VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI announced he will make his first papal pilgrimage to Africa — a continent where the Catholic Church is growing — with visits next year to Cameroon and Angola.
The 81-year-old Benedict gave the surprise news at the end of his homily in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday, during a ceremony closing three weeks of discussions by bishops from around the world about the Bible.
Benedict did not give specific dates for the trip, which traditionally are first announced by local Church officials in the host countries. The Vatican usually gives details of papal pilgrimages closer to departure.
"Next March, I intend to go to Cameroon" as part of preparations for an October 2009 bishops' meeting at the Vatican dealing with Africa, Benedict said at the end of his homily.
"From there, God willing, I will go on to Angola, to celebrate solemnly the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of that country," Benedict said.
The Catholic Church has been growing in parts of Africa and Asia, with those continents sometimes supplying priests for parishes in parts of Europe and North America where vocations have steadily declined in the last few decades.
While the Vatican has been concerned about the flagging faith of some Catholics in the affluent West, Church officials are heartened by the vibrancy of churches in parts of Africa and Asia.
When the pope visits Cameroon, representatives of Africa's bishops conferences will be meeting there to prepare for next year's Vatican synod on Africa.
Cameroon, formed in 1961 from western African territories governed by the French and British, has an 18 million population that is about 40 percent Christian.
Angola's history as a former Portuguese colony has given the country Christian roots. The southern African country was lacerated by a civil war that started with its 1975 independence and ended in 2002.
Since being elected pontiff in 2005, Benedict has visited several European countries, including France in September, his latest foreign trip. He has also traveled to Brazil, the United States and Australia earlier this year.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited Africa several times in his 26 1/2 years as pontiff.
On Sunday, Benedict paid tribute to the Church in another distant part of the world — China — where Catholics loyal to him worship in clandestine churches and have sometimes suffered harassment, or in the case of clergy, even imprisonment.
The pontiff noted that bishops from China had been unable to attend this month's gathering at the Vatican. The Vatican and Beijing do not have formal ties, largely due to China's insistence that it make appointments of bishops, a right claimed by the Holy See.
Benedict said he was thankful for the Chinese bishops' "faithfulness" to the pope, and he prayed that they receive the "strength and zeal to guide, with wisdom and far-sightedness, the Catholic community of China that we love so dearly."