( April 22, 1994) Rome -- Opening ceremonies for the particular synod for Africa began on the octave of Easter, April 10. It was "solemnly inaugurated" by Pope John Paul II with a high Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
Never before have Africans -- priests, sisters, laypeople -- taken over St. Peter's with such uninhibited musical joie de vivre. There were drums and handclaps and dancing and joyous singing in 15 African languages. There was ululation -- a kind of high-pitched wailing, a sign of happiness.
It all seemed very strange in the baroque setting of St. Peter's. The bits of Gregorian chant that were sung -- the Sanctus and Agnus Dei -- sounded effete and halfhearted in comparison.
African music sets the feet tapping and the whole body in motion. It is intended for the open air. The proof is that in the Ethiopian rite used for what we redundantly call the "responsorial psalm" (what other kind of psalm is there?) the three kings (from the Epiphany) were shielded by a multicolored umbrella.
The even more ancient Coptic rite, which uses clashing cymbals rather than drums, introduced the gospel of the day. It was about the doubting apostle Thomas who, though not a witness of the resurrection, yet proclaimed his faith: "My Lord and my God."
This brought a response from Jesus, which Rudolf Bultmann the great if at times misguided exegete -- called the "ninth beatitude": "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed." That enshrines a lesson for all, not just for Africans.
While African music sets the feet stomping and the whole body moving, this does not work for everyone. Swiss Guards with their halberds looked impassively on -- but they were merely doing their duty.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sitting in the front row, twitched not and looked ill at ease as though he wished he were someplace else. John Paul seemed to be waiting for the music to stop so he could get on with the serious business of his homily. But you can't hurry Africans.