As many as a million Africans attended a Mass in Luanda, Angola, celebrated by the Holy Father on Sunday. Given that the city itself has a population of under five million, that is an astonishing turnout. A couple of days earlier, critics of Pope Benedict had decided that the papal trip to Africa was a “disaster” because his comments about condoms had caused outrage in the western media. But Angolans clearly thought otherwise, and now journalists are hastily revising their verdict on the Pope’s journey.
The Pope’s comment, on board the plane flying him to Cameroon, that condoms can exacerbate the problem of Aids has generated acres of newsprint. Quentin de la Bédoyère addresses this difficult question opposite – and it is a difficult question, because there may be a moral distinction to be drawn between the use of condoms as prophylactics and as methods of disease prevention. (The Vatican is currently studying this question.) What needs to be said is that the Holy Father did not formulate a new policy on condoms, and that his statement that the distribution of condoms can in certain circumstances make matters worse, or simply not work, is supported by many experts in the field.
But this is a side issue for most Africans, whose lives are devastated by poverty, war and social catastrophe. And these are subjects that Pope Benedict addressed with magnificent eloquence. War can destroy “everything of value”, he said, Africa has been almost uniquely scarred by “the destructive power of civil strife, the descent into a maelstrom of hatred and revenge, the squandering of the efforts of generations of good people”.
Has any world leader ever spoken to frankly about the power of evil in Africa? He sees clouds of evil overshadowing the continent, in the shape of “the murderous fruits of tribal and ethnic rivalry”; he acknowledges the selfishness of the former colonial powers but also calls on Africans to conquer the universal “insidious spirit of selfishness” in order to create a society that is “truly and authentically African in its genius and values”.
Listening to the Pontiff address the problems of the continent, just as powerfully as his great predecessor, John Paul II, one cannot help reflecting on the vindictive small-mindedness of his enemies, within and outside the Church. Africans, at least, have got the measure of this great man.