Pope Benedict celebrated an open-air Mass in Benin Sunday to close out a three-day trip to the West African nation. His visit had religious and diplomatic themes.
At least 50,000 people gathered in Cotonou's Friendship Stadium, where the Roman Catholic pontiff delivered a homily honoring those who spread the gospel in the former French colony over the 150 years since its evangelization.
The pope also presented an Apostolic Exhortation, drafted by a synod of African bishops, and which he signed on Saturday. The document calls on the continent's leaders to reject corruption and use its resources for the good of the people.
“I now have the joy of returning to Africa, and particularly to Benin, to consign this final document which takes up the reflections of the synod fathers and presents them as a part of a broad pastoral vision,” he said.
Pope Benedict seemed to be sensitive this trip to his diplomatic missteps of the past. He sparked controversy during his first visit to Africa as pope in 2009, when he said condoms aggravate the AIDS epidemic. This time, he largely avoided the topic, leaving the apostolic exhortation to declare that the disease is primarily an ethical problem to be resolved by abstinence and fidelity within marriage.
The Reverend André Quenum of Benin says the pontiff brings a faith-centric message to address all of Africa's problems.
“The pope is coming for a message of reconciliation, justice and peace, and I think that we need it," he said. "You know that we have been experiencing war, political problems, economic problems, and even traditional problems, everywhere. So this message of the pope will do, I'm sure, in the heart of African people.”
Benedict also amended his once-inflammatory remarks on Islam, saying on this visit that Catholics should work toward a good relationship with their Muslim neighbors while maintaining their own identity. That message was also extended to traditional religions, and some members of Benin's large voodoo population responded favorably by attending the pope's various appearances.