Pope Benedict XVI pays tribute to the work of missionaries and the local hierarchy in Benin
Rome (Agenzia Fides) – “The Holy Father’s trip to Benin for the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation publication dedicated to Africa will also be a tribute to the work of missionaries who 150 years ago not only began the evangelization of that country, but much of West Africa”, says Fr. Renzo Mandirola, Research Coordinator on the history and spirituality of the Society of African Missions (SMA), the missionary institute which evangelized the current Benin, at the time Dahomey.
“Benin was in fact the point of irradiation of evangelization where the missionaries started and then brought the Gospel also to the neighboring countries, like Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. We had about 400 missionaries who died mainly because of diseases contracted to bring the Gospel in those lands”.
“Our founder, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, – recalls Fr. Mandirola – had asked the Holy See to give as a land of mission Dahomey, but was rejected because of the human sacrifices that were practiced. For this reason, Bishop de Brésillac was appointed Apostolic Vicar of Sierra Leone. In 1859, and as soon as two missionary expeditions in Sierra Leone arrived, the 5 members died within a month, including our founder. His successor then succeeded in convincing the Holy See to give him Dahomey. Thus the Apostolic Vicariate of Dahomey was created, which went from the Volta River, in current Ghana, to the Niger River, in Nigeria”.
“So – continues Fr. Renzo – on April 18, 1861, the missionaries Fr. Francisco Fernandez and Fr. Francis Borghero arrived in Wida, in the then Dahomey, now Benin. But the king of Dahomey, who saw in the evangelization, a threat to his power, which was largely based on the blood of slaves, allowed the missionaries to evangelize just the ‘whites’ and those who were called ‘white’ but were actually freed slaves who returned from America, but not the local population. For this reason, initially the missionaries, although they resided in Dahomey, began to extend their activities to Togo, Ghana and Nigeria until Cameroon. Only several years after they began evangelizing the people of Benin”.
Fr. Renzo recalls another reason to understand the importance of the papal visit. “In Benin, in Ouidah, there is the first seminary in West Africa, where priests and Bishops of a very vast region extending from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria are formed. The Pope, once in Benin, will then pay a tribute to the local hierarchy. With satisfaction we now see that the hierarchy of West Africa is formed entirely by local Bishops, after all our institute has among its objectives the formation not only of the clergy but also of the local hierarchy”.
Finally Fr. Renzo points out that during his trip, Benedict XVI will pray at the tomb of his friend Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, ordained Bishop in 1957, the centenary of the founding of the SMA, who was the first African to receive important positions in the Vatican Curia. Benedict XVI had a particular friendship with Cardinal Gantin as they both became Cardinals in 1977. (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides 17/11/2011)