By Edward Pentin
ROME, JAN. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson is now the most senior African official in the Roman Curia.
Last week, the 61-year-old retired archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, took over the reins as president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace from Cardinal Renato Martino, who stood down on grounds of age.
Speaking with him on Tuesday at his offices in the Trastevere district of Rome, he stresses it’s too early to give his precise plans for the dicastery, but he does offer a couple of hints about its probable future direction.
Drawing on his African background, he hopes to bring the continent’s “great appreciation for solidarity” to the work of the council. A major theme at last year’s African synod — for which he was its relator-general — was “a common sense of the brotherhood of humanity” which, he believes, “will go a long way to creating understanding and the pursuit of what is good.”
He hopes his second major contribution will be an acute sense of justice, honed through his life experience in Africa where countries have long fallen victim to unjust governments or foreign exploitation. “If we could look at that, if that could be improved, that would go a long way to establishing peace because that’s what a lot of people in Africa are looking for,” he says.
But he is unwilling to disclose any further plans, preferring instead to take his lead from Benedict XVI. One of the first tasks he has set himself is to have a private audience with the Holy Father to ask him about his vision for the council. “I recognize that he is the head, and all the dicasteries are here to help him carry out the mission and ministry of the Church,” he says. “So I would not wish to have any agenda that was at variance with what he has.” He then plans on visiting all the heads of dicasteries with his deputy, Bishop Mario Toso, who is also relatively new to the dicastery.
In short, he hopes to build on what Cardinal Martino has already achieved: “If Africans would excuse my expression, I do not wish to become like an African head of state!” he jokes. “When a new government comes in, it sweeps away all that has been going on before, accusing it of corruption. Instead I want to maintain a sense of continuity, to find out what has been going on, how far it’s got.”
Born to a Methodist mother and a Catholic father in Wassaw Nsuta in Western Ghana, Cardinal Turkson studied at St. Anthony-on-Hudson seminary in New York before being ordained a priest of Cape Coast in 1975. He went on to study for a doctorate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome before being made archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003 at the age of just 55, making him one of the youngest members of the College of Cardinals at the time.
His appointment as relator-general of the African synod last year singled him out as someone on the rise. Some have even spoken of him as a serious contender for the papacy and a possible first black Pope. He laughs off the suggestion, and repeats what he said at a press conference during the synod: that when a priest accepts his vocation, he also must accept the possibility of one day becoming a bishop and cardinal. If that leads to an African cleric becoming Pope, he asks, then “why not?” But he doesn’t believe it is necessarily likely, conscious that the world is still “pretty sensitive” to color. “As Eli said in the book of Samuel,” he added, “God is God, he will do what is pleasing in his eyes, so we leave it to him.”
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Economics and charity
Two specific issues are likely to preoccupy Cardinal Turkson’s dicastery in the coming years. The first will be how governments and the financial world respond to the economic crisis, and to what extent Benedict XVI’s social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” is being heeded by world leaders (the document underscored the root of the current crisis as an absence of morality, ethics and truth).
Although he says it’s too early to say if reform is being undertaken along the lines of “Caritas in Veritate,” Cardinal Turkson believes people are listening. “What I can say for sure is that the interest of world governments to pay attention to what the Pope is saying has come through strongly of late,” he says. “This interest is, to me, perhaps the most positive thing — somebody finally wants to listen.” He concedes that whether they act on the Holy Father’s words is another matter, but he welcomes the attention it’s generating.
A second major issue will be the environment, a subject of major concern to Benedict XVI. He is skeptical of the view that the Holy Father is developing “a new theology” of the environment, as some have suggested. “It’s more about accepting a consciousness of the environment,” he says. The cardinal stresses that the key word linking both “Caritas in Veritate” and his World Day of Peace Message, which connects care for the environment with peace, is “solidarity.”
“Hitherto it’s been common to refer to man’s sense of stewardship of creation — that has been the religious, theological way of presenting it,” he explains. “Now it is solidarity: that our life on earth depends as much on the earth as our life on the earth depends on us. So it’s like a symbiotic type of relationship which we need to appreciate more now than we’ve ever done.”
Cardinal Turkson rejects any notion that social justice is a predominantly leftist concern, seeing that perception as a remnant of the 1960s and 1970s and liberation theology. “Following the intuition of the Second Vatican Council for this dicastery, its task is to reflect and translate the Church’s doctrine into social issues,” he says. “I think that is a very valid concern, that’s what this offices seeks to implement, and in that sense I would not see this as a leftist agenda.” But he believes it is necessary to “look out and be watchful of it being hijacked” by political ideologies.
That leads us to one of the cardinal’s bugbears: poor catechetics in Africa, both of laity and priests, which tend to engage the mind but not the heart, therefore leading to superficiality. Christianity, he stresses, is about an event, an experience and ultimately conversion. Too often, he says, catechesis has been taught in a way that limited Jesus to information and ideas rather than about teaching an experience of him. The faith is often taught by rote, and this, he fears, has consequences.
“We may conclude that we have people in the seminaries who’ve never really had any real experience of Jesus, just a notion of whatever type of Jesus, and that is just going to be perpetuated,” he laments. “You can’t give what you don’t have.”
I put it to him that perhaps that’s also a problem in the West. “I didn’t want to say that!” he laughs, “but that may well also be the source of the crisis of faith over here.” Catholics who haven’t experienced Jesus in this way but focus merely on reason are more likely to be swayed by another person “who appears more convinced and more logical,” he says.
His firm grasp of faith and reason, and his recognition of the need for solidarity, augur well for his future collaboration with the Holy Father.
Add to that his openness, frankness, and good humor, and Cardinal Turkson holds plenty of promise as the new head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected].