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New cardinal: Vatican should be 'voice of the voiceless'

  • Ethiopian Catholic Archbishop Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa (CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
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Vatican City

One of the 20 Catholic prelates who will be named a cardinal by Pope Francis on Saturday has called for the Vatican to focus its energies towards speaking on behalf of suffering people around the world, saying it should be "the voice of the voiceless."

Speaking specifically about people in East Africa who are being displaced from their homes in efforts to mine natural resources, Cardinal-designate Berhaneyesus Souraphiel said: "These people need to be heard."

"The Vatican is a big voice in the world," said Souraphiel. "It is also not just a voice to make a voice, but is also a moral voice."

"To be the voice of the people in Africa, the Vatican could help us with that," he continued. "To be the voice of the voiceless."

Souraphiel, who is head of Ethiopia's Addis Ababa archdiocese and the country's conference of bishops, was speaking Tuesday in an exclusive interview with NCR at the Collegio Etiopico, the historic seminary for Ethiopian priests that was founded in the 15th century and is located next to the Vatican gardens.

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The prelate called on the Vatican to speak for those suffering around the world in response to a question about what he wants most from Francis' expected reform of the Vatican bureaucracy.

One of 20 prelates announced by Francis as cardinals in January, Souraphiel will officially take up his new role in a formal ceremony in St. Peter's Square on Saturday. Before that, he will be joining cardinals around the world in a meeting with the pope Thursday and Friday that the Vatican has said will specifically focus on reform of the church's central bureaucracy.

During Tuesday's interview, which lasted 30 minutes, the cardinal-designate spoke at length about the situations being faced by people in his country, the changing dynamic of the elite group of prelates known as the College of Cardinals, and how he said Francis is "reviving" the church around the world.

Noting that Francis' choice of which prelates are becoming cardinals represents a more diverse group than in the past -- with selections from 18 different countries and several coming from places never before included -- Souraphiel said the cardinal's role is being changed.

"You see the function of cardinal, the position of a cardinal is changing," said Souraphiel. "It's no more a big honorific task."

"This is more those who will be nearer to the Holy Father -- when he asks our views, our opinions he will be able to get them," said the cardinal-designate. "The Holy Father is saying, 'We are a universal church and the church is present universally.' "

"I think it is the only great institution in the world which is present universally," said Souraphiel. "And more and more society is looking towards the Catholic church for leadership and for being a voice, especially for the voiceless, for the marginalized."

"In that case when people come from all over the world -- [Francis'] counselors, those who are here to help him -- they will bring their riches with them, I would say," he continued.

Speaking on the changes Francis has brought to the Catholic church, Souraphiel said he thought the word revival best emphasized the pope's focus.

"He wants to see a simpler church, more close to the people, and more evangelical," said the cardinal-designate. "And he is going on that. I think the whole church is following him on that. The faithful are following him."

Mentioning also that many of other faiths are also following the pope, Souraphiel said, "they are following him because he is putting first the human person and the dignity of the human person."

"He is emphasizing that," he said. "Whatever religion, whatever background people have, they stand for life."

"Respect for life and fighting abuse of human life -- whether it is through war or through violence against women and children -- he is standing for that," said Souraphiel. "I would say he has come to revive but at the same time to revise, without throwing out or condemning the past."

Asked about what specific concerns he brings from his people in Ethiopia to the Vatican, the cardinal-designate spoke at length about migrants who have fled East Africa in sometimes-dangerous ways across the Mediterranean Sea and about efforts to bolster education in his country.

Mentioning a Catholic university he has helped found in Ethiopia -- called the Ethiopian Catholic University of St. Thomas Aquinas -- Souraphiel said he and others believe "education is the key to create love of one's country, to appreciate one's own country and culture, and to be creative in all kinds of aspects of life so that the youth will be able to create employment within the country."

He said he hopes that Ethiopian youth "will not be dreaming to leave, to go abroad, but to live there."

"I think with that education is the key -- not only to arm them with clear thinking [but] also to see what is the essentials of human living, to have the right perspectives of human living that you don't have to be a billionaire overnight," he said. "You have to build up this slowly and you can do that also in your country."

Souraphiel also said he hoped Francis might make a visit to Addis Ababa at some point during his papacy to address the African Union, a coalition of 54 African states that is headquartered in the city.

Mentioning Francis' visit last year to Strasbourg, France, to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, he said Ethiopia's role in the African Union was teaching the country and the region about the role of leading together.

"That puts a lot of weight on Ethiopia," Souraphiel said. "You know, they say many other African countries are asking Ethiopia to lead and you cannot lead alone now. You have to lead together, [with] teamwork."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: 'These people need to be heard' .

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