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The First Catholic African Cardinal

His Eminence Cardinal Rugambwa's ordination portrait, taken in 1968.

“An honest man will come to the conclusion, at times painfully acquired, that his freedom has its limits. He must be willing not only to express what he thinks, feels, or presumes is right, but also to listen. And this all the more so in matters revealed by God or linked up with revelation. We cannot just identify without further ado our own convictions with the word of God.” –His Eminence Leaurean Cardinal Rugambwa

Missions for Conversion

Since the late 1400′s, Europeans have been traveling to Western and Northern Africa on missions to convert its native peoples to Catholicism. At first, very few Africans truly denounced their native religion and customs, but after two centuries of missionary work as well as several instances of modern colonization, the number of African converts began to grow exponentially, as it continues to do now. In 1900, there were 2 million African Catholics, making up a mere fifteen percent of the continent’s total population; in 2000, there were a reported 140 million Catholics in Africa, making up eighteen percent of Africa’s general population and over ten percent of the world’s Catholic population.

The Convert is set in 1890′s Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), a country under relatively new British rule. When colonizing a new area, the British often appointed Natives from the area as high members of the clergy, and bestowed upon them the responsibility of finding new converts to make into model Catholic citizens. This mission has since ended, and the African Catholic population has begun to grow on its own, with religion tradition passing down from generation to generation, also allowing for extensive evolution in Africa’s Catholic community.

The First of His Kind

The mid-twentieth century opened up many new opportunities for African clergymen and women, beginning with the ordination of His Eminence (a title used to refer to Cardinals in the Catholic faith) Laurean Rugambwa, Africa’s first native Cardinal, in 1960. He is remembered for many of his accomplishments and good deeds in his thirty-seven year service. He opened several Catholic establishments across the Bukoba diocese, which was the region in which he served, which included churches, hospitals, and a female religious order he named The Little Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi.

In 1968, Cardinal Rugambwa wrote a six-page paper for the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano, or The Roman Observer (the semi-official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church), entitled The Modern Catholic and the Magisterium of the Pope. (The “Magisterium” is the teaching authority of the church.) The paper commented on the way the Pope (or “His Holiness”) was preaching the word of the gospels. He claimed that some of the parts of the scripture were being omitted for the sake of interpretation. Cardinal Rugambwa argued that while each man is responsible for creating his own interpretation, it is not up to the authoritative figures of the Church to impart their own opinions of the gospel onto their congregations, the Pope least of all. The article was written not as an affront to the Pope, but instead as an outlet for his frustration regarding the way the scripture was being taught by the Magisterium as a whole. (A link to the complete article is available here.)

An African Cardinal’s Legacy

Since Cardinal Rugambwa’s ordination, there have been thirty-two African cardinals and bishops in the Catholic church, fourteen still living, who make up eleven percent of the church’s 120 total cardinals, the most African cardinal’s in the church’s history. The standing of African high clergymen has come to such a point that before the most current pope ascended to his throne, many people in the catholic church believed that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana would be voted into the throne by the Cardinal electors (only Cardinals under the age of eighty are allowed to vote for the next pope).

The Last Generation of Clergywomen

The same is not true for the female side of the Catholic church; the number of nuns and postulants, African in particular, has dropped in recent years, and it is projected that the Church may be seeing its last generation of nuns, with only 739,068 sisters left after a peak of 1,004,304 only thirty years ago. Today, most of the world’s clergywomen are located in Middle America, Great Britain and Africa. The reasons for the decline in women taking religious vows are debated in both the religious and secular world, but the sisters in Africa have spoken out about why it’s happening in their own countries.

Three young Kenyan nuns, taken moments after their foundation of a second Kenyan monastery.

In The Convert, the Chancellor makes sexual advances towards Ester, though she escapes. Unfortunately, this has not been uncommon in modern day missionary Africa. One mother superior in particular, Sister Marie McDonald, wrote a four-page letter to the Vatican in Rome accusing priests and other clergymen of sexual abuse in 1998. Since nuns take a vow of celibacy, they are protected from the AIDS pandemic, which makes them “safer” sex partners and also makes them targets for those men, clergymen and citizens alike, who are seeking sex. The publication of Sister McDonald’s paper brought to light an issue that may have very well been the cause of the decline of African nuns in recent years, and while there are still women willing to take the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, they may be the last of their kind.

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