By Elise Harris
The Holy See and the Republic of Benin have signed an agreement formally recognizing the legal status of the Catholic Church in the country, guaranteeing the Church’s ability to carry out her mission in service of the common good.
Representatives from both the Holy See and the Republic of Benin gathered at the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation in Cotonou, the African country’s largest city, Friday, Oct. 21, to seal the deal.
Called the “Framework Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Benin relating to the Legal Status of the Catholic Church in Benin,” the accord was signed by Archbishop Brian Udaigwe, nuncio to Benin, on the part of the Holy See, and on behalf of the Republic of Benin, Mr. Aurélien Agbenonci, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
According to an Oct. 22 Vatican communique, the agreement consists of a preamble and 19 articles, and “guarantees the Church the ability to carry out its mission in Benin.”
“In particular, the legal status of the Church and its institutions is recognized,” it said, explaining that the two parties, “while safeguarding the independence and autonomy proper to them,” are committed “to work together for the moral, spiritual and material well-being of the human person and for the promotion of the common good.”
Several representatives from each side were present for the signing of the agreement.
Attendees from the Holy See included: Bishop Eugène Houndékon of Abomey, Vice President of the Benin Bishop’s Conference; Bishop François Gnonhossou of Dassa-Zoumé; Bishop Aristide Gonsallo of Porto-Novo; Fr. Paschal Guezodje, Secretary General for the Bishop’s Conference of Benin; Fr. Axel Chékété, Assistant Secretary General and Fr. Emmanuel Michodjehoun, a local collaborator with the apostolic nunciature.
Among the representatives from Benin were: Mr. Eric Franck Saïzonou, Director of Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation; Mr. William Comlan, Director of the Cabinet; Mr. Saturnin Tonoukouin, Director of State Protocol; Mr. Bienvenu Houngbédji, Adjunct-Director of Legal Affairs; Ms. Nelly Awouilihoua, Technical Advisor and Mr. Ghislain Agbozo, Special Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
St. John Paul II visited Benin in 1982. The most recent Pope to travel to the African nation was Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, when he made an official Nov. 18-20 visit to Cotonou.
Benedict made the trip in large part to deliver his Apostolic Exhortation about the future of Christianity on the continent, “Africae Munus” (The Commitment of Africa), which was written in response to the conclusions of the 2009 Synod of African Bishops in Rome.
Another motivation for the voyage was to visit the tomb of his late friend, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, a prominent Beninese cardinal who served as Archbishop of Cotonou for several years before coming to the Vatican as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The cardinal also served as head of the Congregation for Bishops and later as Dean of the College of Cardinals before his death in 2008. In addition to Benedict XVI, Cardinal Gantin was a close friend of Popes St. John XXIII, Bl. Paul VI and St. John Paul II.
Benedict’s 2011 visit to Benin also marked the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Catholic missionaries in the country.
In his Nov. 23 general audience after the visit, Benedict said that “in Africa I saw a freshness in the ‘yes’ to life, a freshness of religious meaning and hope, a holistic vision of reality where God is not confined to that positivist perspective which, in the final analysis, extinguishes all hope.”
“This tells us that the continent is a reservoir of life and vitality for the future upon which we can rely, upon which the Church can rely.”