Church power

Who’s who amongst Africa’s up-and-coming Catholic leaders

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

In search of new African leadership

By Christophe Le Bec

Posted on January 8, 2021 13:46

Cardinal Peter Turkson arrives for the Palm Sunday Mass led by Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square, at the Vatican © Cardinal Peter Turkson arrives for the Palm Sunday Mass led by Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, 14 April 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli
Cardinal Peter Turkson arrives for the Palm Sunday Mass led by Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, 14 April 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Though none of Africa’s bishops or cardinals today seem to have significant global influence, four leaders are starting to make a name for themselves on the continent.

A priest from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) working at the Vatican wistfully reminisces: “Once upon a time, everyone listened the moment the Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya or the Cameroonian Cardinal Christian Tumi opened their mouths!”

Ludovic Lado, a Cameroonian Jesuit priest and expert on governance issues in the Catholic Church, laments: “The reality today is that none of Africa’s bishops or cardinals have that kind of influence, neither in Rome nor on the continent.”

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Based in N’Djamena, Lado, who is at odds with his country’s authorities and unafraid to send scathing criticism their way, thinks a form of “depersonalisation” is eroding Catholicism’s influence in African politics, which has waned over the years.

Today, the scope of its influence is largely limited to episcopal conferences and faith-based organisations, chiefly in Burundi and the DRC. “You practically never hear about bishops from Cameroon or the Republic of Congo criticising the political authorities like a few years ago,” he says.

Leaders of the pack: a Ghanaian and a Congolese national

That said, the same two names kept surfacing in conversations we had with Catholic Church experts about Africa’s most influential leaders today: the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson and the Congolese Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu.

“Mgr Turkson is a key figure in Rome. In spite of a few PR blunders – such as the Muslim video incident in 2012 – he has won the trust of Pope Francis, who appointed him as the first prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, a sort of super-ministry of the Vatican created in 2016. The 72-year-old Turkson is responsible for issues related to justice and peace as well as environmental and humanitarian relief work, areas the Pope really cares about,” says the Congolese source in Rome.

Mgr Besungu, who rose to the rank of cardinal in 2019, succeeded Cardinal Pasinya as archbishop of Kinshasa and as a member representing Africa on Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals, which he joined this past October.

“Everyone thought that after Pasinya, the Pope would choose an African bishop or cardinal from some country other than the DRC, like maybe from an English- or Portuguese-speaking nation, in keeping with the idea of rotating appointments based on geographic area and language. Instead, he chose a person he likes and who, like the Pope himself, is outspoken, and that’s certainly a trait many African clergymen lack,” adds the Congolese source.

Ones to watch: a Ghanaian and a Central African Republic national

Several Catholics we spoke to brought up the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is held in high esteem by a large swath of the sub-Saharan African clergy – a group that leans conservative on liturgical matters.

However, his doctrinal radicalism and regular critiques of Pope Francis’ openness on some issues have also attracted a certain amount of hostility. Others still resent the distance he put between himself and the continent when he moved to Rome in 2001. Nor does it help his cause that he is backed by a number of ultra-conservative Catholic organisations in the US and Europe, whose members have elevated him as their champion against the Pope.

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At 53, Cardinal Sarah is still too young and under the radar in Rome to be recognised as a leading Catholic figure, but another person to watch is the archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga. He is highly regarded by Pope Francis because of his peace activism in the Central African Republic. Ever since being appointed cardinal by the Pope in November 2016, he has been widely considered a rising star in Catholicism.

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