The WYD Cross in Africa for the first time

The WYD Cross in Africa for the first timeSeptember 2006: In Saint Peter's Square on 9 April 2006, a large crowd celebrated Palm Sunday with Pope Benedict XVI. At the end of Mass, in the presence of the Holy Father, there was the traditional handover of the WYD Cross and Icon of Our Lady Salus Populi Romani. The young Germans, hosts of WYD 2005 in Cologne, handed the Cross over to their peers from Australia who will host WYD in Sydney in July 2008.

The Pope then announced that next February the Cross would commence its pilgrimage around Oceania in preparation for WYD 2008, and that until then the Cross would make "stops in some countries of Africa to manifest Christ's closeness and that of his Mother to the people of that Continent, tried by great suffering" (Benedict XVI, Angelus, 9 April 2006). Perhaps this continent has more need than any other for the hope that the Cross can bring and the consolation that the Mother of the Saviour can bestow. Until now Africa has not been on the pilgrim route of the Cross that started twenty-two years ago.

In 2005, the Pontifical Council for the Laity presented the idea of the pilgrimage of the Cross and Icon around Africa to the bishops' conferences of the continent. Many of them responded enthusiastically. Of course, Africa is huge and the time available for the pilgrimage is limited. Some countries, for political and social-economic reasons, are not in a position to welcome the Cross this time. However, there are twenty countries involved in the pilgrimage going from west to south and then through the centre to the east: Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar.

Immediately after the handover ceremony between the young Germans and Australians on Palm Sunday, the Cross and Icon left for Dakar to start the first stage in Africa. The Church in Senegal gave them a festive welcome. Christians in that country are a minority, and the young Senegalese took to heart the words inscribed on the Cross which were addressed to young people by Pope John Paul II on 22 April 1984 when he entrusted them with the Cross:

"... proclaim to everyone that only in the death and resurrection of Christ can we find salvation and redemption".

These young people were not discouraged by distance or the burning sun, but they proclaimed the message of redemption with fervour by taking part in the Holy Week ceremonies that included a six-kilometre Way of the Cross. Huge crowds attended the prayer vigils and the popular devotions that accompanied this pilgrimage. There were so many that some Muslims decided to join the processions.

Another significant moment of the pilgrimage was when the Cross and Icon were handed over to the diocese of Ziguinchor. The Church in Senegal gave this symbol of hope and peace to that region that has suffered from twenty years of rebellion. The young people there were commissioned to become a "non-violent generation". In response, they set out on a "march of peace" that brought the Cross and Icon all around the diocese, and then to Guinea Bissau and Gambia.

From 19 May to 11 June the pilgrimage proceeded to Ghana. Here as in Senegal, the Cross and Icon had a most unexpected success among the people, Christian and otherwise. Many had responded with curiosity and enthusiasm to this unique event. They welcomed these symbols with faith, for they were close to the people, travelling in open trucks through the duty streets of the towns, villages and countryside of Ghana. The programmed schedule could not be kept because of the great crowds. They waited patiently in line to touch and pray at these sacred objects. On other occasions the people, on hearing the bells and drums announcing the arrival of the Cross and Icon to their village, ran out into the street to welcome and touch it, and so held up the journey. As the Cross concluded its pilgrimage in that country, the word "thank you" was on everyone's lips.

On 12 June, the handover of the Cross and Icon from Ghana to Togo took place at the border in a very emotional ceremony. As in the previous stages, the whole Church was represented in welcoming the Youth Cross and the Icon of Our Lady. There were lay people and religious, missionaries and bishops. As we write, this pilgrimage is underway. From what we hear, the entire nation is involved in night vigils, and the churches are filled for Mass in the presence of the Cross and Icon.

Beyond the singing and dancing that line the road followed by the Cross and Icon, the pilgrimage is giving the Church in these countries an opportunity to give a catechesis on the significance of the Cross in Christian life and the important of devotion to Our Lady in the Church. We have seen so many wonderful fruits already.

September 2006 - Written for the Pontifical Council for the Laity News

The WYD Cross and Icon continue on their journey around Africa

The WYD Cross and Icon continue on their journey around AfricaJanuary 2007: The African pilgrimage of the World Youth Day Cross and the Icon of Our Lady that started in Senegal on 12 April reached Tanzania on 28 November.

In our last report, we gave a brief summary of the itinerary of the Cross and Icon in Africa until they arrived in Togo. There they travelled around the seven dioceses and the faithful took part in the ceremonies with much spiritual fervour. Jesus Christ, the crucified Lord, imbued hope and steadfastness into the hearts of those people who are undergoing the difficulties inflicted on their country at the political, economic and social levels. According to the Archbishop of Lomé, Most Reverend Philippe Kpodzro, what they most hope for from this pilgrimage is that "Christ may take root in our hearts, our culture, our traditions, our society... so that all Togolese may regard each other as brothers and sisters and learn to live in harmony."

This wish for a mature faith was shared by the pastors of the Church in Burkina Faso which hosted the pilgrimage from 30 June until 7 August. The Cross and Icon arrived at the parish of Cinkansé at the border with Togo, and then proceeded to the capital Ouagadougou on 3 July to be met by a large crowd in traditional dress. They were present at the 3rd National Youth Day held in the town of Fada N'Gourma from 4 to 6 August where thousands of young people gathered from the neighbouring countries of Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger and Togo. This was the high point of the pilgrimage in Burkina Faso, and the young people were invited to reflect on the theme, "Young Catholics, builders of peace". They undertook the commitment to be builders of peace, living stones of their "Church-Family", in order to overcome the tensions prevalent in their region in recent years.

On 8 August the Cross and Icon went to Cameroon and remained there until 28 August. A huge crowd of young people were unperturbed by the lashing rain as they waited in Douala airport in the middle of the night. In a country with many social problems and the rapid spread of religious sects, the bishops of Cameroon took advantage of the journey of the Cross and Icon to carry out itinerant catechesis for the multitudes in order to remind people that Jesus Christ is our only Redeemer and that through Him we find salvation if we are willing to allow our hearts to be converted. They entrusted these efforts of the Church to the Mother of God and invited young people to accept her as their role model and source of consolation.

On 28 August, the Cross and Icon were received by Gabon, a country undergoing similar difficulties. The redeeming presence of the Cross of Christ was a source of encouragement to carry on without fear. Those who participated in the pilgrimage were reminded of the importance of accepting the Cross in their daily lives. They have to carry it with them, for it is the only way to the resurrection. It is the source of life and salvation, a sign that we belong to Christ. On 7 September, the organisers took the Cross and Icon to Libreville gaol so that the prisoners could experience the closeness of Christ and his Mother.

On 18 September, the Cross and Icon arrived in Congo-Brazzaville. Travel in the country was difficult due to damaged road surfaces, but the armed forces placed a helicopter at the service of the Cross and Icon so that they could get to places not yet reached by "progress". Yet again young people converged in their masses, and they were joined by all the Church community. There were times of adoration, and many young people received the sacrament of reconciliation. The speakers who gave thoughts for reflection pointed out that the paramount freedom given by God is very different from the individualistic kind that is promoted by today's society which leaves little room for the time-honoured African tradition of acceptance of others. The Church community gathered around the Cross and Icon and meditated on the essence of real happiness: to be poor to oneself in order to be a gift to others.

The Cross and Icon went from Congo to Burundi, but not without difficulty. They were expected on 9 October, but arrived two weeks later because of difficulties with flights. On 9 October there was a large crowd anxiously waiting in Bujumbura for what was expected to be the largest gathering ever seen in Burundi. Thanks to the long and careful preparation of the young people and the help of all the mass media that covered the event and the preparatory catechesis, a huge number of people decided to join the pilgrimage. The delay only served to increase their expectation. Many young people in Burundi knew about these symbols through the DVD and album "John Paul II and the WYD Cross". In Burundi, the war and its devastating effects were tearing the social fabric apart, a troubled situation with roots in the distant past. The pilgrimage was a providential opportunity to develop the theme for reflection proposed by the Bishops' Conference for the Synod (2005-2010) of the Church in Burundi: "Peace and Reconciliation". On 13 October, during the course of a ceremony in honour of the Cross and Icon, in the presence of the highest dignitaries in the State, the Bishop of Bujumbura, Most Reverend Evariste Ngoyagoye, asked for forgiveness for all the evil that had been committed in the country. This gesture opened the way for a large number of events in which Christians from other confessions joined in the ceremonies with the Catholics in order to praise the one Saviour Jesus Christ. The Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, summed up this spiritual adventure in the following words: "The visit of the Cross has done the Catholic Church a lot of good, particularly in relation to the other religious confessions. They did not think that Catholics were still able to manifest their faith in such a way and in such numbers. We could say without exaggeration that in just a few days the Cross has renewed the faith of countless Catholics and reinforced confidence in the Church as a living institution."

Rwanda, like Burundi, a country emerging from a recent war situation, hosted the Cross and Icon for three weeks from 2 November. The people there welcomed them in the hope that they would sustain and encourage a progressive return to peace. It was not by chance that one of the first events was a procession at the genocide memorial in Kiziguru. During the ceremony the youth were asked to remember all those innocent lives lost during that tragic period of human history, and to have the courage to cry out: "Never again!". It was a piercing cry, shouted with all the force and directness with which young people are capable, in a community ceremony at the centre of which the Cross of Christ stood as a powerful sign of forgiveness. The young people also wanted to contribute to the birth of a new Rwanda with concrete actions, and they do this by helping to build houses for genocide widows. Another important stage in the pilgrimage of the Cross and Icon in Rwanda was undoubtedly the 5th National Youth Forum (22-26 November 2006). Participants also included many young people from Congo DCR and Burundi. The significance of this meeting did not go unnoticed. The young people participating side by side at the gathering all came from a region sadly stricken by the scourge of hatred and ethnic wars. We can understand the hope expressed by Bishop Philippe Rukamba of Butare when he said that this occasion could prove to be a hotbed of peace and a school of fellowship and love.

January 2007 - Written for the Pontifical Council for the Laity News