Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday in Benin called on Africa's leaders to stop depriving their people of hope and to govern responsibly, just hours before he planned to unveil a pastoral guide for the continent which attempts to use church doctrine to address Africa's problems.
The pope made his comments during a meeting with the ruling elite of Benin, a country that has provided a rare example of functioning democracy in the region.
The 84-year-old pope returned for the second time to Africa, the most rapidly growing region for the Roman Catholic Church. His first trip two years ago was derailed before he even set foot in Africa, after he told reporters on the papal plane that the use of condoms exacerbates the problem of AIDS. On this visit, he is steering clear of the sensitive issue in order to highlight a message he had tried to deliver in Cameroon two years ago.
"From this place, I launch an appeal to all political and economic leaders of African countries," Benedict said in the presidential palace in Benin's economic capital, Cotonou. "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 highlight of the pope's three-day visit is the unveiling of an 87-page document outlining the role of the church on a continent that has been shattered by war and whose people are deeply impoverished due in part to the corruption of their leaders. The thrust of the document is centered on how church doctrine, such as the principles of penance and forgiveness, can be used to help people stop the cycle of retribution.
Harvard Divinity School professor Jacob Olupona, a native of Nigeria, said that the pope is attempting to position the church to act as a moral voice for the continent. Some of the most corrupt rulers on the continent have been Catholics.
"The Pope can send a message, calling the faithful and members of the Catholic community to be more true to their Christian faith," said Olupona, a former chair of the Committee on African Studies at Harvard. "What is the purpose of loving God and hating your neighbor?"In the coastal city of Ouidah, around 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Cotonou where the pope was expected to sign the treatise, nuns were working around the clock putting the finishing touches on a chapel he was planning to visit.
On the tiled floor of the Saint-Gall Seminary chapel was a pile of pastel-colored bows — the kind used to decorate a present. The nuns explained that these were the only directions they could find in Benin to try to make their church more beautiful.
They carefully taped pink bows to each of the chapel's columns, one plastic bow for every couple of yards. "Do you think it looks nice?" one of them asked shyly.