Speaking Monday to the bishops of the west African nation of Benin, Pope Francis encouraged their formation of youth through education, emphasizing particularly the importance of intercultural and interreligious encounter. “Another important challenge you face is that of vigilance with youth and education … this effort should continue without abatement for the integral formation, both human and spiritual, of the younger generations is important for the future of the society to which they can make a valuable contribution, notably in terms of solidarity, of justice, and of respect for the other,” Pope Francis said April 27 to the bishops from Benin, who were in Rome for their ad limina visit. “It is necessary,” he immediately continued, “to promote in your country — without of course renouncing any of the Truth as revealed by the Lord — the encounter between cultures and dialogue between religions, especially with Islam. It is well known that Benin offers an example of harmony between the religions present in her territory. It is however wise to be vigilant, considering the current world climate, in order to conserve this fragile heritage.” Benin is bordered by Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria — where the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has killed more than 15,500 in attacks since 2012. According to a 2007 estimate, 43 percent of Beninese are Christian, and 24 percent are Muslim. Another 26 percent practice Vodun or other indiginous religions, and seven percent are irreligious. Pope Francis mentioned he is “particularly pleased that an international colloquium on interreligious dialogue has been held … which was widely appreciated.” The Pope began his address by thanking the bishops for their “great enthusiasm in the visible expression of the faith of God's people.” He observed that “parish life is animated, the faithful participate in large numbers in the celebrations, conversions to Christ are many, as are priestly and religious vocations.” He added, however, that their report that the faith is more and more widespread, yet sometimes superficial and weak, shows that “it is important that the desire for a profound knowledge of the Christian mystery not be the prerogative of an elite, but instead must inspire all faithful, as everyone is called to holiness.” “It is imperative that the Church in Benin resists and defeats the winds to the contrary that are rising throughout the world and do not fail to blow upon you too. I know that you are vigilant in the face of numerous ideological and media attacks. The spirit of secularization is at work in your country too, although it is not yet very visible. Only a faith profoundly rooted in the heart of the faithful, and lived in a concrete way, will enable you to face this.” Pope Francis then turned to the role of the family, saying pastoral care for marriage “remains difficult, considering the real social and cultural situation of the people. However, do not be discouraged, but persevere tirelessly, as the family which defends the Catholic Church is a reality willed by God; it is a gift of God that brings joy, stability and happiness to people and to societies.” “The family, as the basic unit of both society and of the Church, is the place where authentic human and Gospel values are transmitted,” he said, following it up with a quote from St. John Paul II's 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio: “the educational mission of the Christian family is a true ministry through which the Gospel is transmitted and radiated, so that family life itself becomes an itinerary of faith and … a school of following Christ.” After discussing youth and education, the Pope noted the Church's “key role in promoting harmony and justice” for Benin's progress. “It is a role they also play in healthcare and human development,” he continued. “How much work is carried out in the name of the Gospel in your dioceses! While the global crisis is affecting many countries, it is necessary to go against the grain with courage, fighting against the throwaway culture that reaches everywhere and spreading the Gospel values of hospitality and encounter.” He reflected that acts of charity express the Church's essence, but cautioned that “it should be borne in mind that the spirit of the works accomplished by the Church has a specific nature that must be clearly identified: she never acts as a form of simple social aid, but rather as the manifestation of the tenderness and mercy of Jesus himself, who tends to the wounds and weaknesses of his brothers. The joy of the Gospel is thus announced to humanity in the most effective way.” Pope Francis noted the large number of priestly vocations in Benin — for example, the Diocese of Djougou has one priest for every 933 Catholics. He encouraged them in sharing their priests with dioceses less fruitful in vocations, though “with judgement, without forgetting the needs of your own Churches.” He welcomed the good relationship between the Church and the government of Benin, remarking that “the voice of the Church is listened to and her action is appreciated.” “I invite you to continue to take your place fully in the public life of the country, especially in these times,” he added. “I know you are engaged in constant work to encourage relations between the different components of society. I invite you to continue along this path, taking care not to enter directly into the political arena or party disputes. The conduct of public affairs remains the duty of the laity, whom you have the important duty of ceaselessly educating and encouraging.” The Pope concluded asking that Mary “sustain and enlighten you in your ministry, that she might lead you, together with the priests, consecrated persons, catechists, and all the laity of your dioceses, to her son Jesus.”