Africa is a Catholic success story. During the 20th century, Church membership increased from 1.9 million to 130 million – a growth rate of 6,708 per cent. The continent is still on a roll: Catholicism continues to grow and wields a social and political influence that is hard to grasp in the secular West.
Despite unconfirmed reports that he is suffering from arthrosis, Benedict XVI will fly out today to Benin, a West African country with a population of 8.7 million. With a six-hour flight there and back, the Pope will spend just 50 hours on the ground during the three-day trip. Why is he is undertaking such a gruelling visit when he could simply remain at the Vatican, conserving his energy for his intensive Christmas programme? The superficial answer is that he is going there to sign the post-synodal apostolic exhortation which summarises the conclusions of the synod of African bishops in Rome in 2009. But there is a deeper reason: Africa is in some respects the future of the Catholic Church. The commentator John Allen has written: “The single most important Catholic story of the 20th century – more consequential in the long run than the Lateran Pacts, Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council and even John Paul II – was the shift in the Church’s gravity from North to South.” In 1900, a quarter of Catholics lived in the southern hemisphere. By 2050, three quarters will live there. By then, the Democratic Republic of Congo is likely to have the same number of Catholics as Italy and France combined. Benedict XVI realises that the successor of St Peter cannot simply watch this development from afar; he must show his pastoral concern for the continent by actually going there.
So why Benin? The former French colony is, in certain respects, a model for the continent. In 1990, the Church helped to guide the country from Communist dictatorship to multi-party democracy. In contrast to neighbouring Nigeria, the nation’s Christians and Muslims live together peacefully (Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, is a convert from Islam to Evangelicalism). Benin is proof that African countries don’t have to be defined by their pathologies: civil war, poverty, inter-religious strife, Aids or famine.
Pope Benedict will sign the post-synodal exhortation in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of Mary of Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast. The text will shape Catholicism in Africa for the next decade or more. The document may seem remote from the concerns of Catholics in Britain today. But most of us are likely to feel the effects of it, however indirectly, as African bishops, priests, religious and laity inspired by its words begin to exert a global influence.