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35 years ago, Pope John Paul II asked pardon for slave trade

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Polish Pontiff John Paul II (1920-2005), nicknamed “The Pilgrim Pope”, made 104 foreign trips to 129 countries, including Muslim nations like Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Tunisia and Turkey – more than all of his predecessors combined.

During his 12-day journey through Africa in summer 1985, number 27 on this impressive list, he went to Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known between 1971 and 1997), Kenya and Morocco.

On August 14th, 1985 the Pope visited Douala, Cameroon’s main port and financial center. He took the chance to apologize to black Africa for the involvement of white Christians in the slavery: ”We ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in Blacks. The task of Christians involved ”healing and compassion” because ”the man who is in need, on the side of the road, is their brother, their neighbor.” On the other hand, John Paul II made it clear that these failures didn’t invalidate the Christian message itself. ”The Gospel,” he said, ”remains a call without equivocation.”

As an essential part of a broad effort to cast Christianity as a universal faith and not just an import to Africa from Europe, his sincere apology underlined the vital importance of integrating the Christian message with African culture.

He also emphasized the role of Africa’s Roman Catholics in carrying their faith to non-Catholic Africans in what he optimistically described as ”the second evangelization.”

Obviously, John Paul II saw the future of Catholicism as lying in the Third World and therefore on this occasion repeated his support for a Church that is ”fully Christian and fully African.”

Considering the quickly accelerating Dechristianization of Europe in the last decades, those statements were indeed realistic. Seeking forgiveness from those that were supposed to effectively carry the message of Christ was only consistent with his strong belief that the Catholic Church had to refocus its traditional missionary strategy.

Finally, it also worked the other way round: on September 13th, 2002 Ghanaian Archbishop Charles Gabriel Palmer-Buckle issued an apology on behalf of Africans for the part they had played themselves in the slave trade. It was accepted by Bishop John Huston Ricard from the Diocese of Pensacola–Tallahassee in Florida, who is of creole descent.

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