, explaining how the faith can help address Africa’s chronic wars and interact with indigenous practices.
The immediate backdrop for the release of the 87-page guide for the faithful in Africa was the soaring basilica in this coastal town, a symbol of the church’s roots on the continent. But just 100 yards from the nave where Benedict was introducing the papal text, Voodoo priests in flowing robes sat inside their own temple, carefully listening to his words as they wafted outside across the basilica’s sound system.
Among the messages contained in the pope’s road map for Africa is an attempt to show how Catholicism has evolved from the rigid religion missionaries first brought to Ouidah, considered the cradle of Voodoo, a state religion in Benin alongside Christianity and Islam.
Catholics need to cultivate respect both for Islam and for traditional practices, the pope said in the document. He also encourages the study of indigenous beliefs to determine what aspects are helpful to the human condition. But he told bishops they must nevertheless discern which traditional practices clash with church doctrine so they can “separate the good seed from the weeds.”
The 84-year-old pope’s three-day trip is his second to Africa, the most rapidly growing region for the Roman Catholic Church. While congregations are graying in Europe and orders are struggling to recruit future priests, there are not enough spots in seminaries in Africa to accommodate all those wishing to pursue a religious life.
“Africae munus,” Latin for “Africa’s Commitment,” is the pope’s attempt to tailor the faith to the needs of a continent shattered by war and crippled by corruption.
The pope is proposing a reconciliation that draws on the church’s doctrine of forgiveness to stem the cycle of retribution at the core of many of the region’s most recent conflicts.
Among the ideas he suggested is surveying local ceremonies used to resolve conflicts in Africa, though he made clear that these cannot take the place of the church’s sacrament of penance.