SOWETO, South Africa - At yesterday's generally somber Mass, hymn-singing members of the Regina Mundi Catholic Church choir danced a stutter-step down the aisle as congregants slapped hymnbooks to the beat.
Just outside the cavernous sanctuary, cars on a rain-slicked road drove past a colorful billboard reminding people of the dangers of AIDS, the disease devasting this township.
The twin images hint at what some experts call Pope John Paul II's biggest success and his biggest failure in Africa, where membership in the Roman Catholic Church is growing fastest.
Church membership on the continent has about tripled to 147 million over 35 years, in part by endorsing a more expressive, African-style worship. Churchgoers here say Pope John Paul II also won their loyalty by being a steady voice for human rights and against apartheid.
But the Vatican's effort to fight AIDS with calls for abstinence and fidelity - not condoms - has done little to slow the pandemic's march throughout southern Africa.
The questions of whether to further Africanize the church here and how to address AIDS are not likely to go away, say church observers. The new pope will have to grapple with other challenges in Africa, too, such as deepening poverty and competition from Pentecostal Christianity and Islam.
"The real point of tension is with Islam," said Paul Germond, senior lecturer in sociology of religion at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "That's certainly the case in West Africa and Nigeria."
More than one in 10 of the planet's billion Catholics live in Africa, mostly in former colonies of France, Portugal and Belgium. The Democratic Republic of Congo, home to 23 million Catholics, has the largest number. Nigeria, with 19 million, is second. But there are far more Muslims: 358 million by some estimates, while others are significantly higher.
Pope John Paul focused on Africa in ways that previous popes had not. He elevated dozens of cardinals from Africa and other parts of the developing world, in effect shifting much of the church's power base out of Europe.
Beginning with a tour of Kenya and five other African states in 1980, he visited Africa a dozen times. Though unable to stop violence that killed hundreds of thousands in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he spoke out often for human rights and peace.
In South Africa, where about 3.5 million of the 45 million people are Catholic, he won the devotion of many blacks and other apartheid foes when, in 1984, he condemned the racially oppressive system. He pledged to stay away until blacks gained freedom.
In 1988, he made a show of visiting every neighboring country and stopped in South Africa only because of bad weather en route to Lesotho. He did not kiss the ground in Johannesburg, however, saving that gesture for a triumphal return in 1995 when he stood with President Nelson Mandela.
Built in 1961, Regina Mundi ("Queen of the World") was a gathering spot for apartheid opponents in Soweto. The police broke up most meetings. During the 1976 Soweto riots, they chased protesters inside. One officer smashed part of the marble altar with a rifle butt - a scar that remains as a reminder of that era.
Hearing the pope denounce apartheid was a major morale boost, said Sinda Msimang, a 66-year-old retired bus employee. "He was saying the world is behind you in your struggle. For him to speak out, well, it meant a lot to us."
For younger members of the parish, the shift to African-style worship has resonated more than the pope's opposition to apartheid. The roots of so-called inculturation predated his papacy, but he put his imprimatur on the changes by calling an African synod in 1994.
"We used to have that Italian style of singing, so it was boring for youth," Lorraine Mthelezulu, a 35-year-old phone company worker, said after yesterday's Mass. "Now there are drums and everything."
The Rev. Vusi Mazibuko credits such changes with his church's membership gains. Since he became pastor in 1999, the parish has grown from 700 families to 850.
"As Africans we like dancing, we like to show what's inside by gestures," he said. "We didn't have that. That's why people were moving outside the church. Now people are coming back."
Some priests have gone so far as to allow animal sacrifice inside their church, said Germond of the University of the Witwatersrand. Mazibuko has set limits. For example, parishioners may "speak" to their ancestors - a common practice in Africa - but only at home.
Despite Pope John Paul's success, Germond said, the wider debate over when the incorporation of African ways conflicts with fundamental Catholic principle remains unsettled.
The continued adoption of such practices is one way for the Vatican to fend off Pentecostalism, which is celebratory and oriented toward healing, said James Redington of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. "There's considerable appeal of that type of religion, so in that respect the mainline churches of Christianity would need to emphasize those dimensions to compete, if you will," he said.
Mazibuko, pastor of Regina Mundi, acknowledged that AIDS was a "difficult" issue but said he stood by the Vatican's position that encouraging condom use would endorse sex outside marriage.
One of his parishioners, Sannie Shezi, suggested that the pope's influence on teenagers and young adults may not be as great as some people think. "In the end, they are using condoms anyway," she said. "They're not respecting what the pope says."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun