By Rukmini Callimachi Associated Press
COTONOU, Benin — Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a pilgrimage to Africa on Sunday where he laid out his spiritual vision for the continent and told tens of thousands during an open air Mass that “true royalty does not consist in a show of power,” comments that Africans interpreted as a jab at the continent’s corrupt rulers.
The 84-year-old pope, who recently began using a moving platform to get across the long aisle at St. Peter’s Basilica, weathered the intense heat inside Benin’s unventilated chapels and parishes to deliver the layered message on how Africa can emerge from war and poverty.
The pastoral guide includes advice on everything from treating AIDS, to the respect that should be shown toward indigenous beliefs. It’s a deeply studied dissertation that reveals the importance that Africa now plays for the Roman Catholic Church, a region whose congregations are growing more quickly than anywhere else.
The core of his message was aimed at the individual and called on Africans to forgive those that have trespassed against them in order to halt the cycle of violence plaguing the continent. Benedict didn’t mince his words, though, when it came to Africa’s rulers, whose corrupt regimes have bankrupted nations.
“I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries,” Benedict said over the weekend. “Do not deprive your people of hope. Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present. Adopt a courageous, ethical approach to your responsibilities.”
The comment caused taxi drivers listening to his speech on their car radio to honk in approval.
On Sunday, Benedict was speaking about Christ when he described a king who didn’t amass money and who preferred to spend his time with the poor. His comments were instantly interpreted as a metaphor for Africa’s bloated leaders.
“Today, like 2,000 years ago, we are accustomed to seeing the signs of royalty in success, strength, money and power. We find it hard to accept such a king, a king who makes himself the servant of the little ones, of the most humble,” said the pope during the Sunday morning Mass held inside the national soccer stadium.
“True royalty does not consist in a show of power, but in humility of service. Not in the oppression of the weak, but in the ability to protect them,” he continued.
Benin, the only country Benedict visited on his second pilgrimage to Africa, provides a rare example of a functioning democracy. The country’s president has continued to live in the home he had before he was elected. It’s a stark contrast to the lifestyle of his peers, like the ruling family of nearby Equatorial Guinea, who are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for purchasing assets worth $70 million, including a Malibu mansion, a Gulfstream jet and $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Ghanaian priest Dominic Yamoah listened attentively to the pope’s words, his bald head glistening under the punishing sun.
“What really touched me is what he said about the king who doesn’t come with pomp. He comes to serve. It’s a powerful message to our leaders. They should be here to serve, and not be served,” Yamoah said.
People began lining up at 3 a.m. Sunday for a chance to attend the papal Mass. At least 80,000 attended inside the stadium that seats 50,000, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Frederico Lombardi said. Women who didn’t make it in, kneeled in the parking lot and prayed on the pavement.
The streets outside every venue where the pope spoke were crowded with aging buses with license plates from neighboring nations. Some had cracked windshields, evidence of the modest means of the roughly 1,000 priests that came from all over Africa, many driving hundreds of miles over potholed and overgrown roads.
In Benin, the government issued public service announcements calling on citizens to clean the country, and on Friday, the day of his arrival, you could see sweep marks on nearly all the sidewalks leading from the airport to the cathedral.
With not much of a selection to choose from, parishes decided to decorate their chapels with pastel-colored bows, of the kind affixed to birthday presents.
The day before his arrival, nuns at a seminary in the coastal town of Ouidah were trying with difficulty to tape pink bows to the stone pillars of their church.
Women showed their devotion through a fashion statement common to this part of Africa: Dresses printed with the image of the pontiff. When he arrived at the airport for his departure on Sunday, dozens of women were waiting for him on the tarmac, all wearing the blue-colored fabric printed with an image of the pope, his right arm raised in blessing.
Africa has helped breathe life into a church that has seen a steep decline in Europe. In the pope’s native Germany, the number of Catholics fell by almost 2 million in the past decade. By contrast during the same period, Benin’s congregation grew by half, adding 500,000 new converts.
There are so many aspiring priests on the continent that Africa is now sending “reverse missionaries” like the Rev. Adolphe Houndji. Born in Benin, Houndji is now a priest in Milan, Italy. It’s because of people like him that Benedict has said Africa can become the hope of the world, “the spiritual lungs of humanity.”
He touched on this as he said farewell.
“I wanted to visit Africa once more. It is a continent for which I have a special regard and affection, for I’m deeply convinced that it is a land of hope. … Here are found authentic values which have much to teach our world,” he said. “Why should an African country not show the rest of the world the path?”