05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Africa is my land. To see it again, to touch it with the Pope, is a great joy, a great grace and a moment which will be special in my life." With these words, Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, 58, Roman Catholicism's most influential black churchman, prepared to accompany John Paul II on the Pontiff's scheduled 11-day visit to six African nations. Did the cardinal offer any special advice prior to history's first papal tour of his continent? "No," replied Gantin. "I am but one voice, a modest voice."
Modesty and discretion are characteristic of the man who in 1960 became the first black archbishop in modern history. He received his cardinal's hat three years ago, and when death took both Paul VI and John Paul I in 1978, Gantin was mentioned as a long-shot possibility to succeed them. Today he is the only black member of the Vatican's powerful Curia and is frequently consulted by the Pope.
The son of a railway official in the part of French West Africa that later became the nation of Dahomey, the 6'2" Gantin trained for the priesthood in local seminaries and in Rome. Named archbishop of Cotonou at age 37, he returned to Rome in 1971 and now serves in eight Curia offices, including the top posts in the human rights and international relief agencies. Ironically, his relations with his own homeland have become strained since a Marxist regime seized power in 1972 and renamed the country Benin in 1975. Despite official efforts to ignore him, some 20,000 of his countrymen turned up at the airport to welcome Gantin on a home visit after he was elevated to the College of Cardinals.
Though Africa's 53 million Catholics make up only 12 percent of the continent's population, the cardinal rejects the idea that Christianity there is merely a legacy of colonialism. "The Gospel is directed to all of mankind, apart from culture, from color and from human and social conditions," says Gantin. "Therefore, the church is at home everywhere."