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Our liturgies need a more inter-cultural flavour pope tells Church in Africa

HONG KONG (SE) : “I would say that it is important not to lose sight of the universal aspect of inculturation,” Pope Benedict XVI said during a prepared press conference on the plane on his way from Rome to the African nation of Benin on November 18.

“Indeed I would prefer to speak more of inter-culturality than of inculturation; in other words, of the meeting of cultures in our shared truth of being human in our time,” he continued.

The pope said that this is a way to grow in our universal fraternity, without losing the great gift of catholicity, which makes us brothers and sisters all over the world. He called it, “A family that collaborates in a spirit of fraternity.”

On a trip that was not dogged with controversy like his visit to Cameroon and Angola in 2009, the pope made the focal point the signing of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation from the second assembly of the Synod of African Bishops.

However, it was left to the Vatican press officer, Father Federico Lombardi, to explain why Pope Benedict chose Benin as the place for putting his and the signatures of representatives of 35 bishops’ conferences and seven regional conferences from around the continent on the document.

He explained that Catholicism in Benin dates back 150 years and this year the arrival of the Society for African Missions is being celebrated. The tiny nation of only nine million people became a central point from which the faith spread to neighbouring countries, from Togo to Ghana and then to Niger.

Father Lombardi said that there were a number of reasons for choosing Benin as the gathering point for the signing ceremony.

“Benin is a country at peace,” he explained, “both internally and externally. Its democratic institutions work; they were created in a spirit of freedom and responsibility and therefore justice and commitment to the common good are possible and guaranteed…”

He added that an overriding reason was because a number of religions exist in Benin, including Christianity, Islam and traditional religions, but they coexist in peace and in cooperation with one another.

“Interreligious dialogue is a factor for peace and freedom,” he said, adding that the country is a good example for the rest of Africa to follow, as dialogue is listed as a high priority in the post-synodal exhortation.

In addition to this, the population of Benin is made up of people from many different ethnic backgrounds and cultures, making it an appropriate place for Pope Benedict’s comment on inter-culturality in liturgical expression, rather than inculturation, which suggests a mono-cultural response.

However, as in many countries throughout Asia and Latin America, the Church in Africa is also faced with the exodus of people to evangelical Churches.

Father Lombardi told reporters that they present an attractive faith, but he described it as a simplification of the Christian message which lays great emphasis on healing and mixes local rites with others from African tradition.

“Such communities are characterised by a lack of institutions, an easily understandable message and a participative liturgy, which lays emphasis on expression of feelings and local culture, and on syncretic combinations among different religions,” Pope Benedict said.

“In a way, this guarantees their success,” he continued, but it also leads to instability. We also know that many return to the Catholic Church, or migrate from one of those communities to another.”

However, the pope insisted that this is not to be imitated. “Rather, we must ask ourselves what we can do to give fresh vitality to the Catholic faith,” he continued.

While noting that Christianity should not be seen as a difficult European system, but as a universal message that God exists, he added that Church institutions should not be too cumbersome either.

“I would draw attention to the importance of a participative, but not sentimental liturgy. Liturgy must not be exclusively based on the expression of feelings, but characterised by the presence of the mystery, into which we enter and by which we allow ourselves to be formed,” Pope Benedict explained.

The pope said that despite the huge problems faced by the African continent, he still believes that it can play an important role in bringing faith to the world.

“Humanity is undergoing an increasingly rapid transformation. The last 50 to 60 years in Africa, from post-colonial independence to our own day, have been a very trying and difficult time,” he noted.

“Nonetheless,” he said, “the freshness of the yes to life which exists in Africa… shows that it possesses a great store of humanity, a freshness of religious feeling and hope.”

The bishop of Rome added, “The new humanism in the young soul of Africa… is proof of its great stores of life and vitality for the future.”

In calling Africa a continent of hope, Pope Benedict said, “I am not indulging in mere rhetoric, but simply expressing a personal conviction which is also that of the Church.”

He concluded, “Often the mind is blocked by prejudices or by images which give a negative impression of the realities of Africa… To talk of hope is to talk of the future and hence of God. It is upon this mixture of many contradictory and complementary elements that we must build with the help of God.”

While expressing his own hope for Africa, the pope also appealed to political and economic leaders to do likewise.

“Do not deprive your people of hope,” he stressed. “Do not cut them off from their future by mutilating their present. Adopt a courageous ethical approach to your responsibilities and, if you are believers, ask God to grant you wisdom.”

In one last chiding of Africa’s leaders both inside and outside the Church, he said, “Power easily blinds, above all when private, family, ethnic or religious interests are at stake. God alone purifies hearts and intentions.”

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