LUANDA, Angola – Meeting with nearly 30,000 Angolan young people, Pope Benedict XVI urged them to be wary of today’s dominant social culture and to shape the world according to the values of the Gospel.
The encounter in a Luanda soccer stadium on March 21 was marred by a stampede that killed two young women and injured 89 others, hours before the Pope arrived. The Pope was informed of the tragedy later that evening and he expressed his condolences at a Mass the next day.
Participants at the rally did not learn until afterward of the deaths, and the festive encounter went on as scheduled. It had a little bit of everything: native dance and song, testimonials from young Catholics, conga ensembles and, above all, tons of enthusiasm among the participants.
The focus of the Pope’s talk was a simple lesson on how to live the good life.
“My young friends, you hold within yourselves the power to shape the future,” he said. But it won’t happen without an encounter with God, he said.
“The dominant social culture is not helping you to live by Jesus’ word or to practise the self-giving to which he calls you in accordance with the Father’s plan,” he said.
Instead, he said, they need to build their lives around the renewal that begins with a personal encounter with Christ. That’s especially important when it comes time to make decisions that involve a lifelong commitment, like marriage, that can seem to represent a loss of freedom, he said.
“These are the doubts you feel, and today’s individualistic and hedonistic culture aggravates them,” he said. But he urged them to find inspiration in their faith.
“Life is worthwhile only if you take courage and are ready for adventure, if you trust in the Lord who will never abandon you,” he said.
The Pope also greeted a group of young people who were left orphaned or disabled by Angola’s 27-year civil war, and said he could imagine the conflict’s devastating effects on all the country’s young people.
“I think of the countless tears that have been shed for the loss of your relatives and friends. It is not hard to imagine the dark clouds that still veil the horizon of your fondest hopes and dreams,” he said.
The Pope spoke from beneath a large yellow tent in Coqueiros Stadium, under a hot late afternoon sun. He looked uncomfortable in the heat, and several youths who had spent hours awaiting his arrival suffered heat exhaustion and had to be taken away by stretcher.
The 81-year-old pontiff watched costumed dancers kick up a storm as a conga group pounded out the rhythm, their long yellow wigs shaking to the beat. Then a group of barefoot young women performed a hip-thrusting dance on the grass in front of the papal platform.
In the stands, youths held up pieces of colored cardboard in synchronised patterns, spelling out “God is love” and depicting the Pope’s own smiling face.
Several young Angolans spoke about their own spiritual paths and experiences, including detours into drugs and alcohol use, discouragement and loneliness. One of them told how he was welcomed into the Church after a life of stealing and addiction, and later became a priest.
One young woman, Elsa Montenegro, said that even those active in the church don’t have an easy time putting the faith into action. The challenges, she said, are many and can seem overwhelming: unemployment, corruption, drug use, prostitution, AIDS, abortion and dishonesty.
“Holy Father, we are asking you to enlighten us, help us, advise us, orient us,” she said.
After delivering his talk, the Pope greeted many of the performers individually. A final, haunting song was sung directly in front of the Pope by a young man in a wheelchair. The Pope embraced him warmly after the performance.
The young people presented the Pope with several gifts, including a carved ebony statue of a gazelle and a wood-and-gourd balafon, the xylophonelike instrument popular throughout Africa.
The encounter was broadcast live throughout Angola, and organizers considered it one of the most important events of the papal visit. About half of Angola’s population is under age 15, and church leaders said many are deeply worried about their future.
The stampede occurred when authorities opened the gates of the stadium about four hours before the Pope’s arrival. The two women, both 20 years old, died after being taken to a hospital, and news of the tragedy was made public late in the evening.
At an outdoor Mass the next day, the Pope prayed for the victims, their families and the injured. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, visited relatives one of the victims at a Luanda hospital on March 22, expressing the Pope’s sympathies. The woman, named Celine, was a catechist at a Luanda parish who had held her last lesson the morning of her death. At the time, the other victim had not been identified.