Bernardin Gantin, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was the highest-ranking black African in the modern era of his church before his death in 2008. For nearly two decades he served as dean of the College of Cardinals, the body that meets upon the death of a pope to choose his successor. He was a close friend and colleague of Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff who led the world's Roman Catholics from 1978 to 2005, and Gantin's rise owed much to the pope's vision for the church in the twenty-first century. "Along with the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who headed Vatican work on interreligious dialogue," noted Peter Stanford in the Guardian, Gantin "was a potent symbol of John Paul II's determination to break the European stranglehold on the College of Cardinals."
The son of a railway worker, Gantin was born in 1922 in Benin, the West African nation known as Dahomey prior to 1975. At the time of his birth, his homeland was a colony of France, and Benin's European masters left a distinct religious and cultural imprint, including a staunch Roman Catholicism, that remained long after it was granted independence in 1960. Gantin entered a seminary at the age of fourteen, and was ordained a priest on January 14, 1951, a few months before his twenty-ninth birthday. His earliest years as a priest included assignments as a teacher of languages and a village pastor. In 1953 he departed Africa for Rome to study theology and canon law at two Catholic institutions—Pontifical Urban University and Pontifical Lateran University, both located in the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. He earned an advanced degree in theology and canon law.
Gantin was consecrated as titular bishop of Tipasa of Mauritania, a North African country, and auxiliary bishop of Cotonou in Benin in 1957, making him one of the youngest bishops in the church at the time. In January of 1960 Pope John XXIII made him the newest archbishop of Cotonou, the newly independent Benin's largest city, and over the next several years Gantin emerged as a leader among Africa's Catholic clergy. According to Stanford writing in the Guardian, Gantin's efforts "in building schools, encouraging local vocations and enabling indigenous nuns to set up healthcare projects won him a national reputation, but also brought him into conflict with turbulent politicians in his homeland."
In 1969 Pope Paul VI made a historic papal visit to Africa and met Gantin for the first time. The political turmoil in Benin continued, and with his bishop's safety in mind the pope summoned him to Rome in 1971. Gantin was appointed the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the division of the Church that oversees all missionary work. Two years later, in 1973, he was made secretary of the department. In June of 1977 Paul VI made Gantin a cardinal, the second-highest rank in the Church. With that appointment came a new role as head of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, a job whose duties included representing the Vatican at United Nations meetings. Gantin was the first black African in the modern era to hold a position of such authority in the Church.
Paul VI died in 1978, and journalists who gathered in Rome for the funeral and the subsequent election of a new pope reported on rumors that Gantin was among the "papabili," the handful of likely contenders to succeed the pope. Interviewed by a correspondent for the Times,, Gantin noted that Paul VI had made great strides in bringing Africans and others from the developing world into the Church, but declined to speculate any further. "We shall let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit," the Times quoted him as saying. "What counts is not the contribution of a single continent or of a culture, but the universal spirit which must animate the church."
Gantin participated in two papal elections: The first conclave, in August of 1978, chose an Italian cardinal, Albino Luciani, who was named John Paul I—and who died just thirty-three days later. During his brief tenure, however, John Paul I named Gantin the president of the Vatican charity Cor Unum. The College of Cardinals met again in October and chose the archbishop of Krakow, Poland, Karol Wojtyla, to succeed the unlucky John Paul I. Taking the name Pope John Paul II, Wojtyla was an active, globe-trotting pontiff who determined to make the church more relevant to its faithful around the world, not just among its historic core of support in Western Europe. In 1982 John Paul II made his own visit to several African nations, accompanied by Gantin, who was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in Benin. Two years later John Paul named Gantin prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, the administrative department of the Church that chooses new bishops and disciplines those who stray from church doctrine.
Gantin and John Paul II met weekly for two hours each Saturday evening to discuss various bishop-related matters, and on a few occasions Gantin signed the excommunication decree against persistently rebellious ones. These included Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France, whom Gantin had known from the French cleric's many years of service in Africa. "John Paul and Gantin deliberately appointed conservative bishops in what they saw as unacceptably liberal dioceses," noted Gantin's obituary in the Independent. "Conflicts ensued in the Netherlands, Austria and particularly Switzerland. Gantin played a leading role from 1990 in defending the controversial conservative Bishop Wolfgang Haas of the Swiss diocese of Chur, whose sweeping dismissals of priests and the blocking of the appointment of a new seminary rector had provoked widespread demonstrations." In another controversy, Mexican bishop Samuel Ruiz García was disciplined for what the Vatican viewed as his Marxist interpretation of the Church's teachings, but formal removal of Ruiz was thwarted by widespread protests in Chiapas, the Mexican state where Ruiz had become a popular figure.
In 1993 Gantin became the first black African bishop to serve as dean of the College of Cardinals. Gantin would have chaired the conclave upon the death of John Paul II, but the cardinal retired in 2002, before the Polish pontiff's death. Gantin returned to Benin, which had been restored to democracy by then and had seen a significant rise in the number of Catholics since the 1970s. He died in Paris in May of 2008, five days after his eighty-sixth birthday.
At a Glance …
Born on May 8, 1922, in Toffo, Benin; died on May 13, 2008, in Paris, France; son of a railway worker. Religion: Roman Catholic. Education: Studied at the Pontifical Urban University and Pontifical Lateran University; earned licentiate in theology and canon law, 1956(?).
Career: Ordained Roman Catholic priest, 1951; consecrated bishop of Tipasa of Mauritania and Auxiliary of Cotonou, 1957; Archbishop of Cotonou, 1960-71; Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, adjunct secretary, 1971-73, secretary, 1973-77; appointed cardinal, 1977; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, president after 1977; Pontifical Council Cor Unum, president after 1978; prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, 1984-98; named Cardinal Bishop of the suburbicarian diocese of Palestrina, 1986; College of Cardinals, dean, 1993-2002.
Guardian (London), May 15, 2008, p. 38.
Independent (London), May 20, 2008, p. 32.
National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999, p. 8.
New York Times, February 27, 1973, p. 2.
Time, April 23, 1984, p. 65.
Times (London), August 10, 1978, p. 3; June 8, 1993, p. 13.
"Gantin Card. Bernardin," Holy See Press Office, http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/documentazione/documents/cardinali_biografie/cardinali_bio_gantin_b_en.html (accessed August 25, 2008).