YAOUNDE, Cameroon – Pope Benedict XVI, on his first full day in Africa, encouraged Cameroon’s bishops to be strong preachers of the Gospel and vigilant shepherds on matters of priestly formation and behavior, liturgical dignity and Christian marriage.
Emphasising the Church’s missionary task, the Pope said bishops must first of all be religious educators and men of prayer in order to lead the way of evangelisation. He met with Cameroon’s 31 bishops on March 18 in the Church of Christ the King in the Tsinga quarter of Yaounde, the capital of the country on Africa’s west coast.
Earlier in the day, the Pope paid a formal visit to President Paul Biya at the Unity Palace for private talks and a gift-giving session. The Pope presented the president with a mosaic from a Vatican workshop depicting St Paul, who is being celebrated in a special year marking the 2000th anniversary of his birth.
The meeting with bishops was a simple affair. After adoration of the Eucharist and a few songs from the church’s choir, the Pope delivered his talk in French and English. He focused on the bishops’ responsibility to guide the country’s priests and make sure there is “serious discernment” in choosing candidates for the priesthood. Cameroon has enjoyed a boom in vocations and currently has 1360 seminarians.
The Pope said the bishops should have personal and profound knowledge of priesthood candidates, overseeing formation programs that guarantee they are “mature and balanced men” when ordained.
He urged the bishops to be “especially vigilant regarding the faithfulness of priests and consecrated persons to the commitments made at their ordination or entry into religious life.”
“The authenticity of their witness requires that there be no dichotomy between what they teach and the way they live each day,” he said. The Pope was not specific, but in the past Vatican officials have expressed concern that the commitment to priestly celibacy be better understood and respected among African clergy.
Pope Benedict said the bishops should vigorously defend the family values of their traditional society against the impact of modernisation and secularisation. He asked them to promote better understanding of marriage as a stable union between a man and a woman; polygamy remains a common practice in parts of Cameroon.
The Pope praised the “festive and joyful” liturgies in Cameroon, which reflect the happiness of those participating. But he told the bishops it was essential that “the joy expressed in this way does not obstruct, but rather facilitates dialogue and communion with God” through the structure of the Catholic liturgy. The dignity of liturgical celebrations must be preserved, especially when large crowds of faithful are attending, he said.
The spread of sects and the growing influence of superstitious forms of religion require a new attention to the formation of Catholic children and young adults, the Pope said.
He said the bishops should make sure lay Catholics are guided by the Church’s social teaching in their daily lives and bring the faith to bear in social, economic and political spheres. Through its social doctrine, the Church tries to “awaken hope in the hearts of those left by the wayside,” and the bishop himself must be “the defender of the rights of the poor,” he said.
The Pope also asked the bishops to demonstrate to Catholics that the Church is truly “God’s family” in which no one is excluded for ethnic or factional reasons.
The Pope arrived in Cameroon on March 17 and was welcomed by tens of thousands of well-wishers who lined the streets of Yaounde and danced, waved and shouted as the papal motorcade passed by.
Biya, who has been in power since 1982, greeted the Pope at the airport, and the next morning hosted him at the presidential palace, a modern architectural landmark in the capital. Biya, a Catholic, presented the Pope with a wooden map of Africa on which the papal portrait was painted. No details of their private talks were made public immediately after the encounter.
Cardinal Christian Wiyghan Tumi of Douala, Cameroon’s senior churchman, said one possible topic of the discussions was the string of unsolved killings of church personnel in Cameroon since the 1980s; the latest occurred in December.
Cardinal Tumi, in an interview with a Cameroon radio station on March 17, said the Church has asked the government for details about the most recent killing, but to date has not received a response. On December 24, Father Francois Xavier Mekong was found apparently beaten to death at his residence in southern Cameroon.
Church leaders have voiced disagreement with Biya and his Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, especially when Biya changed the constitution last year to allow him to run for another seven-year term in 2011.