Cardinal Bernardin Gantin was born in Toffo, Benin, West Africa, on May 08, 1922 in the archdiocese of Cotonou; there his surname translated “tree of iron” (“gan” meaning tree and “tin” meaning iron). When he died in Paris, France, May 13, 2008, Gantin was semi-retired and officially Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Bishops and Dean Emeritus of the College of Cardinals, Roman Curia. As his name suggested, he had an iron will and had become the highest-ranking Black African cardinal in the entire Catholic Church, responsible for the world’s Roman Catholic bishops. (A Cardinal is one level beneath the Pope and is usually the bishop of the city where he is located; the Pope is considered the Bishop of Rome).
Benin is a small country in West Africa that was colonized by the French and it has produced some world-class citizens including Cardinal Gantin, Djimon Hounsou, twice nominated for an academy award, and Angelique Kidjo, the famous singer and songwriter. In the wake of his passing, the government of Benin gave him a hero’s tribute by declaring three days of mourning nationally.
The son of a railroad worker, Gantin received his early education in Dahomey (the former name of Benin), at that time, a haven for Christian missionaries. In 1936, he entered the seminary in Benin and was ordained a priest 15 years later in Lome (the capital of Togo) by Archbishop Louis Pariscot. He became a language teacher at the seminary while dedicating himself to pastoral work in the surrounding villages. From this experience, Gantin reportedly acquired a great love for his pastoral mission.
Between 1953 and 1957, Gantin studied at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome where he received a licentiate (an academic degree in certain parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America) in theology and canon law. He then was appointed auxiliary bishop of Cotonou and titular bishop of Tipasa, Mauritania, one of the important Christian settlements in Northern Africa, at that time. Shortly after Gantin was consecrated, his jurisdictional boundaries increased far and wide over the northwest African region, and since communications, roads and travel in that part of Africa was at a minimum, he apparently was doing a lot of work with meager resources.
When his aging mentor, Pariscot, became unable to physically fulfill the grueling tasks of overseeing such an enormous jurisdiction, Pope John XXIII promoted Gantin the Archbishop of Cotonou in January 1960. His pastoral experience buttressed his ability to handle Pariscot’s vast duties, and he sub-divided the diocese to be able to serve his flock more efficiently and effectively. In addition, Christian membership in South Benin was increasing especially in Cotonou, the economic hub of the country. Records show that Gantin made tremendous sacrifices in order to maintain the quality of priestly vocations in the seminaries consistent with the expectations of Rome.
After becoming President of the Regional Episcopal Conference in 1971, which included Togo, Benin, Ghana, Upper Volta, Senegal, Nigeria and Guinea, Gantin was called to Rome and appointed to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly the Vatican’s Propaganda Fide). Two years later, he became its secretary. He then began a rapid ascension through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church beginning with an appointment in 1975 as the vice president of the Pontifical Council for “Iustitia et Pax” (Justice and Peace), followed by an appointment as the vice president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” and as pro-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 1976.
On June 27, 1977, Pope Paul VI elevated Gantin to Cardinal. As a cardinal, he became a senior ecclesiastical official of the church, advisor to the Pope and one with the right to enter the conclave of cardinals with the authority to elect a pope. (This right is limited to cardinals - collectively called the College of Cardinals - who are not over 80 years old when a pope dies or relinquishes his position. This period of mourning is called “sede vacante” and the day-to-day activities of the pope are conducted by College of Cardinals.) Along with his elevation to the cardinalate came two new appointments: Deacon of “Sacro Cuore di Cristo Re” and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The following year a new pope, John Paul I, was elected and he appointed Gantin President of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum.” During the “sede vacante,” Gantin reportedly was thought to be one of the “papabili” - cardinals who are considered electable as pope. (In 1978, there were three popes: Paul VI (deceased); John Paul I (deceased); and John Paul II, who took the combined names of his two predecessors). Under John Paul II’s leadership, Gantin headed the Congregation of Bishops and became the President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America after resigning as president of the councils over which he had presided.
Next came the prestigious appointment as Bishop of Palestrina in 1986, a position which signaled special favor with the Pope. Officially titled “Cardinal Bishop of Suburbicarian See of Palestrina,” it was one of seven diocese located in the suburbs of Rome reserved for the highest order of cardinals. In Gantin’s case, it provided some insight into his upward mobility in the Vatican’s inner circle which was his appointment as Dean of the College of Cardinals and (Cardinal) Bishop of Ostia in 1993. The latter was one of the suburbicarian diocese which merged with the diocese of Rome and came under the administration of the Cardinal Vicar General of Rome. In December 2000, Pope John Paul II sent a missive to Gantin in which he expressed Gantin’s standing in the Pope’s inner circle. It began: “To my Venerable Brother Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean of the College of Cardinals” and went on the state, “I think few words are needed to tell you of my satisfaction and gratitude, which I especially want to confirm, as I did for the celebration of your 25th anniversary of episcopate, when this significant priestly commemoration occurs on 14 January. Lastly, Venerable Brother, I give you my Apostolic Blessing with particular affection, extending it willingly and abundantly to all your loved ones.”
As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it was Gantin’s responsibility to summon the conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope and to preside over the conclave unless age prohibited his participation. However, Gantin never had cause to summon the conclave because the Pope did not die during his tenure. Though there is no mandatory age of retirement as dean, at age 80, Gantin retired from his official duties and returned to his native Benin. Ironically, he was succeeded by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who, three years later became Pope Benedict XVI. And since he was over 80 years old, Gantin was prohibited from voting in Ratzinger’s election. (It was reported that even though Gantin’s fellow African Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, was a conservative and a theologically safe choice, the cardinals were unlikely to choose a Black pope).
Gantin had an informal style as a cardinal and when he died, he was considered an elder statesman of the Catholic Church.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.