The Catholic Church in Rwanda on Sunday got a new leader in the Archbishop of Kigali Antoine Kambanda, who took over from the long serving Thaddee Ntihinyurwa. Kambanda gave an exclusive interview to The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi and Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti during which he talked at length about his priorities, the role of the clergy in the Genocide against the Tutsi, the reconciliation journey, and the quality of education among others.
Tell us briefly about Bishop Antoine Kambanda
I was born in 1958 and grew up partly in Burundi and then in Uganda. I started my seminary formation in Uganda and continued it in Kenya and was ordained priest in Rwanda in 1990.
My ordination coincided with the visit of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II – who is now a saint – to Rwanda and he is the one that ordanined me.
In 1993, I went to Rome for studies up to 1999 and the genocide took place when I was in Rome. Since 1999, I have been doing different services, as a director of Caritas in Kigali, as a rector of the major seminary of philosophy in Kabgayi and then seven years as a rector of the major seminary of theology in Nyakibanda in Huye District.
In 2013 that is when I was appointed the bishop of the Diocese of Kibungo until last year in November when the Holy Father, Pope Francis appointed me Archbishop of Kigali.
As Archbishop of Kigali and head of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, what will be your main priorities?
First of all, in general as Church and together with the country, we are still on the journey of unity and reconciliation in our communities, which suffered so much with a long history of divisionism that climaxed in the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi which left many negative consequences.
The main duty that preoccupies us is that reconciliation and unity. And it is providential.
Retired Archbishop Thadée Ntihinyurwa hands the apostolic staff to Antoine Kambanda on Sunday last week. File.
Secondly, my priority will be the family. It all begins in the family and the family today has so many challenges and yet it is the family that prepares us as men and women of tomorrow, the society of tomorrow.
The family is a domestic church and also you can say that it is the heart and the foundation of the society.
Good families build a secure and stable country and society and prepare durable peace, so working upon the family we also assure reconciliation and unity in a community.
If this spirit of unity and reconciliation begins from the family at home, it gives us assurance that it will last.
Another field where I intend to put effort is in the youth. The youth are exposed to so many dangers and are vulnerable and yet these are the future families, future church and future society.
They are victims of drugs, abuse and poverty and are exploited even in violence and we want to pay attention to the youth and this goes on line with the universal church because four years ago, a Synod in Rome was organised around the theme of the family.
After this, the Fathers of the Synod were asked what could be the next issue and the majority of us said the next issue should be the youth.
They are victims of human trafficking and they are the ones dying in the Mediterranean ocean when they are trying to cross to try to find the life in Europe and elsewhere.
We want to work with them, organise them and prepare them to embrace our cultural values which are rooted in human values and are in harmony with Christian values so that we can have sound men and women of tomorrow.
You continue to insist on the issue of family among your key priorities; how do you intend to go about fixing the family, what strategies are you going to use to fix the prevalent issues in our families?
The first strategy is preparation of the young people before marriage; we need to give them sound instructions and also to advise them to know each other very well before they commit to matrimony.
At times you realise people regretting after getting married; say I did not know the man or the woman I was marrying, I wish I knew or had I known…etc.
So taking enough time of knowing each other, and getting enough instruction on how the family is built, their duties and privileges, their rights and their duties, and that there is nobody who is perfect, to know that the person I am getting married with, has got good qualities but also I will tolerate and accept his defects.
Secondly, as Christians prayer is very important, people are weak, it would not be wise to think that you can manage on your own, on human reasoning and human efforts; it is not enough. Families that pray together, stay together because they support one another in their difficulties and in their weaknesses.
This also goes with accompanying especially of young couples, not to be married and then you don’t see them again in the church.
Thirdly, to be close to the families which are having different difficulties; domestic conflicts, not having children and economic conflicts…support them and be near them, divorced trying to reconcile, or when they have various conflicts.
And then widows or women living alone for different reasons, either in prisons or abandoned or not openly abandoned but far from home, we want to put them together in small groups and associations so that they can pray together.
We shall also have families with long-term experiences advising the young families.
Many have said the Catholic Church has not done enough to help Rwandans reconcile; some have pointed to a lack of institutional framework towards this end and only attribute the effort to the personal initiative of few clerics…
It is an essential part of our pastoral work such that is institutionalised, I don’t agree with people who may think that it is not institutionalised, right after the Genocide, in the years 1999-2000, we had a synod which actually initiated and created ground and the way forward for reconciliation.
It is a period when people could sit and share their suffering.
By then it was very hard, it was a very delicate situation with bitterness and fear and trauma and guilt. The approach we used was to share; such that each one narrates his or her suffering, and by sharing the suffering you listen to one another without judging.
When people come to share their suffering that means taking upon yourself his/her pain and then you suffer for him or her and then you suffer with him.
This is rooted in the Kinyarwanda terminology for forgiveness (kubabarira) which is literally translated to mean suffering on behalf of the other party.
This prepares ground for one to leave the position of defending oneself which brings about conflict such that one can begin to understand and defend the needs and the rights of the other.
So this is something that prepared the way for Gacaca and it has continued. In the past three years 2016-2018 it was a journey of reconciliation that started with the reconciliation with God.
The first reconciliation is with God because he is the source of peace, when one is reconciled with God, then they will be able to reconcile with themselves and then with the others.
2017 was the reconciliation within the church and last year it was about reconciliation with the community, with the rest of Rwandans. So, the reconciliation is an essential part of the pastoral work of the church.
In a couple of months we shall mark 25th years after the Genocide against the Tutsi, in hindsight, do you think the Catholic Church has done enough in way of promoting unity and reconciliation?
I cannot say we have done enough, it is never enough, reconciliation is a journey, you many have covered a long distance but when you are still on the journey, you can’t sit down and say I have done enough.
It is a continuing process and as I said, as we become old, we pass on the baton to the young generation.
Many priests got directly involved in the Genocide, thousands of parishioners were killed in the precincts of the Church with connivance of priests; do you think there is a time when the Catholic Church will apologise on behalf of these errant priests?
Thank you, the Catholic Church has never stopped in weeping for what happened in Rwanda.
The first voice of authority to say openly that what was happening in Rwanda was genocide was the Pope John Paul II yet it took time for UN to discuss and agree upon using the term genocide for what was happening in Rwanda.
And the position of the Church is that priests, the clergy, who were involved in the genocide, are to be tried for what they did and be held accountable. The Church does not say that because they were priests there is an exception, no, a crime is a crime.
But the fact that a clergyman did that crime, it is not within the mission he was given, he abused and betrayed his mission, so it is not the Church which did it.
However, as the son of the Church, we regret and ask pardon for that; the Pope did it and the bishops did it in the Synod, there was a long process of asking pardon to God and to the community that the Genocide caused so much (harm).
The guilt and wrongs the children do, the parents take upon, several times the Church has asked pardon to God and to the community.
Five years as Bishop of Kibungo Diocese, what do you think are some of the major achievements you can attribute to your time of service to that diocese?
Actually, what I have managed to do I owe it to the Grace of God. I cannot be proud of what I did as if it is in my human capacity and ingenuity that I did it, I believe it is always God who helps us and all glory is to Him.
The diocese of Kibungo had so many challenges after many years without a bishop, I have managed to make some progress in spiritual and pastoral terms, I founded seven parishes, now they are twenty parishes; that is an achievement I feel is very important, of course I do all that with priests and Christians.
Secondly, we had a small church which was roofed with asbestos and we were urged to remove it and we took that opportunity to expand it.
So I am happy to leave them with a big cathedral and I am also glad the Catholic community in Kibungo has developed the sense of responsibility and collaboration, feeling that the church is their own.
As such, we have been able to found the parishes without external support as it used to be in the past, constructed and equipped by the Christians themselves.
The Catholic Church is much involved in education sector and I believe from the background that you have presented to us yourself; you have been a teacher, what is your take on the state of education sector?
We are really happy and proud of an important step that was taken by the government to have all children of school age to be in school. That is a very important achievement that many countries admire.
Our generation knows very well how much it was painful to have children and you could not send them to school, or young children who wanted to go to study and they could not have the chance of finding school and went to neighboring countries to look for schools.
Now that we have the opportunity of all children being at school, the next frontier is working on the quality, it is obvious when you widen, the quality may diminish but now the challenge and the goal we have ahead is improving the quality.
The first quality is discipline because education is not only learning it is also educating such that the talent that a child have, they may have the discipline to channel them into useful programmes for themselves and the community at large.
The Government promotes family planning and one of the methods is using contraceptives. However, the Catholic Church is against this and has been accused of frustrating distributing these at the Church-owned medical facilities….
May be there is a bit of misunderstanding. When we say we don’t accept the use of contraceptive methods, it does not mean we don’t accept family planning.
We privilege natural family planning which is a package of building a family, natural family planning is built on dialogue and one of the things that destroy family is lack of dialogue, lack of communication to agree on what is to be done.
Natural family planning is built on that and that package enables couples to do family planning in a natural way with respect for one another.
The contraceptives may dilute those values and there is a tendency little by little which build a sense of using the other as somebody for pleasure and that paves way for violence.
It may pave way for immorality among the youth, you know that self-control requires training, it is a whole philosophy and teaching which is a very important pillar for ensuring harmonious relations in the family, it is not about the pill or injection.
According to the Church, do people who use contraceptives commit a sin?
You don’t just reduce to the act. It is the whole paving way to that losing of self-control, paving way for immorality, paving way for violence, paving way for abortion because some contraceptives are abortive.
The Church has got expertise both in science and religion, the respect of the human life and the respect of the human person is a long process.
Is there anything you might want to add?
My wish is that people should be more and closer to God following the word of God. I also happen to be the legal representative of the Bible Society which unites all people who believe in the Bible and we believe that the word of God can guide us through to do the right thing and avoid sin.
The more we respect God and follow his advice enshrined in His commandments, it will enable us to have joyful and peaceful life in the community, in families with nature and we can become a strong nation and society.
I call upon the Christians to love God and praise Him not in words but in actions, leading a life that is coherent with what God asks of us.