African Prince and Father of the Second Vatican Council

Rugambwa and Second Vatican Council


On 15th December 1997 when we landed at Bukoba airport with the remains of the late Laurean cardinal Rugambwa, led by the Bukoba cathedral choir, thousands of people with black cloth bands on their arms were singing "Viva Kardinali Rugambwa". Then I started crying because that brought before my eyes almost 40 years that I had known him. I remembered as a 13 year old seminarian, whenever he came to the seminary as soon as we saw his car we jumped out of the class and surrounded him kissing his ring and started singing in the local Kihaya vernacular "Viva Cardinal Rugambwa, come let us hail and exalt you, the pride and strength of Africa, the beloved of Buhaya, we your children we salute and give you our respect, we pray that your may lead in peace and wisdom and always be the glory of our country etc.."

This is Laurean cardinal Rugambwa the first African cardinal and father of the Second Vatican Council. He was born in Bukoba, Tanzania on 22 July 1912. One may ask why he was chosen to be the first prince of the church in Africa. Besides his royal stature, personality and character, he was strongly a pastoral minded man. In 1952 when he was made bishop and given the very poor part of lower Kagera with only penniless African priests, the first directive he gave his priests was to mobilise people, to open schools and health centers even if in mud cottages. To give an example, he personally supervised the building of one school near his residence, which came to be known as 'the bishop's school'. He built churches, schools and health centers. Through education and social guilds he developed elite that later had positive influence in the country. He prioritised women's education. The social guilds helped the social, economical and political participation of the people and helped to prepare them as leaders in different fields. Being the third African bishop of modern times after Bishop Joseph Kiwanuka of Masaka Uganda, (1939), and Bishop Aloys Bigirumwami of Nyundo, Rwanda, (1952), he proved that the Africans can be good leaders.

Bishop Amadeus Msarikie the bishop emeritus of Moshi thus describes him: "A tall, slender good looking man, who walked with great dignity, with a calmness reflecting his greatness. He was a man of great faith in God and devotion to Our Lady Mary. You saw him as a man born to be great as his name implies, 'Rugambwa" the "renowned" (Askofu Amadeus Msarikie in 'Laurean Kardinali Rugambwa, Mwana mtukuka wa Afrika, Tulivyomfahamu; compiled by Askofu Method Kilaini, Dar es Salaam, 2007; pp.34). He was simple and one could find him joking with the gardeners and messenger boys. Bishop Gervasius Nkalanga who was his Secretary for Education and later his Auxiliary Bishop (1961-64) remembers him as a talented man of vision, with great discernment and accountability. He was austere and of great perseverance especially in difficulties (Bishop Gervase, Tulivyomfahamu; pp. 25).

From March 1960 when he was elevated cardinal by Pope John XXIII, he became the flag bearer of Africa not only in the Catholic Church but also politically and socially. In 1962 he addressed the German parliament to stress the importance of the education of women and as a result he got funds to build a magnificent girls' high school called after him (Prof. Anna Tibaijuka, the head of the UN habitat is one of the first fruits of that Rugambwa secondary school. ). He was the symbol of the black man, so much so that whenever he visited the United States he was well received by blacks who often carried him shoulder high. He was a friend of bishops like cardinal Spellman of New York, Kroll of Philadelphia, and Cushing of Boston. He received many honorary degrees from universities and colleges in the States.

In his small biography, Bishop Nkalanga who was also Father of the Vatican Council thus recalls cardinal Rugambwa's role at the Council. The African delegation was deemed weak and bishops from other continents wanted to speak on their behalf and define their needs. The African bishops both secular and missionary organised themselves with cardinal Rugambwa as their spokesman to press for their views. Thus SECAM, which brings together the African bishops, was born with cardinal Rugambwa as its first chairman. Rugambwa was the only African bishop to address all the fathers of the council together.

He represented the bishops well not because he was a great theological thinker but he had an exceptional capacity to involve the experts and bishops in preparing his presentations. Thus all he presented represeted the views of the other bishops and not his own personal views. Even after the council he was able to encourage and incolve local theologians especially in the seminaries to produce documents to populalise the results of the council.

It was during the Second Vatican Council that the AMECEA , uniting bishops from Eastern and central Africa, was reinforced and used as a united front. During the council a number of bishops through cardinal Rugambwa used AMECEA to present their requests to the Holy Father like bishop Mazzoldi of Uganda, whose request to start an African missionary congregation of the Apostles of Jesus was accepted.

Rugambwa embodied in himself the spirit of Pope John XXIII which was the foundation of the council, a pastor who looks for what unites. As archbishop of Dar es Salaam, the predominantly Moslem capital city of Tanzania, he opened up and invited many religious congregations and priests thus he was able to open many parishes and change the religious map of the city. He lobbied for and helped build Segerea Major Seminary hoping to have the seminary professors and students engage with scholars at the University of Dar es Salaam and thus influence the national elite for the good. He made the city one united community.

On the national scene he was the inspirer of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference. Bishop Mathias Joseph Isuja, bishop emeritus of Dodoma and a giant in the conference thus refers to him, "his presence in the conference not only gave us respect and assurance but also discipline, if one went astray he called him and one word was enough to put him right"(Tulivyomfahamu; pp.12). On the political scene the retired president of Tanzania, H.E William Benjamin Mkapa writes, "my experience with him as president is that he was a keen listener to the opinions of others, he had great discernment of issues and gave wise advise. He brought both spiritual and material progress to his people without conflict with the government or other religions" (Tulivyomfahamu; pp.12).

He brought people together irrespective of their beliefs. In his home diocese of Bukoba, for ages, there were tensions between the two big Christian denominations, the Catholics and the Lutherans. When the Lutheran bishop Yosias Kibira was elected president of the Lutheran World Federation, cardinal Rugambwa took him in audience with Pope Paul VI. When their photo together with the pope was published in the local news paper all animosity disappeared. During the first African synod in 1994, it was Kibira's successor who was invited to represent the African Lutherans. Both in Bukoba and Dar es Salaam he was the undisputed leader of all religious denominations, the Catholics, Protestants and Moslems ( Bishop Elinaza Sendoro, Lutheran bishop emeritus of Dar es Salaam.). They all accepted his leadership in common negotiations with the government. All government leaders respected him and took his word seriously. In 1971 he led with success a delegation of bishops from different denominations to see the then president Julius Nyerere to plead against the bad implementation of the Ujamaa policy.

Laurean cardinal Rugambwa was a pragmatic loving and caring pastor. He was the uniting factor in his home diocese, country, Africa and the world. He is the pride of Africa and all black people in the world. As the first African cardinal in 1960, before most of the African Countries became independent, he became the symbol of black pride and capacity not only within the Catholic Church but worldwide irrespective of one's faith. Though he lived a simple humble life[vii] he had great ideals and managerial skills to achieve his goals. One of his great ideals was to uplift the black man from misery through education.

He is remembered for his simplicity, pastoral concern especially for the spiritual and social needs of the people, and his solicitude for the pastoral workers. His relations with all including the government officials were amiable. He has left a rich legacy to all especially in the places he has worked. He is the African symbol of the Second Vatican Council.

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