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VATICAN CITY, APR 20, 2002 (VIS) - The bishops of Nigeria were welcomed by
the Holy Father this morning as they complete their quinquennial "ad
limina" visit. As he began his speech in English, the Pope noted that their
"country boasts one of the largest Catholic populations in the whole of
Africa and there is a steady increase in numbers." Moreover, he said "you
are blessed with many vocations to the priesthood and religious life, which
also allow you to send missionaries to other African nations."

"Through your leadership," he stated, "the Church is actively involved in
Nigerian national life, constantly urging solidarity, the exercise of civic
responsibility and the overcoming of tensions and conflict through dialogue
and reconciliation ... as Nigeria continues along the path of transition
from military rule to demo-cratic government."

The Holy Father underscored the problems that plague Nigerian society, as
the bishops outlined them in their reports: "the persistence of widespread
poverty, often extreme, and the spread of moral and ethical indifference,
from which arise crime, corruption and attacks on the sanctity of human
life itself." He stressed the need to give a strong formation to the
faithful through catechesis, Bible study, devout prayer and "a clear
exposition of doctrine as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

A laity that is strengthened in its Catholic identity, he observed, will
be able to "respond to the challenge of playing an active role in public
life, including the political sphere" and will also be "enabled to respond
to the objections raised with increasing frequency by sects and new
religious movements, of which there are many in your country." He urged
them to pay special attention to the formation of children and young people.

Such preparation, the Pope added, will also strengthen the family,
"threatened as it is in its funda-mental aspects of unity and stability by
practices such as polygamy, divorce, abortion and prostitution, by the
spread of a contraceptive mentality and by irresponsible sexual activity
that also increases the incidence of AIDS."

John Paul II then highlighted the bishops' "relationship with other
Churches and Ecclesial Communities," and the need for "dialogue with the
followers of African traditional religion and with Islam."

"Here I must also raise an important issue which I know is a source of
grave concern to you and your people. There are certain parts of the
country where proponents of Islam are acting with ever greater militancy,
even to the point of imposing their understanding of Islamic law on entire
States within the Nigerian Federation and denying other believers the
freedom of religious expression. I strongly encourage and support your
every effort to speak out courageously and forcefully in this regard:
government leaders, both local and federal, as well as people of good will
of all persuasions, must be reminded of the obligation of every government
to ensure that the equality of all citizens before the law is never
violated for religious reasons, whether openly or covertly."

Turning to another matter, the Pope encouraged the bishops "to ensure an
ever more complete and permanent formation for your priests." Stressing
that "the priesthood must never be seen as a means for improving one's lot
in life or in terms of gaining prestige," he said: "Your lives and those of
your priests should reflect an authentic evangelical poverty and detachment
from the things and attitudes of the world, and the value of celibacy as a
complete gift of self to the Lord and his Church must be carefully
safeguarded. Behaviour which might give scandal must be carefully avoided,
and you yourselves must diligently investigate accusations of any such
behaviour, taking firm steps to correct it where it is found to exist. Here
too, seminary formation is very important, for the convictions and
practical training imparted to future priests are essential for the success
of the Church's mission."

"Dear Brothers, Shepherds of God's Holy People," John Paul II concluded,
"it is of the utmost importance that openness, honesty and transparency
should always be the hallmark of everything that the Church does, in all
her spiritual, educational and social undertakings, as well as in every
aspect of her administration."
AL/.../NIGERIA VIS 20020422 (690)

Courtesy of: Vatican Information Service/Catholic Information Network