Africa has never been more important to the Vatican, at a time when the number of practising Catholics in the developed world continues to decline. The continent is served by some 430 bishops and more than 27,000 priests. Unlike in other parts of the world, there is no shortage here of young men prepared to live a life of celibacy to pass on Catholic doctrine.
The number of African Catholics went up from an estimated two million in 1900 to about 140 million in 2000. However, the growing popularity of evangelical churches in Africa will be a cause of concern at the Vatican. Many people say they are attracted by the more lively, animated services, with modern, rhythmic music, and a promise to heal pain and suffering. One convert to evangelicism said: “When I was little I was baptised Catholic, but then I saw the light and changed position. I prefer to stay in the Evangelical church because there I realised I could see things I was never able to see in the Catholic religion.” However, Islam is also on the rise in Africa. One in three Africans describe themselves as Muslim. Meanwhile, many of those getting ready to welcome the pontiff are urging him to see for himself the real problems – poverty, lack of housing, the effects of the AIDS crisis – and not stick to the sanitised, official tours. Others are upset at how much is being spent on preparations. A shopkeeper in Yaounde said: “The Cameroon budget will go through the roof. Last time, when John Paul the Second was here, we had an economic crisis. We will see the state coffers emptied out again because those who are welcoming the pope are the thieves of the republic.” Church officials say that while the pontiff is only visiting two African countries, his messages will be continent-wide. They say he will also be meeting bishops from every African country.