POPES SPEAK ON AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION AND CULTURAL VALUES

Pope John XXIII

Allocution to African writers and artists

Wherever real values of art and thought are capable of enriching the human family, the Church is ready to encourage such work of the spirit. The Church herself, as you well know, is not bound to any culture, not even to the Western culture with which, however, her history is so intimately linked. For its mission proper is of quite a different order: that of the religious salvation of man.

But, the Church, full of youthfulness, ever renewed by the breath of the Spirit, remains disposed to recognise, to accept, and even to animate whatever is to the honour of the human mind and heart in any part of the world other than the Mediterranean basin, notwithstanding that here stood the providential cradle of Christianity.

We, therefore, follow, with the greatest interest, your efforts in searching for the basis of a cultural fellowship of African inspiration, and we express the wish that it may repose on the right criteria of truth and action.

Consider here the age-old wisdom of the Church: her enlightened mission knows how to discern, in ancient and new forms of artistic and literary expression, what needs to be purified in order to tally with man's dignity, his natural rights and duties. The Church's world-wide attention to the human resources of all peoples places her at the service of true world peace. She helps the elite that turn to her guidance, in developing the cultural possibilities of their country and their race, and in doing so, the Church invites them to collaborate harmoniously and in a spirit of deep understanding, with other currents issuing from authentic civilisations. Is it not only at that price that the conquests of the mind progress, and thus, that the spiritual bonds are tied of a truly fraternal human community?
 

Pope Paul VI

Extract from the Message of Pope Paul VI to Africa for the promotion of the Religious, Civil and Social Good of the Continent.

Traditional Values

We have always been glad to see the flourishing state of African studies, and We see with satisfaction that the knowledge of her history and tradition is spreading. This, if done with openness and objectivity, cannot fail to lead to a more exact evaluation of Africa's past and present.

Thus, the more recent ethnic history of the peoples of Africa, though lacking in written documents, is seen to be very complex, yet rich in individuality and spiritual and social experiences, to which specialists are fruitfully directing their analysis and further research. Many customs and rites, once considered to be strange, are seen today, in the light of ethnological science, as integral parts of various social systems, worthy of study and commanding respect.

In this regard, We think it profitable to dwell on some general ideas which typify ancient African religious cultures, because We think their moral and religious values deserving of attentive consideration.

The constant and general foundation of African tradition is the spiritual view of life. Here we have more than the so-called "animistic" concept, in the sense given to this term in the history of religions at the end of last century. We have a deeper, broader and more universal concept which considers all living beings and visible nature itself as linked with the world of the invisible and the spirit. In particular it has never considered man as mere matter limited to earthly life, but recognises in him the presence and power of another spiritual element, in virtue of which human life is always related to the after-life.

In this spiritual concept, the most important element generally found is the idea of God, as the first or ultimate cause of all things. This concept, perceived rather than analysed, lived rather than reflected on, is expressed in very different ways from culture to culture, but the fact remains that the presence of God permeates African life, as the presence of a higher being, personal and mysterious.

People have recourse to Him at solemn and more critical moments of life, when they consider the intercession of every other intermediary unavailing. Nearly always fear of God's omnipotence is set aside and He is invoked as Father. Prayers made to Him, whether by individuals or by groups, are spontaneous, at times moving, while among the forms of sacrifice the sacrifice of first fruits stands out because of what it plainly signifies.

Another characteristic common to African tradition is respect for the dignity of man.

It is true that there have been aberrations and also ceremonial rites which are seen to be in violent contrast with the respect due to the human person. But these are aberrations which have brought suffering to the very people who have gone astray, and which, thank God, as in the case of slavery, have completely disappeared or soon will.

Respect for man is seen conspicuously, if not systematically, in the traditional ways of educating within the family, in initiations into society, and in participation in social and political life, in accordance with the traditional pattern of individual nations.

Another characteristic element of African tradition is the sense of family. On this it is significant to note the moral and also the religious value seen in attachment to the family, evidenced further by the bond with ancestors, which finds expression in so many widespread forms of worship.

For Africans the family thus comes to be the natural environment in which man is born and acts, in which he finds the necessary protection and security, and eventually through union with his ancestors has his continuity beyond earthly life.

Then in the family one should note the respect for the part played by the father of the family and the authority he has. Recognition of this is not found everywhere in the same degree but is so extraordinarily widespread and deeply rooted that it is rightly to be considered as a mark of African tradition in general.

Patria potestas is profoundly respected even in the African societies which are governed by matriarchy. There although ownership of goods and the social status of children follow from the mother's family, the father's moral authority in the household remains undiminished.

By reason of the same concept the father of the family in some African cultures has a typically priestly function assigned to him, whereby he acts as a mediator not only between the ancestors and his family, but also between God and his family, performing acts of worship established by custom.

As regards community life - which in African tradition was family life writ large - We note that participation in the life of the community, whether in the circle of one's kinsfolk or in public life, is considered a precise duty and the right of all. But exercise of this right is conceded only after progressive preparation through a series of initiations whose aim is to form the character of the young candidates and to instruct them in the traditions, rules and customs of society.

Today, Africa has met with progress which is taking her onwards to new forms of life made available by science and technology. All this is not in contradiction with the essential values of the moral and religious tradition of the past, which We have briefly described, the values that belong in a way to the natural law which is implanted in the heart of every man and is the foundation for a well-ordered life with his fellow men in every generation.

For this reason, while these values which have been handed down ought to be respected as a cultural legacy from the past, there is no less a duty to give them new meaning and new expression. In the face of modern civilisation, however, it is sometimes necessary to "know how to discriminate: to assess critically and eliminate those deceptive goods which would bring about a lowering of the human ideal, and to accept those values that are sound and beneficial, in order to develop them alongside their own, in accordance with their own genius" (Populorum Progression, n. 41; AAS 59 (1967), p.278). New forms of life will thus spring from what is good in the old and new alike, and will be seen by younger generations as a solid and real inheritance.

The Church view with great respect the moral and religious values of the African tradition, not only because of their meaning, but also because she sees them as providential, as the basis for spreading the Gospel message and beginning the establishment of the new society in Christ. This We Ourselves pointed out at the canonisation of the Martyrs of Uganda, who were the first flowering of Christian holiness in the new Africa, sprung from the most vigorous stock of ancient tradition (cf. Homily of 18 October 1964: AAS 56 (1964), pp.907ff).

The teaching of Jesus Christ and His redemption are, in fact, the complement, the renewal, and the bringing to perfection, of all that is good in human tradition. And that is why the African who becomes a Christian does not disown himself, but takes up the age-old values of tradition "in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4,24).


TO THE SYMPOSIUM OF AFRICAN BISHOPS

Kampala, 31 July 1969

African Christianity

You may, and you must, have an African Christianity. Indeed, you possess human values and characteristic forms of culture which can rise up to perfection such as to find in Christianity, and for Christianity, a true superior fullness, and prove to be capable of a richness of expression all its own, and genuinely African. This may take time. It will require that your African soul become imbued to its depth with the secret charisms of Christianity, so that these charisms may then overflow freely, in beauty and wisdom, in the true African manner. It will require from your culture that it should not refuse, but rather eagerly desire, to draw, from the patrimony of the patristic, exegetical, and theological tradition of the Catholic Church, those treasures of wisdom which can rightly be considered universal, above all, those which can be most easily assimilated by the African mind. The Church of the West did not hesitate to make use of the resources of African writers, such as Tertullian, Optatus of Milevis, Origen, Cyprian and Augustine (cf. Optatam totius, No. 16). Such an exchange of the highest expressions of Christian thought nourishes, without altering the originality, of any particular culture. It will require an incubation of the Christian "mystery" in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of the other voices in the Universal Church. Do We need to remind you, in this regard, how useful it will be for the African Church to possess centres of contemplative and monastic life, centres of religious studies, centres of pastoral training? If you are able to avoid the possible dangers of religious pluralism, the danger of making your Christian profession into a kind of local folklore, or into exclusivist racism, or into egoistic tribalism or arbitrary separatism, then you will be able to remain sincerely African even in your own interpretation of the Christian life; you will be able to formulate Catholicism in terms congenial to your own culture; you will be capable of bringing to the Catholic Church the precious and original contribution of "negritude", which she needs particularly in this historic hour.
 
 

John Paul II

TO THE BISHOPS OF ZAIRE

Kinshasa, 3 May 1980


Inculturation of the Gospel

One of the aspects of this evangelization is the inculturation of the Gospel, the Africanization of the Church. Several have confided to me that it concerns you very much and rightly so. That is part of the indispensable efforts to incarnate the message of Christ.

The Gospel, certainly, is not identified with cultures and transcends them all. But the kingdom which the Gospel announces is lived by men profoundly linked to a culture; the building of the kingdom cannot be dispensed from borrowing elements of human cultures (cf. EN 20). And even, evangelization must help these cultures to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought (cf. CT 53). You desire to be at the same time fully Christian and fully African. The Holy Spirit asks us to believe in fact that the leaven of the Gospel, in its authenticity, has the strength to raise up Christians in the various cultures, with all the riches of their patrimony, purified and transfigured.
 

The Teaching of the Council

On this subject, the Second Vatican Council well expressed certain principles which always illumine the road to follow in this area:

"The Church... fosters and takes to herself, insofar as they are good, the ability, resources and customs of each people. Taking them to herself, she purifies, strengthens and ennobles them...

"In virtue of this catholicity, each individual part of the Church contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Thus through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase...

"The chair of Peter... presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time it sees that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute towards it" (LG 13).

Africanization takes in large and profound areas, which have not yet been sufficiently explored, whether it is a matter of the language to be used to present the Christian message in a manner which touches the mind and heart of the Zairian, of catechesis, of theological reflection, of the most suitable expression in the liturgy or sacred art, of community forms of Christian life.
 

Inculturation, fruit of the faith

It is up to you, Bishops, to promote and harmonise progress in this area, after mature reflection, in harmony among yourselves, in union also with the universal Church and with the Holy See. Inculturation, for the whole of the people, can moreover only be the fruit of a progressive maturity in the faith. For you are convinced, as I am, that this work, for which I insist on expressing to you my complete confidence, demands much theological lucidity, spiritual discernment, wisdom and prudence, and also time.

Permit me to cite, among other examples, the experience of my own homeland: in Poland, a profound alliance has been established between the ways of thinking and living characteristic of the nation and Catholicism; this impregnation required centuries. Here, taking account of a different situation, it must be possible for Christianity to ally itself with what is most profound in the Zairian soul for an original culture, at the same time African and Christian.


TO THE BISHOPS OF KENYA

Nairobi, 7 May 1980

In the members of His Body, Christ is African

Another great priority of your ministry is catechesis: developing the initial faith of your people and bringing them to the fullness of Christian life. I am close to you, in praise and encouragement, in every undertaking of yours to communicate Christ, to make his Gospel incarnate in the lives and culture of your people. In union with the universal Church, and in openness to the patrimony of her long history, you are striving to lead your people in the reality of their daily lives to look to Christ for light and strength. The aim of your local Churches is to have the faithful living through, with and in Christ. Your efforts, in which you rightfully endeavour to associate the whole community - and in a special way the catechists - must have constant reference to Christ: to his divine Person, his Spirit, and his Gospel

The "acculturation" or "inculturation" which you rightly promote will truly be a reflection of the Incarnation of the Word, when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought (cf. CT 53). By respecting, preserving and fostering the particular values and riches of your people's cultural heritage, you will be in a position to lead them to a better understanding of the mystery of Christ, which is to be lived in the noble, concrete and daily experiences of African life. There is no question of adulterating the word of God, or of emptying the Cross of its power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17), but rather of bringing Christ into the very centre of African life and of lifting up all African life to Christ. Thus not only is Christianity relevant to Africa, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself African.
 


TO THE BISHOPS OF GHANA

Kumasi, 9 May 1980

Inculturation of the Gospel

Be assured that all your efforts to proclaim the Gospel directly and indirectly are a great credit to the Church. On my part, I am close to you in all the joys and disappointments, the challenges and hopes of your ministry of the word, and in your sacramental ministry. I am close to you in all your concrete pastoral initiatives, in everything that brings the message of salvation into the lives of the people. A reflection on the essential and constitutional patrimony of the Catholic faith, which is identical for all people of all places and times, is a great help to the pastors of the Church as they ponder the requirements of the "inculturation" of the Gospel in the life of the people. You are familiar with what Paul VI called "the task of assimilating the essence of the Gospel message and of transposing it, without the slightest betrayal of its essential truth, into the language that these particular people understand" (EN 63). He singled out as subject to certain adaptations the areas of liturgical expression, catechesis, theological formulation, secondary ecclesial structures, and ministries. As local pastors you are eminently fitted for this work, because you are sons of the people to whom you are sent with the message of faith; in addition, in your Episcopal ordination you have received the same "governing Spirit" who was communicated to Jesus and by him to his Apostles for the building up of his Church. This work is of God; it is an activity of the living Body of Christ; it is a requirement of the Church as a truly universal means of salvation.

Conserve African traditions

And so with serenity and confidence and with profound openness towards the universal Church, the Bishops must carry on the task of inculturation of the Gospel for the good of each people, precisely so that Christ may be communicated to every man, woman and child. In this process, cultures themselves must be uplifted, transformed and permeated by Christ's original message of divine truth, without harming what is noble in them. Hence worthy African traditions are to be preserved. Moreover, in accordance with the full truth of the Gospels and in harmony with the Magisterial of the Church, living and dynamic African Christian traditions are to be consolidated.

As you work in close union with the Apostolic See and the entire Church, you are strengthened in knowing that the responsibility for this activity is shared also by your brother Bishops throughout the world. This is an important consequence of the doctrine of collegiality, in which every Bishop shares responsibility for the rest of the Church; by the same token, his own Church in which by divine right he exercises ordinary jurisdiction is also the object of a common Episcopal responsibility in the two dimensions of making the Gospel incarnate in the local Church: 1) preserving unaltered the content of the Catholic faith and maintaining ecclesial unity throughout the world; and 2) bringing forth from cultures original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought, whereby the Gospel is brought into the heart of peoples and their cultures.

Venerable Brothers, your people are called to the highest ideals and to the most lofty virtues. In this saving power, Christ is present in the humanity of Africa, or as I have already said during my visit to this continent: "Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself African."
 


TO STUDENTS OF COTE D'IVOIRE

Yamoussoukro, 11 May 1980

Preserve the African roots

Allow me, further, to stress a very important aspect of your human, intellectual and technical preparation for your future tasks. It is also part of your duties. Preserve carefully your African roots. Safeguard the values of your culture. You know them and are proud of them: respect for life, family solidarity and support for relatives, respect for the old, the sense of hospitality, judicious preservation of traditions, the taste for feasts and symbols, attachment to dialogue and palaver to settle differences. All that is a real treasure from which you can and must draw something new for the building up of your country, on an original and typically African model, made up of harmony between the values of its cultural past and the most acceptable elements of modern civilisation. On this precise plane, remain very vigilant, with regard to models of society which are based on the selfish pursuit of individual happiness and on the god of money, or on the class struggle and violent means. All materialism is a source of degradation for man and of enslavement of social life.
 


TO THE BISHOPS OF NIGERIA

Lagos, 15 February 1982

The evangelization of culture

It is above all when the Christian families have been truly evangelised and are aware of their evangelising role that there can be an effective evangelization of culture - an effective encounter between the Gospel and culture. The need is great, for as my predecessor Paul VI pointed out: "The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time" (EN 20).

An important aspect of your own evangelising role is the whole dimension of the inculturation of the Gospel into the lives of your people. Here, you and your priests co-workers offer to your people a perennial message of divine revelation - "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ep 3:8) - but at the same time, on the basis of this "eternal Gospel" (Rv 14:6), you help them "to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought" (CT 53).

The Church truly respects the culture of each people. In offering the Gospel message, the Church does not intend to destroy or to abolish what is good and beautiful. In fact she recognises many cultural values and through the power of the Gospel purifies and takes into Christian worship certain elements of a people's customs. The Church comes to bring Christ; she does not come to bring the culture of another race. Evangelization aims at penetrating and elevating culture by the power of the Gospel.
 

Man is the way of culture

On the other hand, we know that God's revelation exceeds the insights of any culture and of all the cultures of the world put together. With Saint Paul we ought to praise the divine plan: "O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rm 11:33). The profundity of the divine revelation is manifested in the mystery of the Incarnation, which in turn unveils the life of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

And therefore it is clear, as I have stated before, that "the power of the Gospel everywhere transforms and regenerates. When that power enters into a culture, it is no surprise that it rectifies many of its elements" (CT 53). At the same time, it is through the providence of God that the message is made incarnate and is communicated through the culture of each people. It is for ever true that the path of culture is the path of man, and it is on this path that man encounters the One who embodies the values of all cultures and fully reveals the man of each culture to himself. The Gospel of Christ the Incarnate Word finds its home along the path of culture and from this path it continues to offer its message of salvation and eternal life.

Because of these important considerations, dear brothers in Christ, I wish to implore again from the Holy Spirit that "new era of evangelization" of which I spoke to you in Rome. It will, of course, be a gift of God - a gift added to the interminable list of favours bestowed upon your people through the merciful and loving kindness of our God. On our part, it is necessary to have the profound conviction that our own ministry as bishops is indeed a ministry of evangelization, including the evangelization of culture. As I mentioned in Rome, Jesus himself is indicating to us that evangelization is our "supreme priority."


TO THE PEOPLE OF BENIN

Cotonou, 17 February 1982


Elevate customs and traditions

Evangelization should enlighten, purify and enrich all those customs and traditions which so deeply permeate the soul of your compatriots, in order to draw from them everything that could foster a way of life more in keeping with the Christian faith and more truly human. People must be helped to make a conscientious discernment in this and so, having overcome their hesitations, the faithful will be able to make progress in peace, in developing the best in themselves, with the cultural riches they can and should preserve, while accepting the demands of the Gospel and making the sacrifices it imposes. In this way, Christians will be truly worthy of Christ: the salt will not lose its savour nor the leaven in the mass its power. Their faith will not be weakened by the ambiguities of a dangerous syncretism.


TO FOLLOWERS OF THE VARIOUS RELIGIONS OF TOGO
Togoville, 9 August 1985


Nature oriented towards the Creator

I am very touched that you have come to meet me and to take part in the prayer of the Catholics in this Shrine dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ. I know that you came here to assist at that dedication in 1973, thus recognising Mary's unique place among the friends of God, as mother of his well beloved Son. I encouraged you to come to pray. And I recall that also in 1975 a delegation of some among you came to Rome to greet my predecessor, Pope Paul VI. I thank you for your deferent and trusting step.

Nature, luxuriant and splendid in this place of forests and lakes, imbues minds and hearts with its mystery, and spontaneously directs them towards the Mystery of the one who is the Author of life. It is this religious sentiment that inspires you and that inspires, one might say, the whole of your compatriots. May this sense of the Sacred, which has always characterised the human heart created in the image of God, bring man to desire always to draw closer to this creator God in spirit and in truth, to recognise him, to adore him, to thank him, to seek his will. In this way, their prayer and their moral conduct will be inspired by the Spirit of God himself; their religious sentiments will overcome fear because we believe that God is good, that nature likewise, proceeding from his hands, is good; the fear would come rather from the evil that inhabits man's heart when he turns away from God. But the sense of God in itself can be the stamp of peace, of respect, of confidence, of joyous submission. As for the Christians, Jesus Christ taught them to know God and to pray to him as "Our Father." They believe also that Jesus Christ delivers man from his sins and from eternal death. In him God established a new Covenant which all men secretly desire, which religious men would like to fulfil; the rainbow, between heaven and earth, appeared to them as a symbol of this link between God and man. It is in the name of Jesus Christ, in the name of the Church which he commissioned me to guide, that I present myself among you.

Let us pray, one and all, that God may draw all men, our brethren, towards his Light, and that he may fill them with his blessing.
 


TO REPRESENTATIVES OF THE MUSLIMS OF CAMEROON

Yaoundé, 12 August 1985

African values

Dialogue means reaching, in spite of the obstacles, a mutual trust, so that we can meet to speak and prepare projects together, while respecting the responsibilities and rights of each other. It means being committed to concrete actions for developing our country, for working together to build a society in which the dignity of every person is recognised and respected.

We are all invited to unceasingly rediscover the most beautiful aspects of the traditions of the African peoples. I am pleased to especially stress your African tradition of hospitality, your respect for nature as a gift from God and a sign of his goodness and his presence. Your way of solving conflicts, with dialogue and consensus, the care with which you preserve and develop family values, your joy in life which you express so wonderfully through your poetry, in your dances and in your songs. All these traditional values have their place in the modern world; in fact, they are important as correctives in a society that would, otherwise, often become inhuman, solitary, violent and sterile.
 


TO THE BISHOPS OF ZIMBABWE THEIR "AD LIMINA" VISIT
Rome, 2 July 1988


Evangelization and inculturation

One final word concerning evangelization and inculturation. Recently, the Secretariat for Non-Christians has drawn the attention of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar to the importance of adopting an appropriate pastoral approach to African Traditional Religion, to which also the majority of Zimbabweans adhere. From your own pastoral experience, you are aware of the very delicate nature of this aspect of the Church's apostolate. Evangelization and inculturation are intimately related. Much serious theological reflection is required to determine which values and factors of a particular culture are compatible with life in the new kingdom, the kingdom established by Christ and guided by the Spirit of truth towards fulfilment when Christ who is our life will appear in glory (cf. Col 3:4). On a practical level, the adaptation of the burial and marriage rites in use in your local Churches, for example, shows how the Christian faith can be truly universal and at the same time close to the culture and way of life of each group.

True inculturation is born from within

It would be difficult to find better words to describe the dynamic relationship between the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ and the various expressions of human culture than those of the Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: "The good news... takes the spiritual qualities and endowments of every age and nation, and with supernatural riches it causes them to blossom, as it were, from within; it fortifies, completes and restores them in Christ" (GS 58). A genuine inculturation of faith cannot be reduced to merely adopting the externals of a given culture. True inculturation is from within: it consists, ultimately, in a renewal of life under the influence of grace.

The evangelization of your culture is one of the great tasks which confront you in your ministry.
 


TO THE BISHOPS OF MALI

Bamako, 28 January 1990

Benevolent attention towards the values of traditional religions

In dialogue with those who remain attached to the traditional African religions, encourage a benevolent concern for the values they profess so as to recognise with discernment that which can remain as an integral part of the common good. Collaboration will often be possible and beneficial for the service of society. And, while maintaining an invaluable part of the traditional heritage, Christians will be able to give a clear witness to their own faith in Jesus Christ, in a naturally fraternal dialogue.
 


TO THE BISHOPS OF GAMBIA, LIBERIA AND SIERRA LEONE ON THEIR "AD LIMINA" VISIT

Rome, 9 July 1992

Inculturation of the Christian message

Given the minority situation of the Church in your respective countries where Catholics constitute only about two per cent of the population, the witness and leadership of priests and Religious, mutual harmony and concerted action among the various Church groups and organisations are more than ever necessary. The Liturgy, which is the heart of all the Church's life and dynamism, is also the strongest bonding factor between the members of Christ's Body. You have already done much to ensure the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments in the principal local languages. I hope that you will be able to continue that work, which is essential for a wise and theologically sound inculturation of the Christian message. Your aim in this sphere must be to "evangelise" in depth the culture and traditions of the faithful. The end result of a proper inculturation of the faith is to preserve all that is good and noble in a people's way of life by imbuing and "informing" all significant events and relations with the grace of Christ. Thus, important moments such as birth, the approach of adulthood, courtship and marriage, work sickness and death, the joys and sorrows of family life, and events which affect the whole community, will be marked by the Christian spirit and by the rituals of the Church. The outlook and attitudes of individuals, families and communities will thus become more and more identified with the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and made known, through the Holy Spirit, in every age and to every people (cf. Jn 14:26). Thus too the law of Christ, especially the supreme commandment of love, will clarify moral choices and make possible the freedom which leads to everlasting life (cf. Jn 8:32 and 51).


TO VOODU REPRESENTATIVES OF BENIN

Cotonou, 4 February 1993

The foundations of dialogue

I am happy to have this opportunity to meet you, and I greet you most cordially. As you know, I have come to Benin first of all to visit the Catholic communities, in order to encourage them and confirm them in their faith. However, I have always considered contact with people belonging to different religious traditions an important part of my ministry.

Indeed, the Catholic Church looks favourably upon dialogue: dialogue with Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, dialogue with believers of other spiritual families, and dialogue too with those who profess no religion. She wants to establish positive and constructive relationships with individuals and with the human groups of various faiths in view of a mutual enrichment.

The Second Vatican Council, which mapped out the Church's route for the end of this millennium, recognised that in the diverse religious traditions there is something true and good, the seeds of the Word. It encouraged Christ's disciples to discover "the riches which a generous God has distributed among the nations" (AG 11).

These are the foundations for a fruitful dialogue, as the Apostle Paul declared to the first Christians: "Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Ph 4:8). Everywhere our attitude is one of respect: respect for true values, wherever they may be found; respect especially for the person who seeks to live these values, helping to banish fear.
 

The value of tradition

You have a strong attachment to the traditions handed on by your ancestors. It is legitimate to be grateful to your forebears who passed on this sense of the sacred, belief in a single God who is good, a sense of celebration, esteem for the moral life and for harmony in society.

Your Christian brothers and sisters, like you, appreciate what is beautiful in these traditions because like you, they are sons and daughters of Benin. However, they are equally grateful to their "ancestors in the faith," from the Apostles to the missionaries, who brought them the Gospel. These missionaries let them learn the "Good News" that God is Father and has become close to people through his Son, Jesus Christ, the bearer of a joyful message of liberation.

If we go back further into history, we see that the ancestors of these missionaries who came from Europe had themselves received the Gospel when they already had another religion and a worship. In receiving the message of God, they did not lose anything. On the contrary, they gained by knowing Jesus Christ and, by Baptism, through him they became sons and daughters of the God of Love and Mercy.


APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION, ECCLESIA IN AFRICA

With regard to African traditional religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on the other hand, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which are readily harmonised with the content of the faith. They can even be seen as preparation for the Gospel, because they contain precious semina Verbi which can lead, as already happened in the past, a great number of people "to be open to the fullness of Revelation in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel" .

The adherents of African traditional religion should therefore be treated with great respect and esteem, and all inaccurate and disrespectful language should be avoided. For this purpose, suitable courses in African traditional religion should be given in houses of formation for priests and religious.