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Interview With President of Southern African Bishops Conference

VATICAN CITY, MAY 23, 2005 (Zenit) - The president of the Southern African Bishops' Conference says the answer to solving the problems of the continent will have to come from within.

In this interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, 64, commented on the reaction of Africa to the election of Benedict XVI, and the prospects for a continent that is alive in faith, but plagued by war, poverty and political upheaval.

Q: From your dealings with Benedict XVI as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, what insights can you give us to the character, the man behind the new Pope?

Cardinal Napier: One of the interesting things is that in the past, the nearest dealings I've had with Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, would have been during the synods of bishops. I suppose, in typical African style, as he was one of the top cardinals, we left him, and them, to do the important business, while we went about the little business of giving reports on what was happening in our Churches.

So it was only really during the days of mourning, before the conclave, where one got to see just how the man operates on a very different level. He led the Mass excellently, I thought, at the funeral of the Pope and then, us, the general congregations, as the dean of the College of Cardinals.

He really responded very quickly to any requests or suggestions that were made about how we should actually be handling those congregations.

And I think possibly one of the greatest compliments I heard came from a fellow cardinal after the conclave Mass on Monday who said: "That must have been the most spiritual experience I've had for a long time." It was because of Cardinal Ratzinger's wonderful, gentle, approachable style, I would say.

And I think that during the election, the way he conducted himself was commendable. His name was obviously in the running, but when it was necessary, he got up and read out from the constitution what the next step was going to be, so everyone would have it clear.

I thought it was excellent the way he did it -- he sort of distanced himself from it as if to say -- "I'm doing my job, it's not me, it's just the job that I must do."

Q: Respecting your vow of secrecy, can you tell us anything at all about the atmosphere inside the conclave when Cardinal Ratzinger's name was announced, and was it clear that he had the majority needed?

Cardinal Napier: Someone else asked me a similar question: "What was it like? Were you conscious of the divine or the human?" In response I would say that both were there.

The human was there, and I say that after having sat on many Church electing bodies where you write out a name on a ballot and put it in the ballot box.

But this time it was different. Each time a session began, you went up and called on Jesus Christ to be your witness saying that this is the person I consider to be worthy of election. This brought a very serious element into it, and even though you might have been chatting away while you were waiting for your turn, when you got up there you became very conscious of this element.

When it became clear that the two-thirds majority had been reached, there was spontaneous applause. When it came time to offer our congratulations and pledges of loyalty and support, it was truly touching to see how different people approached the new Pope with sincerity, as well as the sincerity of the Benedict XVI when responding.

This was remarkable -- it was a mixture of humility and conscientiousness of the seriousness of the task that had been just placed upon his shoulders.

Q: You're well aware that before the conclave, many people had hoped, or thought that the time was right, for a new pope to come from the South -- from the developing countries -- where the majority of Catholics are now concentrated. What's your reaction to that?

Cardinal Napier: I think there were two elements that had people voicing that desire. One was that the central balance of gravity has certainly shifted to the South where there are a greater number of Catholics. And I think the second element is the vibrancy of the faith there, as well as the fact that particularly in Africa and South America we still practice the art of celebration.

This is when one expresses what one believes. You don't just simply say it with your mouth, and have it in your mind; rather you actually physically express it.

These, I believe, were two elements that made people believe that perhaps a Pope from the South would be able to generate the same kind of a response in Europe and the West in general.

But, I'm not so sure that there was a realistic expectation that somebody from the South would really emerge as the candidate.

Q: But, do you think the Church is ready for this change? Looking forward, is this something that can perhaps revitalize the faith here in Europe and the West in general?

Cardinal Napier: I think that because of the way Benedict XVI stated his vision in his address to us in the Sistine Chapel the day after his election, he clearly has that in mind.

His choice of the name Benedict, and the reasons he gave for his choice, indicates that he sees a great potential for spirituality in Europe, and a need and desire for it.

We, as a Church, need to respond to that desire -- not simply bemoaning the fact that people are not practicing, [but] by recognizing that the potential is there, and then develop that potential.

Q: How do you think that the Holy Father should best address the issue of the North-South divide? We've heard a lot about it, we know that there is concern with the problems of poverty. But how do you think he should address the challenges that you and other Church leaders in Africa and Latin America are facing?

Cardinal Napier: By continuing the lead of John Paul II. I speak from the South African experience, and it was quite clear that the Church here had to take a "political stand" on the situation of apartheid.

When we came for our five-yearly visit in 1992, and perhaps 1987 as well, he stated quite clearly to us that when it came to questions of justice, the Church had to take a stand.

We felt affirmed in the positions that we had been taking then, and I think this was and is an important message that I believe Benedict XVI will take up as well -- making sure to confirm "his brothers in the faith," as the expression goes, in their leadership of the Church in those areas.

I think that the Holy See has already given very clear indications as to how developed countries should treat developing ones, especially in the question of the cancellation of debt, which the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has clearly addressed.

Q: The Church has certainly given very strong leadership, yet it hasn't really brought the desired results. Or has it?

Cardinal Napier: I think that we also need, ourselves, in Africa, Latin America, Asia and so on, to develop our own positions.

I don't think we can remain saying, "Salvation comes from the North." I think it has to come from ourselves. Going back to Paul VI when he visited Africa, he said: "You must be missionaries to yourselves."

I think we have to be leaders to ourselves as well. If people are disappointed that no strong candidate emerged enough to even have a realistic chance, I would say, of being the pope from the South, I think we've got to look at ourselves [and] ask if we are developing the kind of leadership that would make an impact on the rest of the Church.

Are we working to the extent that prior to entering a conclave, others would say, "There's a good candidate"?

Q: Finally, you're heading back to your country just after the inauguration. What feelings will you take back to your people about this pontificate?

Cardinal Napier: I would say that the inauguration began with the announcement. It brought tears to the eyes to just hear that enthusiastic, fantastic response from the crowd in St. Peter's Square.

First of all, I haven't seen a crowd as large as that since the one I saw when I attended the beatification of the founder of Opus Dei in 1992. At that time we saw the line down Via della Conciliazione and thought it was huge. It was even beyond that this time, and appeared within a matter of 30 minutes! That moment was phenomenal. So I think that the first message I'm bringing back is how, once the man has been chosen, the Church unites behind him and with him.

The second part of the message would be that when I went up to congratulate him, I pledged my own loyalty, and then the support of the Church in South Africa. His response when I said "Congratulations and thanks for accepting" was "Please pray for me and support me."

I said: "That's exactly what I've come to do. To say just that." I think that story shares a clear message.

The third element I think is that we mustn't listen to what the media regarding the job he had, but rather turn now to what his current job, and get to know the person in this new role of leading us in the place of Christ.

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Keywords

Napier, Benedict, Justice, Faith, Africa, War

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