The pope's offering to the poorest continent of the world: not silver or gold, but "the word of Christ which heals, sets free and reconciles." The reasons for the wager, in the key discourse of his voyage to Benin
The discourse, clearly conceived and written almost in its entirety by the pope himself, has a keyword: "hope."
And he applied this word to two realities: the sociopolitical and economic life of the African continent, and interreligious dialogue.
The word "hope" is very dear to pope Joseph Ratzinger. He dedicated an entire encyclical to it, "Spe Salvi," the most "personal" of the three he has published so far, written by him from the first word to the last.
And it is with Africa in particular that he associates this word: with the continent that has seen the most astonishing expansion of Christianity in the past century, and could determine its future.
But of what sort of hope is Benedict XVI speaking? His response, in the speech in Cotonou, is audacious in its simplicity:
"To talk of hope is to talk of the future and hence of God!"
It is a simplicity from which pope Ratzinger does not depart even when referring to the sociopolitical and economic life of Africa:
"The Church does not propose any technical solution and does not impose any political solution." It simply, "accompanies the State and its mission; she wishes to be like the soul of our body untiringly pointing to what is essential: God and man. She wishes to accomplish, openly and without fear, the immense task of one who educates and cares, but above all who prays without ceasing, who points to God and to where the authentic man is to be found."
In urging the Church to fulfill these tasks, the pope referred to four Gospel passages, the last of which (John 19:5) is the one in which Pilate presents Jesus crowned with thorns and in a purple cloak, saying to the crowd, "Behold the man!"
The following day, November 20, was the Sunday of Christ the King, the last of the liturgical year. And in his homily, Benedict XVI again affirmed that this, and nothing else, is how God "reigns": from the wood of the cross. A reign that truly brings "words of hope, because the King of the universe has drawn near to us, the servant of the least and lowliest," in order to usher us, he risen, into "a new world, a world of freedom and joy."
Coming to interreligious dialogue, here as well Benedict XVI based the hope found in this dialogue on the absolute centrality of God.
If one dialogues, he said, this must not be "through weakness; we enter into dialogue because we believe in God, the Creator and Father of all people. Dialogue is another way of loving God and our neighbor out of love for the truth. Having hope does not mean being ingenuous but making an act of faith in God, the Lord of history, and the Lord of our future."
The pope referred back to what took place in Assisi last October 27:
"Knowledge, deeper understanding and practice of one's religion, are essential to true interreligious dialogue. This can only begin by sincere personal prayer on the part of the one who desires to dialogue. Let him go in secret to his private room (cf. Mt 6:6) to ask God for the purification of reason and to seek his blessing upon the desired encounter. This prayer also asks God for the gift to see in the other a brother to be loved and, within his tradition, a reflection of the truth which illumines all people. Everyone ought therefore to place himself in truth before God and before the other. This truth does not exclude and it is not confusion. Interreligious dialogue when badly understood leads to muddled thinking or to syncretism. This is not the dialogue which is sought."
In concluding the speech, the pope first applied the image of the hand to hope:
"There are five fingers on it and each one is quite different. Each one is also essential and their unity makes a hand. A good understanding between cultures, consideration for each other which is not condescending, and the respect of the rights of each one are a vital duty. This must be taught to all the faithful of the various religions. Hatred is a failure, indifference is an impasse, and dialogue is an openness! Is this not good ground in which seeds of hope may be sown? To offer someone your hand means to hope, later, to love, and what could be more beautiful than a proffered hand? It was willed by God to offer and to receive. God did not want it to kill or to inflict suffering, but to care and to help live. Together with our heart and our intelligence, our hand too can become an instrument of dialogue. It can make hope flourish, above all when our intelligence stammers and our heart stumbles."
And finally, he called upon three symbols of hope in the Scriptures:
"According to Sacred Scripture, three symbols describe the hope of Christians: the helmet, because it protects us from discouragement (cf. 1 Th 5:8), the anchor, sure and solid, which ties us to God (cf. Heb 6:19), and the lamp which permits us to await the dawn of a new day (cf. Lk 12:35-36). To be afraid, to doubt and to fear, to live in the present without God, or to have nothing to hope for, these are all attitudes which are foreign to the Christian faith and, I am convinced, to all other forms of belief in God. Faith lives in the present, but it awaits future goods. God is in our present, but he is also in the future, a place of hope. The expansion of our hearts is not only hope in God but also an opening to and care for physical and temporal realities in order to glorify God. Following Peter, of whom I am a successor, I hope that your faith and hope will be in God. This is my wish for the whole of Africa, which is so dear to me! Africa, be confident and rise up! The Lord is calling you."
It is the same logic that is found in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation "Africae Munus," which Benedict XVI delivered to the African bishops on November 20.
In paragraphs 148-149, after recalling the Gospel episode of the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:3-9), the pope writes:
"By accepting Jesus, Africa can receive incomparably effective and deep healing. Echoing the Apostle Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, I repeat: what Africa needs most is neither gold nor silver; she wants to stand up, like the man at the pool of Bethzatha; she wants to have confidence in herself and in her dignity as a people loved by her God. It is this encounter with Jesus which the Church must offer to bruised and wounded hearts yearning for reconciliation and peace, and thirsting for justice. We must provide and proclaim the word of Christ which heals, sets free and reconciles."
The program and the complete texts of Benedict XVI's voyage:
> Apostolic Journey to Benin, November 18-20, 2011
The post-synodal apostolic exhortation delivered to the Catholics of Africa on November 20:
> "Africæ Munus"
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.