Pope Francis on Sunday, October 25, named Msgr Antoine Kambanda, the Archbishop of Kigali Diocese, among 13 prelates set to be created cardinals at a November 28 consistory, his seventh.
Kambanda’s historic appointment makes him Rwanda’s first-ever cardinal and the first cleric from the East African region to be given the honour by Pope Francis.
He joins a growing list of bishops from Africa and other regions of the world outside Europe and the Americas promoted to the rank in recent years, as the Pope increasingly reaches out to the peripheries of the Church.
Msgr Kambanda’s appointment is particularly a glowing recognition of the Catholic Church in Rwanda – and the country in general – and, at 61, he will be one of the less than 20 African cardinal electors with the right to elect popes.
This is just more than a personal milestone for the Archbishop of Kigali, as it opens doors for direct communication between the Pope and the Church in Rwanda.
In a way, while the appointment should largely be seen from the ecclesiastical perspective, it is hard to ignore the fact it has come after Kigali and the Holy See took bold steps to improve relations and move away from past difficulties.
While the Catholic Church has for long been an important partner in Rwanda’s development– especially through notable investments in education and health sectors – its role and that of its individual clerics (or lack thereof) in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi drove a wedge between the two sides. But a new chapter of cooperation was agreed on when President Paul Kagame visited the Vatican in March 2017.
The Church’s past failings in the country did not only affect Rwandans but the institution itself with many people losing faith in it, and the appointment will probably partly be seen as an attempt to help reverse the trend.
Pope Francis’ leadership style and open-mindedness has generally been hailed as a breath of fresh air into a traditionally conservative and secretive system, and the elevation of Kambanda – and the Catholic Church in Rwanda – should come with greater emphasis of the Pope’s ecclesial vision that promotes humility, empathy and compassion.
In Rwanda, in addition to its traditional role in society, the Church should be an active participant in helping tackle emerging challenges such as teen pregnancies, substance abuse, among other social ills, and fostering a more cohesive, law-abiding society.
Congratulations to Msgr Kambanda and the Catholic Church in Rwanda – but, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. The appointment is more than just symbolic, you have the opportunity to leverage it to impact and improve people’s lives – physically, morally and spiritually.