The Catholic Archdiocese of Kigali has a new head. The Most Reverend Antoine Kambanda was installed as Archbishop at a colourful ceremony on Sunday, January 27 at Amahoro National Stadium.
The Church could not have selected a better person for the office, one uniquely suited to its pastoral and evangelical work, its development both as an institution and a community of believers, and cooperation with civil authorities.
They could not have found a person of greater humility yet of strong conviction, of sharp intellect yet unassuming, of unequalled integrity and very sociable at the time; and if his stewardship of the Diocese of Kibungo is any indication, a man with a steady hand and a mind for development.
These are qualities that the Church leadership needs in a period of renewed good relations with the state.
The appointment of Mgr Kambanda is therefore likely to prove significant in this regard as well as in what appears to be a period of transition towards a new relevance for the Church in the country.
Catholic bishops usually serve for a long time. And so when there is a change, it is usually interpreted as significant. It often marks a generational change or one of emphasis in the direction the Church wishes to take.
But in terms of real, visible change, that might be less obvious. The Church is a highly centralised institution deeply steeped in tradition, which means there is more continuity and less disruption.
Change is notoriously slow and gradual rather than a drastic break with tradition.
It is this that has kept the Church together for centuries. With the exception of the two great divisions – the great schism of the Western and Eastern Churches in 1054 and later the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the church has held together.
So does Mgr Kambanda’s accession to the See of Kigali signify change in any significant way?
The Church in Rwanda has actually been undergoing some change in the last twenty five years. And let us say it as it is: this has been a period of testy relations with the state, of an uneasy accommodation of each other during which they have stuck to their respective core responsibilities – spiritual matters for the church and governance issues for the state – sort of keeping God’s and Caesar’s things separate
This has not always been the case. Since the founding of the colonial state in Rwanda, church and state have always been one and the same. The state surrendered its role of providing social services like education and healthcare, and such other activities as agricultural extension services, to the church.
This situation remained the same in the post-colonial governments. Some leading clergy even took up key positions in political organisations.
Along the way, the Church assumed an openly political role. A growing number of its clergy became partisan political activists.
In a sense, therefore, this past quarter century has been a period of decoupling the church and the state and instead attempting to build a more meaningful partnership based on the specific mandate of each.
As both President Paul Kagame and Archbishop Kambanda said at the installation ceremony, this is the going to remain the basis of the relationship between the church and state.
In the past two decades, the church has had to come to terms with a several things and found itself in unusual situations.
First, it has had to come to terms with its role in the genocide against the Tutsi and to deal with the ebbing away of its once undisputed moral authority, and in this found itself on the defensive.
This has been a time of trying to find ways of admitting guilt and seeking pardon without more loss of authority.
Second has been a search for ways to regain its once pre-eminent position in the country.
In both instances, Pope Francis came to the rescue of the local church when he asked for God’s forgiveness on their behalf and so set the stage for a new relationship with the state.
The new relationship has begun. Both the government and the church have indicated their commitment to it. Mgr Kambanda has already signalled that his emphasis will be on pastoral work, primarily the family where the government seems to be struggling. The church in Rwanda seems to be headed in a direction of more cooperation and less confrontation.
On his part, President Kagame’s praise of the Church for its role in Rwanda’s development, while a recognition of a historical reality, is also an encouraging sign for the times.
His commendation of the Papal Nuncio’s work in the country is much in the same vein. It marks a departure from the frosty relations of only two years ago.
All this can only be beneficial to ordinary Rwandans.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.