Pope Benedict XVI leaves this week on his first trip to Africa — the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic church — saying Sunday that he wants to bring a message of hope to a continent suffering from poverty, disease and armed conflict.
The German-born pope, who has mainly visited the affluent West during his nearly four-year papacy, departs Tuesday on a seven-day pilgrimage that will take him to Cameroon and Angola.
"With this visit I aim to ideally embrace the entire African continent," he told pilgrims and tourists during his weekly blessing in St. Peter's Square.
The Catholic Church experienced extraordinary growth in Africa over the past century — it now counts nearly 20 percent of the continent's population — helped by Pope John Paul II's visits to 42 countries.
Major challenges and opportunities
For Benedict, whose only previous stop in Africa was in Kinshasa in 1987 as a cardinal, the continent presents major challenges and opportunities.
He is expected to address them in meetings with Muslim representatives, bishops, health workers and women's advocacy groups.
He also will meet with political leaders in the two countries, both accused of corrupt use of oil revenues that enrich a small elite while most of their people are impoverished.
Africa produces priests at a higher rate than anywhere in the world but finds itself in competition with Islam in Cameroon, Nigeria and elsewhere, while evangelical churches are winning over young people much as they are doing in Latin America, once a bastion of Catholicism.
Some priests and nuns working with victims of the AIDS pandemic ravaging the continent are questioning the church's opposition to condoms. Celibacy required of Roman Catholic priests is a challenge on a continent where many cultures consider men boys until they have fathered children.
In his remarks Sunday, Benedict cited Africa's "thousand differences and deep religious soul, its ancient cultures and its difficult path of development and reconciliation, its grave problems, painful wounds and enormous potential and hopes."
Wants to invigorate church in Africa
Benedict said he wants to invigorate the growing church in Africa.
"I intend to confirm Catholics in their faith," he said, and "proclaim the peace entrusted to the Church" by Jesus.
Benedict said that as he sets out for Africa, he has in mind "the victims of hunger, disease, injustice, fratricidal conflicts and every form of violence which unfortunately continue to afflict adults and children, without sparing missionaries" and volunteers working on the continent.
The Rev. Rodney Moss, the head of St. Augustine College, South Africa's only Catholic university, said the pope would spend most of his time listening, not preaching "then offer words of encouragement, perhaps offer some suggestions."
"I understand he may also address certain issues, including corruption ... but he would speak in generalities, not address specific charges."
"In Africa, where there is so much want, so much deprivation, the faith is strong because people know that they need the grace of God. ... Our need for God is very, very essential, and I think our need becomes greater when we have very little," Moss said.
Vatican encourages abstinence
Benedict has never spoken explicitly on condom use, but in a 2005 address to African bishops he said the church was in the forefront in efforts to treat the victims of AIDS. The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence to fight spread of the disease.
The issue could come up during one of the major events of the trip, an open-air Mass for young people in a soccer stadium in Angola on the second leg of the trip.
The trip will be Benedict's 11th foreign pilgrimage as pope. He also is planning to visit Jordan and Israel in May.