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                              25 YEARS IN THE FRONT LINES


    With his Chirograph of 1984
(John Paul II, Letter establishing the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel; ORE, p. 1, 20 March 1984) , John Paul II established the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel to deal with the great problem of feeding and developing the African peoples. He entrusted its operation to Bishops from the nine countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal), and established a secretariat in Ouagadougou, Bukina Faso. The Pope also decreed that the Foundation’s legal representative should be the President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. The Dicastery is responsible for administering the Foundation’s capital and funds, most of which are donated by the German faithful and the Italian Bishops’ Conference.

    For 25 years the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel has been actively committed to managing and preserving the region’s natural resources, battling against drought and desertification, fostering rural development and fighting poverty through the active involvement of the local population. The 2009 meeting of the Board of Administration – held in Ouagadougou, from 10 to 16 February – allocated more the US$ 2.2 million for this year’s projects.

    At the Marian Shrine of Yagma in Burkina Faso, a solemn Eucharistic celebration was held on 15 February in thanksgiving for the 25th anniversary of the Foundation at which Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, its first legal representative, was present. Indeed, in April 1984 Pope John Paul II summoned the then Archbishop of Marseilles to Rome to be the third President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum and at the same time the legal representative of the new Papal Foundation for the peoples of the Sahel.

    Cardinal Etchegaray, Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, as President emeritus of Cor Unum, represented his successor, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes at the celebration, as he had been unable to travel to Africa at that time.

    The theme of the pilgrimage was: “With Mary and in the footsteps of St Paul, let us work for human advancement in solidarity”. Concelebrating with the Cardinal were Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Sarr, Archbishop of Dakar, Archbishop Vito Rallo, Apostolic Nuncio in Burkina Faso and Niger, Archbishop Jean-Marie Untaani Compaoré of Ouagadougou, Archbishop Séraphin François Rouamba of Koupéla, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, Bishop Jean-Pierre Bassène of Kolda, President of the Papal Foundation’s Board of Administration, and all the other Prelates of the Sahel. Almost 200 priests were gathered around the altar. During the homily, Cardinal Etchegaray said it was shocking to see the extent to which famine is governed by capricious political events, almost as though one hunger dispelled another. It is also inconceivable that in the world the waste of some thrives on the poverty of others. We must listen to the Virgin who will give us the necessary ideas to combat desertification and hunger.
Cardinal Etchegaray also spoke of the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel as an institution that was still young and a practical example of ecclesial communio. In addition, he underlined one of the Foundation’s specific characteristics: its openness to the different religions of the inhabitants of the countries of the Sahel, which has enabled it to become an instrument and leaven of interreligious dialogue, as well as of human advancement, and a practical response to desertification. The Foundation is a concrete example of how it is possible to inspire hope, the hope of being able to live in the countries of the Sahel without being forced to emigrate.

    An impressive crowd of more than 100,000 faithful attended the solemn celebration which lasted for five and a half hours, and, remarkably, despite the temperature of about 40° centigrade, there were no recorded illnesses. After the celebration, all the authorities, both civil and military, where able to admire the Shrine’s new and spacious church that is to be inaugurated on the Solemnity of the Assumption in 2009.

    The grand event was truly a success. The crowd listened with great interest to the Message that Benedict XVI addressed to Cardinal Etchegaray for the occasion, read by Msgr. Karel Kasteel, the Holy See Observer at the Foundation.

     The event, preceded by celebrations organized in the nine countries of the Sahel, was the crowning point of the celebrations for the 25th anniversary. In Burkina Faso, Mr Blaise Compaoré, President of the Republic, sponsored an evening of solidarity that took place in Ouagadougou in the presence of authorities and important representatives of Burkinabé society. The initiatives were coordinated by Rev. Fulgence Coly, the outgoing Secretary General, who is a member of the clergy of Ziguinchor, Senegal, and by his successor, Fr No(l Samaké, from the Diocese of Bamako, Mali.

Msgr. Karel Kasteel
Secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum
Observer of the Holy See at the John Paul II Foundation for the Sahel

L'Osservatore Romano, English edition [ORE], 18 March 2009, p. 15