COTONOU, Benin (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI is returning this week to Africa, the Roman Catholic Church's fastest-growing region whose pool of aspiring priests replenish dwindling numbers of clerics elsewhere.
The 84-year-old pope arrives on Friday and will visit a seminary in the western town of Ouidah. This tiny nation on Africa's western coast is emblematic of the church's growth spurt. In just the past decade, Benin's Catholic population has grown by half, adding over half-a-million converts. In the same period the pope's native Germany has lost nearly 2 million worshippers, according to the World Christian Database.
Benedict is planning to release a document outlining the future of the church in Africa, a pastoral guide which is expected to use the church and its doctrine of penance and forgiveness to address Africa's numerous ills, especially the cycle of violence. The pope's position will likely be guided by the 57 recommendations of the 2009 synod held in the capital of Cameroon, where bishops met to articulate the future of the church in Africa.
Among the proposals is the creation of a "sacrament of reconciliation" by organizing both individual and collective acts of forgiveness, a strategy intended to stem the acts of retribution common to many of Africa's conflicts.
"The message of reconciliation is very apropos in Africa, because our tradition is one of retribution. Ours is a history of divisions and wars," said Nicolas De Dravo, who heads the organization representing Benin's seven major church choirs. "For there to be reconciliation, first you should do an exam of your own conscience. And see how did I hurt that person? We need to recognize our error."
Harvard Divinity School professor Jacob Olupona, a native of Nigeria, said that although Benin is an example of good governance, it's a country in a turbulent region where violent ethnic-related clashes have killed thousands in recent years. Ivory Coast is just emerging from a near-civil war pitting the mostly-Christian followers of strongman Laurent Gbagbo against the Muslim supporters of his successor.
Waves of violence have repeatedly crashed down on the belt separating Nigeria's Muslim north from its Christian south. And in Congo, a mostly-Christian nation, armed groups have turned rape into a weapon of war.
"The Pope can send a message, calling the faithful and members of the Catholic community to be more true to their Christian faith. What is the purpose of loving God and hating your neighbor?" said Olupona.
The three-day trip is Benedict's second to Africa. In 2009 he made a pilgrimage to Cameroon and Angola, a trip where his impassioned plea to corrupt leaders to let the poor share in their nation's wealth was overshadowed by his controversial comments on condoms. On the plane to Africa, Benedict said that distributing condoms was not the answer to AIDS, provoking criticism from the governments of France, Germany and the European Union.
In Cotonou, Benin's sleepy capital, public service announcements on TV and billboards enjoined citizens to clean their city. One billboard showed a picture of the pope next to three suggestions: Sweep your street, pick up the garbage and repaint your house.
Workers and residents say police forces destroyed the Zongo market in Cotonou without warning on Tuesday, citing an order from the city to make the area presentable ahead of the pope's arrival.
The lawns on the medians separating major boulevards had been removed, after the mayor's office determined that it was easier to simply rip out the grass rather than trying to pick out the thousands of cigarette butts and pieces of trash. It means that most of the highways are now separated by a band of dirt, decorated with fresh tractor tracks.
Starting Thursday, trucks are no longer allowed to enter the downtown core, because they not only slow traffic but are also considered unattractive.
At the cathedral where Benedict is expected to make a stop, pilgrims were holding prayer books. Their mouths were moving as they silently read the words. Inside, workers on ladders were adding a coat of olive color to the nave.
"I cannot describe to you the emotion that I feel as I paint these walls," said one of the painters Luc Vittou, 24, the logo on his stretched T-shirt no longer legible due to the paint stains. "I feel privileged to be able to do something that proves to the pope how much we welcome him. ... It's a sentiment of pure, crazy, over-the-top joy."
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.