With this act John Paul II will brings the number of members of the College of Cardinals to 184, of whom 135 are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave for a pope. In view of the event, the Vatican news agency Fides spoke with the dean of the college, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin.
Cardinal Gantin, 78, was born in Cotonou, Benin. He was the first African cardinal to head a Vatican department. Last month he was sent as the Pope’s special envoy to preside centenary celebrations of the Church in Burkina Faso.
Q: Your Eminence, what is a cardinal? Why were you called from Africa to Rome?
Cardinal Gantin: One of the most important and wise things which made the Second Vatican Council so great was that it served to eliminate completely the cult of the person, by putting all the emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ.
This is the service to which we are called, wherever we are. Jesus Christ is the meaning of our mission, the meaning of our vocation. Alone I would be nothing.
I was called to Rome 30 years ago. When the Pope speaks, it is Christ who speaks. The missionaries, who have worked in my homeland for more than 100 years now, said yes and they came from many different countries. In their different countries they said yes to the Pope and to Christ and they set out to bring us the Gospel.
When the Pope asked an African to come on mission to Rome, could he be refused? I accepted to be of service and out of obedience to the Pope and to Christ. I said yes following the example of the first missionaries who accepted to come to us to evangelize our land.
For me, to be a cardinal is not something of which I can boast, or of which my country can boast. It is simply a sign of the universality of the Church, the Catholicity of the Church. And this is what counts for me.
Q: Looking from Rome, how do you see the African Church today? What does Africa need most?
Cardinal Gantin: It is enough to take a look at Africa as a whole, the situations, geographical, social, economic, political, cultural, to see the needs of the Church in Africa and Africa itself: above all, peace. Without peace, there can be nothing, no progress, no development.
This is why when Christ was born the angels announced “peace on earth to people of good will.” Unless we are people of good will, that is unless we believe that God is Lord, God is goodness, then we will never make progress.
Secondly, Africa needs unity. In Europe there is much talk of Protestants, Orthodox, Baptists, sects that speak of Jesus Christ. But which Jesus Christ?
Today we must find ourselves once again in Christ and eliminate all the secondary unimportant things that separate us and prevent us from reaching the fundamental values of our Christian identity, vocation, maturity.
If we focus on things of the past, such as the ambiguous heritage of colonization, things which bear no fruit, this will not help Africa. African people are religious, and our readiness to believe enables us to recognize a transcendent Being to whom we can refer in order to be authentic persons.
Then there is our service: Each one is called to serve the others, and we are all in the service of God. We must allow God’s plan to transform our lives. Today people are looking at us, other cultures are watching us. Faith in Christ must make us like him; it must give us the strength to live and share with others the values he gave us with his Gospel.
Q: What place have the laity in the Church?
Cardinal Gantin: St. Augustine, Africa’s greatest bishop, tells us: We Christians must be an important element in society, in the family.
We are bishops and priests for others. A man does not become a priest for his own satisfaction. The priest exists because there is a people of God, a family, a community to serve. We are at the service of the People of God. If there were no communities there would be no need for bishops either.
The People of God is the people of believers: This name is an honor, because it means a people with faith. These are the laity. If there were no lay fathers, no lay mothers, no lay brothers and sisters, there would be no priests.
It is from this family that the priestly vocation is born, a vocation which is a calling, and does not mean the person is more worthy. The laity must not feel inferior, but neither must they aspire to perform the duties of the priest. Each person has his or her own place, like in a piece of music. Each knows that his or her specific responsibilities are different but complementary to the duties of others.