Women wearing dresses bearing Pope Benedict XVI's portrait tried to climb flagpoles to catch a glimpse of him as he arrived Friday on his second trip to Africa, while security struggled to hold back African nuns trying to reach their hands over the security cordon to touch him.
Africa, where the 84-year-old pope is returning for the first time since his controversial comments on condoms two years ago, is the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic Church. Its rapidly growing congregations and pool of aspiring priests are helping breathe life into a church which has seen a steep decline in the Western Hemisphere.
Several hundred women lined the tarmac awaiting his arrival, each one wearing a traditional block-print dress decorated with his face. Catholics carrying umbrellas printed with a silhouette of the pontiff lined the highway. Even the female anchors presenting the newscast on local television stations traded their usual wardrobe for outfits printed with the pope's likeness.
Benedict's trip is centered on the release of a document which articulates the role of the church in Africa, and which attempts to use the church doctrine of forgiveness to address the continent's chronic wars. It is meant to serve as a pastoral guide for Africa and includes some of the ideas he first touched on in his 2009 trip to Cameroon and Angola.
His message was derailed before his plane even landed, after he told reporters on the flight that condom distribution was worsening the problem of AIDS, setting off a storm of criticism.
This time, reporters traveling with the pope were instructed to submit written questions before the trip, and during the in-flight news conference, the pope steered clear of the touchy issue.
The 87-page document is the pontiff's position paper on a continent that is now seen as central to the church's future, but which also presents a challenge to the conscience of Christians worldwide because of the concentration of human suffering. Among the religious tools he is proposing is a "sacrament of reconciliation" which will use individual and collective acts of forgiveness as a way to try to resolve the region's cycle of violence.
After emerging from the plane, the pope grasped the handrails and slowly descended, his face turned downward against the blazing sun. He took slow steps along the red carpet flanked by Benin's lanky president, who slowed his gait so as not to overtake the pope. When Benedict neared the platform set up for him on the tarmac, an aide rushed to hold back the skirt of his robe so that he didn't trip.
"May this document fall into the ground and take root, grow and bear much fruit," the pope said when he took the microphone, referring to the text which he will sign at a ceremony this weekend.
In preparation for the pope's arrival, parishes throughout the country have tried to impart the principle of reconciliation, using creative techniques to reach the nearly two-thirds of Benin's population of 9 million that cannot read. The capital's seven choirs, for example, were asked to compose songs in local languages to explain through music the importance of getting past ethnic divisions.
At the cathedral, 9-year-old Mael Dossou waited for the pope alongside other pupils from one of the city's Catholic schools. He said his teacher had asked them to look no further than the playground to apply the pope's message.
"For example, there's my friend Muriel," Mael said. "We were horsing around and she insulted me. And I insulted her. From then on, we stopped being friends. But because the pope is coming, I went to her and I asked her to please forgive me. And she did, and now we're friends again."
The pope arrived at the cathedral encased inside the bulletproof glass of the popemobile. Nuns in white habits ululated as the car pulled in, and a frisson went across the hundreds of people gathered in the cathedral's courtyard.
Benedict, who recently started using a moving platform to get down the long aisle of St. Peter's Basilica, entered the cathedral and inched his way down the aisle. In its nave, he kneeled, closed his eyes and prayed for Africa.
"Our Lady of Africa," he said in French. "Fill the hearts of those who thirst for justice, for peace, for reconciliation."
Among the messages he is bringing to the faithful is that they do not need to eradicate their culture to be good Catholics. Based in part on the recommendations of the 2009 synod on Africa, the pope is expected to encourage the in-depth study of local customs, especially rituals used to resolve disputes in a region that has seen Rwanda emerge from genocide, creating neighborhoods where victims live side-by-side with those that murdered their families.
Priests who have traveled from neighboring countries to see the pope say the idea of looking to African traditions shows the Catholic faith has become more supple since colonial times, when becoming Christian meant turning your back on indigenous rites.
Among Cameroon's Bassa people, for example, if a man beats his wife and she returns to her parents' home, the husband can only get her back if he comes with plates of food and negotiates a cash amount to be paid to her kin in reparation, says Cameroonian priest Rev. Jean Benoit Nlend.
"In my seminary, we went around the table and talked about the types of rituals our ancestors performed to fix problems that arose in the society. If you try to destroy these things, you render the people fragile. You take away their moral coordinates," said Nlend, an editor at Cameroon's Episcopalian publication.
"Catholicism is a much more flexible religion now than it once was. The church shouldn't try to chase away African culture," he said. "What it needs to do is act like a sieve, and remove only the things that don't help human beings evolve."
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.