Cardinal Bernardin Gantin: Ally of John Paul II who exercised great influence at the Vatican as head of the Congregation for Bishops

'Jaws dropped," said the veteran Vatican-watcher Fr Thomas Reese of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin's appointment in April 1984 to head the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops. Gantin became – alongside the Nigerian Archbishop Francis Arinze – the most prominent African in the Vatican. Italians or members of other nationalities well represented in the Vatican might have expected this post to be theirs. But the cardinal from Benin in West Africa, who was toiling away quietly at the Vatican's Justice and Peace Commission, was a close friend of Pope John Paul II and shared many of his views.

John Paul was known to take a very close interest in the appointment of bishops, aware that – like presidential appointments to the US Supreme Court – they help shape the future and often provide a legacy of influence. He had a clear preference for candidates who had headed seminaries, were orthodox and publicly supported the exclusive role in ministry of celibate male clergy.

Gantin became one of the few senior clerics with unfettered access to the pope and enjoyed some two hours of close discussion each Saturday evening when John Paul was in Rome. The two could discuss freely the merits and demerits of potential candidates for vacant dioceses and how to tackle bishops due to arrive for the regular five-yearly ad limina visits. Crucially, they also decided when to remove bishops who had fallen out of favour.

The ad limina visits by all the world's Catholic bishops able to travel to Rome gave Gantin a unique perspective on the state of the Church. Each bishop would have only a brief meeting with the pope, but an extended meeting with Gantin, who would summarise the bishop's written report for the pope.

Gantin was born in 1922 in Toffo in Dahomey in the federation of French West Africa. His name meant "tree of iron", which would later be depicted on his coat of arms. The son of a railway worker, the young Gantin entered a seminary at the age of 14. He was ordained priest in January 1951 and taught in the same seminary at Ouidah as well as carrying out pastoral work in his home diocese of Cotonou.

Marked out as a high-flier, Gantin studied canon law in Rome from 1953 to 1956. He was consecrated bishop in 1957 and became Archbishop of Cotonou three years later, the first African to head a see for many centuries. Gantin was a pioneer for the indigenisation of the hierarchy which soon swept Africa just as the colonies gained political independence.

Gantin did not lose his connections in Rome, where he attended the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and first met the future John Paul II (whom he would back in the second 1978 conclave).

Amid political turmoil in Benin, as Dahomey had become, following the 1970 election and the rise of a Marxist government, Pope Paul plucked Gantin to Rome, reportedly to protect him. He became the number two at what would become the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. In 1975 he became the number two at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, becoming its president – and a cardinal in 1977. Gantin was the only major appointment during the brief tenure in 1978 of Pope John Paul I, when he was named president of the Vatican's charity Cor Unum.

Gantin dealt with many key appointments at the Congregation for Bishops. He and the Pope often rejected the three nominees on the papal nuncio's shortlist.

In the late 1980s, Gantin wrote to the papal nuncio to Mexico, demanding the resignation of Samuel Ruiz García from his diocese in the southern Chiapas region. Ruiz, who championed the rights of indigenous Indians and had angered the Mexican government, was accused of using Marxist interpretations of the Gospel. The Vatican backed down after widespread protests.

Gantin was the one who ousted the liberal Bishop of Evreux in France, Jacques Gaillot, at a Vatican meeting in January 1995, assigning him to the defunct diocese of Partenia (which Gaillot duly created on the internet). Gaillot compared Gantin's methods to those of the East German Stasi.

John Paul and Gantin deliberately appointed conservative bishops in what they saw as unacceptably liberal dioceses. Conflicts ensued in the Netherlands, Austria and particularly Switzerland.

Gantin played a leading role from 1990 in defending the controversial conservative Bishop Wolfgang Haas of the Swiss diocese of Chur, whose sweeping dismissals of priests and the blocking of the appointment of a new seminary rector had provoked widespread demonstrations. After repeated urging by the Swiss Episcopal Conference to have him removed, Gantin wrote to and even telephoned the Swiss bishops to tell them Haas would stay.

More painful for Gantin was his excommunication of the traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 for consecrating bishops against the express orders of the pope. The two had known each other in Africa in the 1960s.

Gantin retired from the Congregation for Bishops in 1998. From 1993 until he retired in 2002, Gantin was dean of the College of Cardinals, and would have presided over arrangements for a conclave had that been necessary. He then retired to his native Benin, where he was respected as someone who had made something of himself in distant Rome and to which he had brought John Paul II in 1982.

Tight-lipped, viewed as courtly by some but arrogant by others, Gantin made a brief flurry in retirement when he criticised the careerism of some of his episcopal colleagues. Ironically, Gantin had almost no experience of parish work. But he remained above all loyal to the Vatican where he had spent much of his life.

Felix Corley

Bernardin Gantin, priest: born Toffo, Dahomey 8 May 1922; ordained priest 1951; Bishop of Tipasa and auxiliary bishop of Cotonou 1957-60; Archbishop of Cotonou 1960-71; named a cardinal 1977; President, Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission 1977-84; President, Pontifical Council Cor Unum 1978-84; Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops 1984-98; died Paris 13 May 2008.

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