This year Benin is celebrating the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of the lasting establishment of the Church in its land, then Kingdom of Dahomey. In 2021, it is the challenge of syncretism and sects that the Church has to face in the country.
“April 18, Thursday. In the morning, we move up a little to the North to discover the land. …
Around noon, we arrive in front of the Whydah (Ouidah) trading post. […] We receive hospitality there until we can find a facility to establish the mission there.”
It is with these few lines, hastily recorded in his diary, Fr. Francesco Borghero, religious of the Society of African Missions (SMA), describes the establishment of the Church in Dahomey.
The priest, originally from Genoa, Italy, joined the SMA in 1858, on the occasion of a chance meeting with its founder, Msgr. Melchior de Marion-Brésillac.
Disembarked to Ouidah on April 18, the 31-year-old missionary had been preparing his meeting with King Glélé for weeks: “I have clearly set the following conditions,” he wrote in his diary:
1) not to be forced by the King to do any act that was contrary to my religious beliefs;
2) that in all the places of the city through which I should have to pass in solemn procession,... should be removed or covered,... all kinds of idols, fetishes, or any other object of superstition;
3) that I will not attend any ceremony in which someone’s life has been sacrificed and that no one be killed in my honor.”
This is far from post-conciliar ecumenism. And yet, the king accepts the demands of his host without flinching. At the end of the audience, he himself escorts the missionary outside his palace: unheard of with a stranger. And the kingdom opens up to the gospel.
During the four years of his presence in the Vicariate of Dahomey, Fr. Borghero traveled a lot: from Liberia to Fernando-Po Island. He proposed to found Christian communities in which special care would be given to teaching.
Thus, on February 10, 1862, less than a year after his arrival, the missionary, helped by Fr. Francesco Fernandez, in the Portuguese fort of Ouidah, founded the first Catholic school in Dahomey. Its goal: to work for the formation of an indigenous elite.
These efforts would pay off, for 160 years later, the Catholic Church in Benin represents just over 25% of the population, manages 523 establishments including 113 nursery schools, 266 primary schools, 138 colleges and high schools, 5 universities, and a normal school dedicated to the training of future teachers.
An excellence that cannot be denied over time. During the 2018 baccalaureate, the first five laureates in the national ranking came exclusively from Catholic schools.
But in the 21st century, Benin faces a new danger: the invasion of sects of all kinds. “The great challenge that the Church in Benin will have to take up today is in-depth evangelization,” notes Constant Ehoumi.
This Catholic journalist warns about “rampant syncretism,” which is spreading in the country. “Without being called or forced, Catholics at night chase after actors of endogenous religions or sects, in search of occult powers, money or well-being,” he explains.
To regain the evangelizing breath of the 19th century, we must remember the advice of Fr. Borghero. At the beginning of his journal, he details the qualities with which the authentic missionary should be invested.
“A missionary must first of all have the spirit of the Apostles, the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ to a heroic degree, the ardent desire to propagate the Church among all peoples. This is its main heritage. But in order to use it well among men, and especially among barbarian peoples, it still needs those human means which depend on the exterior life.”
“Consequently, in addition to the sacred studies proper to the ecclesiastical state, the missionary, launched into the midst of peoples even more morally distant than physically in any civilization, finds himself with the necessity of knowing a certain number of languages, of possessing the basic notions of astronomy, geography, architecture, medicine, and minor surgery, agriculture and even knowing how to use one's hands to be a carpenter, blacksmith, and tailor if necessary.”
“Not to mention that he needs more than anyone else to be hardened by the fatigue of walking, to the heat of the sun, the severity of the cold, and knowing how to find food in the simplest things, to be content with little, to be able to sleep in the rough, on the ground, and under the open sky when the circumstances require it.”
A description that undoubtedly reflects the author of these lines and his overflowing love for Christ and the souls he conquered.