One of the most outlandish criticisms against Pope Benedict XVI on the heels of his recent announcement renouncing his office as Pope is that he is a “racist.” This came from some of my African confreres whose singular basis for this claim was that he failed to raise any African to the rank of Cardinal in February 2012.
Nothing could be further from the truth as portrayed by the article “Ratzinger the African,” published last December in the Vatican Diary. I urge everyone to take the time and read this eye-opening article on Pope Benedict’s love for Africa.
Pope Benedict XVI’s short pontificate (2005 – 2013) relative to John Paul II’ s 27 years (1978-2005) and Pope Paul VI’s 15 years (1963-1978) is richest in his outreach to Africa. It is worth saying here that each of these three popes excelled in their own measure in their outreach to Africa. Pope Paul VI, for example, was the first Pope ever to visit Africa. Even before this as a cardinal he often visited Africa. He named the first African saints, the martyrs of Uganda. Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II traveled to Africa more than any other Pope. It is in diplomacy which is the bone of contention here that Pope Benedict XVI finds no rival.
In his opening homily for the African synod of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of Africa’s faith in such glowing terms when he said: “Africa represents an immense spiritual lung for a humanity that appears to be in a crisis of faith and hope.” Such audacious words could only come from a man who has value for the continent and its geometric growth rate of Catholicism.
Pope Benedict XVI has matched rhetoric with action and the following gist from the above-mentioned article summarizes the point:
Appointment of Cardinals: of the 90 Cardinals, Benedict named over the last 8 years, 7 are Africans. To many Africaphils, this may be a little too small but relative to his two immediate predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI’s records stand tall. Of the 210 Cardinals, John Paul II appointed over 27 years, 16 were Africans while of the 143, Pope Paul VI appointed over 15 years, 12 were Africans.
Roman Curia: There is a visible presence of Africans in the curia with Ghanaian, Peter Cardinal Turkson as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Robert Cardinal Sarah of Guinea Conkary as President of Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Tanzanian Archbishop Protase Rugambwa as adjunct Secretary of Propagande fide and President of Pontifical Mission Society, bishop Barthelemy Adoukonou of Benin as Secretary of the Pontifical Council of Culture and Msgr. Jean Marie Mupendawatu as Secretary for the Pontifical Council for pastoral care of healthcare workers.
Any keen observers of Pontifical liturgical celebrations would have noticed a new fac
e on the altar very close to the Pope since 2009. This is Fr. Jean Pierre Kwabamba from DRC. This is the first ever African papal master of ceremonies.
African ecclesiastical Diplomats: Currently, there are five apostolic nuncios of African descent. Apostolic nuncios are the Vatican’s ambassadors or more properly the Pope’s ambassadors. The first ever papal ambassador of African origin is archbishop Augustine Kassujji, current ambassador to Nigeria who was appointed by John Paul II in 1998. All the other four have been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI namely: Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo from Nigeria who is nuncio to Chad and Central African Republic, Archbishop Leon Kalenga of DRC who is nuncio to Ghana, Tanzanian Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa, nuncio to Angola and Sao Tome et Principe and lastly Nigerian Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu, nuncio to Nicaragua. Worthy of note is the fact that Pope Benedict XVI earlier on appointed the same Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu as chief of protocol at the Vatican’s secretariat of state, the first of its kind.
That said, it is worth pondering again what it means to be Catholic? The lyrics of this hymn “In Christ there is no East, no West, In Him no North no South, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide world,” are worth spending time reflecting on. The parochialisms and the debilitating”son of the soil” mentality have eaten into the very essence of our being that very often we read events along this prism. In this age of globalization, when we pride ourselves as citizens of the world, does it make sense to continue this sentimental attachment to such warped divisions? Beyond this even, the words of Nigerian archbishop Obiefuna are worth recalling: The waters of baptism are thicker than blood.
Yet one must never lose sight of the fact the universal does not merely subsume the particular such that the particular disappears. There must be some balancing acts whereby as Catholics even though from Africa which is by no measure a small qualification, we belong to a reality that transcends this geographical circumscription. The African I embraces the universal we.