Yamoussoukro – On the day Pope Benedict XVI gave his final weekly address, Catholics who came to pray at Yamoussoukro's Our Lady of Peace Basilica had no problem finding a seat.
The basilica is one of the largest churches in the world – larger even than St Peter's in the Vatican. The sanctuary alone seats 7 000, and the entire space can accommodate 150 000 people standing.
As the number of regular churchgoers drops in Europe and the United States, the number of faithful in Africa has risen dramatically, greater here than anywhere else in 50 years.
In Africa, between 1978 and 2007, the number of Catholics grew from 55 million to 146 million, according to the Vatican.
A recent study by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show the continent's Catholic population at more than 175 million.
“(Previous popes have) seen a church that is incredibly vivacious and lively and exciting which is what I think some popes have certainly lamented about the decline of the church in Europe and the rise of secularism,” said Mark Faulkner, a senior teaching fellow at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
“They see the opposite in Africa where they do see a very vibrant Christian community.”
Which is one reason why for the first time in memory a cardinal from Africa (was) a serious consideration for pope.
Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson (64) is the head of the Vatican's Peace and Justice Office. He helped calm his flock following contested Ghanaian elections, is known for his efforts to alleviate poverty and kept to the church's teachings that faithful relationships and not encouraging condom use is the moral way to end Africa's AIDS epidemic.
Benedict called Africa “an immense spiritual lung” for humanity, naming a higher percentage of Africans as cardinals than his predecessors.
He went to Cameroon and Angola in 2009 and to Benin in 2011, at age 84. His retirement became official on February 28.
There are many reasons why black Africans have been attracted to the Catholic faith. One is the stand the church takes on modern issues.
The Catholic Church's values “are in accordance with what might be called African values,” including when it comes to social issues such as homosexuality and contraception, says Paul Gifford, the author of multiple books on Christianity in Africa.
But Gifford, who is based in Senegal, says there is an even stronger reason for the church's popularity, which is rooted in its tradition of justice for the poor.
The church has tens of thousands of schools across the continent, he says, that provide free education and religious instruction.
In several African nations, half of the population is Catholic and the church is perhaps the biggest non-government aid agency.
Continent-wide, the church runs 55 000 schools and 20 universities that provide degrees for hundreds of thousands of Africans who would have little chance at an education otherwise.
When some African leaders were refusing to acknowledge that AIDS existed their countries, or refused to treat the disease, the missionaries and nuns of the Catholic Church were moving through the most impoverished regions of the continent providing medical treatment and pastoral uplift.
Gifford says anecdotal evidence suggests the Roman Catholic Church provides half of the continent's AIDS care.
All of the assistance provided by the church is generally available to the entire population – not just Catholics.
Gifford said this burnished the church's reputation for developing Africa.
“Anywhere you go, the hospitals aren't just for Catholics, the schools aren't just for Catholics – they are a serious contribution to the nation,” he said. “And people see that, respect that and really like that.”
Faulkner attributes the church's growth in Africa partly to demographics as well.
“I think it's less to do now with adult conversions and more to do with the increase in the church based on families reproducing,” he said.
He agreed though that the church's schools and hospitals “often have a very good name, taking people into the orbit of the mission of the parish.”
In Cote d’Ivoire alone, as many as five million of the nation's 17 million people are Catholic.
As in other African nations, the church gained converts at the expense of Muslim faiths and indigenous belief systems such as voodooism or animism, in which spirits are believed to inhabit objects in nature.
In his prayer consecrating the Yamoussoukro Basilica in 1990, Pope John Paul II said, “Allow the faithful of Ivory Coast to be tireless peacemakers, in union with their brothers and sisters in this land and throughout the continent.”
Still, the case of Ivory Coast shows how the narrative of continued Catholic growth in Africa does not apply everywhere. Church leaders in the commercial capital of Abidjan say national membership has declined in the past decade, with a considerable number converting to Protestant denominations, especially evangelical faiths.
Some say the church may have lost converts because of the way some church members were involved in strife and violence.
In Rwanda in the 1990s, a handful of Hutu Catholic and Protestant church members, including priests and nuns, had roles in massacres in which Hutus killed more than a half-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a genocide orchestrated by the Hutu government.
In Cote d’Ivoire, Jean-Parfait Yapo, a priest at St Paul's Cathedral in Abidjan, said the church provided extensive humanitarian services to victims of the political violence in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 but did not stand up to the perpetrators of the violence.
“Many people accused us of being silent,” Yapo said. “And they thought this meant that we were being partisan.” Cote d’Ivoire is not the only African country to lose members to Protestant faiths. Faulkner said the Catholic Church's continentwide growth figures masked significant variation among different African countries.
“It hasn't grown everywhere,” he said.
In Kenya, Faulkner said, the Catholic Church gained credibility for standing up to former president Daniel Arap Moi, whose regime became notorious for human rights abuses during his 24-year reign that ended in 2002.
Although the Church's role in Cote d’Ivoire’s recent crisis was less dramatic, it nonetheless amounted to something of a black eye for the institution, he said.
Yapo stressed that today the Church was committed to working toward reconciliation.
As for the possibility of a black pope, Ivorian Catholics express only casual interest in the idea, saying it would have little bearing on their relationship with the church.
“It's the choice of God whether there will be an African pope,” said Adeline Affoue (30) at the end of a weekday service at St Paul's in Abidjan.
“We will pray for an African pope if one is chosen. But as long as the pope works for the will of God, it is not of great importance whether he is black or white.” – USA TODAY