The Catholics of Africa, among them the faithful of Opus Dei on that continent—priests and laity, women and men of all walks of life—have experienced during these months the physical nearness of the Holy Father and have felt in a special way the unity of the universal Church. Benedict XVI’s apostolic trip to Cameroon and Angola from March 17 to 23, left a deep mark on the African nations. The trip also helped Catholics from other countries to see the religious soul of Africa and its Christian roots.
During his return flight on March 23, Benedict XVI confided to journalists the emotions he felt as he was returning to Rome. The Holy Father emphasized first the exuberant cordiality and joy he had seen in the African people: “It seems to me that in the Pope they somehow saw the personification of the fact that we are all God’s children and part of his family; this family exists, and we, with all our limitations, form part of it and God is with us. So we could say that the Pope’s presence has helped people to realize this and to be filled with joy.” And he added, “I was deeply impressed by the spirit of recollection in the liturgical celebrations, the intense sense of the sacred.”
In the various events that took place during those days, Benedict XVI reminded African Catholics of the urgent need for evangelization, the need for personal holiness, the need to foster an intense apostolate of marriage and the family, and the exercise of charity towards the poorest.
The interreligious dimension of this apostolic trip—the eleventh outside of Italy during his pontificate—was made visible in his meeting with representatives of the Muslim community in the Apostolic Nunciature of Yaoundé, on March 19. On that same day, the Holy Father met with the sick and suffering in the Cardinal Léger Center of the capital of Cameroon: “My heart was moved,” he said later, “to see there so much suffering—all the pain, the sorrow, the poverty of human life—but also to see how the State and the Church are working together to help those who suffer. The State administers this great Center in an exemplary way, while ecclesial movements and entities in the Church collaborate to truly assist these persons. And one sees, it seems to me, how human beings, in helping those who suffer, become themselves more human, how the world becomes more human. That is what is engraved on my memory.”
In Angola the Roman Pontiff encouraged the process of peace and national reconstruction, “in which the Church is called to play an important role.” And he appealed for everyone’s prayer so that the continent may face with courage the great challenges it now confronts. “I would like to ask that the just realization of the fundamental aspirations of those most in need be the principal concern of those who exercise public responsibilities, because their intention, I am sure, is to carry out the mission entrusted to them, not for their own gain, but for the common good.” Our heart, Pope Benedict added, “cannot rest tranquil as long as there are brothers and sisters of ours who lack food, work, a home, or other basic needs. To truly help these brothers and sisters of ours, the first challenge to confront is that of solidarity: solidarity between generations, solidarity between nations and between continents, which leads to an ever more equitable sharing of the world’s resources among all mankind.”
Addressing the young people gathered in Luanda’s Dos Coqueiros Stadium on March 21, the Holy Father advised them “to read history attentively: you will see that the Church does not grow old with the passing of the years; rather she becomes ever younger, because she goes out to meet the Lord, drawing each day closer to the only true source of youth and renewed life.” And he ended with a personal appeal: “Take heart!” he told them. “Have the courage to make definitive decisions because these are the only ones that do not destroy freedom, but that orient it correctly, allowing a person to advance and attain what is great in life. Truly life has value only if you have the daring to undertake adventures, trusting that our Lord will never leave you alone.”
On March 22 he met especially with African women in the parish of St. Anthony in Luanda. The Pope recalled Teresa Gomes, an Angolese who died in the city of Sumbe in 2004 after a happy married life blessed with seven children. “Her Christian faith was indomitable and her apostolic zeal was admirable, especially during the years 1975 and 1976 when a ferocious ideological and political propaganda swept over the parish of Our Lady of Grace in Porto Amboim, almost resulting in the closing down of the parish. Teresa,” explained Pope Benedict, “became the leader of the faithful who refused to give up in the face of that situation; she encouraged them, bravely protecting the parish structures and seeking in every possible way to have Holy Mass said again. Her love for the Church made her untiring in the work of evangelization.”
A culminating moment in the apostolic trip to Africa was the presentation of the Instrumentum laboris, the working document for the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held in Rome next October. Benedict XVI recalled the importance of the Synod not only for the continent, but also “for the life of the universal Church,” and prayed that it would help to “infuse in each of your particular Churches a new evangelical and missionary impulse in the service of reconciliation, justice and peace, in accord with our Lord’s own words: ‘You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world’ (Mt 5:13-14).”
The unity of the universal Church with our brothers and sisters in Africa will therefore continue throughout the year 2009 when, in October, many bishops and representatives from the dioceses in Africa meet in Rome with the Pope and those who assist him.
“To have a Catholic spirit,” wrote the founder of Opus Dei, “means that we should feel on our shoulders the weight of our concern for the entire Church—not just of this or that particular part of it. It means that our prayer should spread out north and south, east and west, in a generous act of petition” (The Forge, no. 583). The unity of Christians requires that we all pray for one another. During this year, the universal Church is praying for and feels particularly close to the Church in Africa, which is doing so much to help dioceses around the world in need of priests.
With this universal spirit, it is easy to join the Holy Father in praying the prayer that concludes the working document for the upcoming Assembly of Bishops, as he himself did in Africa: “Mother of Perpetual Help, we entrust to your maternal intercession the preparation and fruits of the Second Synod for Africa. Queen of Peace, pray for us. Our Lady of Africa, pray for us.”