For most of the faithful, he is more than a cardinal or a bishop. In the world of spirits, devout Catholics in Dar es Salaam and elsewhere he served consider him a loving father who has lived to feed and safeguard his family with the word of God.
His humbleness, hardworking even in times of sickness and great pain has left a mark, not only in the souls of faithful but even the subordinates he is leading.
When it became apparent that his health was sharply deteriorating, many thought it was the end of it. But he hanged for over four years in a style and spiritual strength some say is a miracle. This is Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, the archbishop of the archdiocese of Dar es Salaam since 1992 following the resignation of Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa.
The spiritual and social progress he initiated in the largest and complex metropolitan of Dar es Salaam diocese are so great, touched and changed lives of thousands in and outside the church.
When he took possession, the Dar es Salaam archdiocese had just over 20 parishes. He is now credited for establishing over 90 new parishes in the past 25 years.
The cardinal defied the odds to take the church to Muslim-dominated areas like Mafia island and Kibiti in Rufiji District. In the eyes of unbelievers, the move was a huge loss but the social services that came with the parishes like schools and health centres have made him more relevant today than the days he initiated the works.
“Indeed, these are very big successes. Many schools have been built during his time. Youths acquired skills for self-employment to serve the church and the nation at large. He took the gospel to areas no one thought of before,” says a faithful at St. Joseph Cathedral.
He is also credited for promoting harmonious relationship between Catholics and other denominations and religions. During the middle of his carrier, the cardinal distinguished himself as bold and no nonsense. In those days he spared no individual or institution issuing statements threatening the unity of the country and the mission of the church.
Believer of Nyerere philosophy
He was a staunch believer of founding father of the nation Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
During his studies he chose to research on Nyerere’s philosophy of building a united nation, and used it to emphasise the role of the church in promoting patriotism. He is also a believer of self-reliance for the church and individuals.
“We as the conference (The Tanzania Episcopal Conference) say he has recognised and cherished the contribution of his predecessors and founders of the nation in building the sense of patriotism,” says Dr Charles Kitima, general secretary of Tanzania Episcopal Conference.
Dr Kitima says TEC views the cardinal as among people who have exceptionally strengthened the spirit of self-governing and self-reliance of the church in Tanzania.
“At the national level, we see a person who loved patriotism. He believed the church has a role in promoting patriotism among people,” says Dr Kitima.
There were only 20 priests when he was appointed Bishop of Dare s Salaam but he ‘brewed’ 73 new priests during his tenure. Insiders praise him for promoting priests and appointing most committed ones to serve the church.
In February 1998, Pope John Paul II elevated him to cardinalship. This position is given to those who have exceptionally demonstrated readiness to die for the truth and the gospel they preach. His duties include participating in Papal conclaves (Papal elections) when the Holy See is vacant.
He has participated in the conclave of April 2005, which elected Pope Benedict XVI and in the conclave of March 2013, which elected Pope Francis.
Social political arena
It is no secret during the first two decades of his carreer in Dar es Salaam, the cardinal was known for his boldness and speaking his mind .
He waste no time to openly hit out at the government and institutions when he felt their words and actions posed a moral and political threat to the church and the nation.
That won him unimaginable prominence.
In August 2009, the cardinal publicly rejected the government’s advice that the church should first consult the government before giving out pastoral letters to the Christian communities or those in authorities. The church had just issued an apostolic letter that expounded on civic education and citizen’s participation in debates and electoral process to get quality leaders. That was few weeks before the 2010 General Elections were held. CCM’s National Executive Committee (NEC) was irked by the letter. They met and came out with a strong statement, advising the religious leaders to first consult with the government before issuing such documents.
Speaking at the burial of bishop Antony Mayalla days later, the cardinal rejected the adivice, saying the church would never take the advice from the government whenever it wanted to communicate with the faithful.
He vowed the church will continue issuing the apostolic documents without involving the government, saying allowing that was failure to do God’s work.
There are many more instances that the top cleric did not hesitate to come out boldly in defence of the church and the nation unity.
However, observers say towards the end of his carreer there were seeing the cardinal different from what he was in the past.
What observers regard as unusual softness of the cardinal was evident when TEC’s committee on peace and justice issued a circular in 2014, asking the Constituent Assembly not to ignore proposals of the Constitutional Review Commission on the structure of the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
Two days after, the cardinal came out to condemn the document, saying it did not represent the position of the Church in Tanzania.
“The views of the committee cannot be the position of the church. The church has its procedures of issuing its positions which are issued by the president of TEC,” he then said. The move drew criticism from rights activists and critics of the government who thought the cardinal was leaning towards the government. In March last year, the cardinal was at it again when he disassociated himself from an apostolic letter authored by TEC to prepare the faithful for the start of lent.
The letter warned of deteriorating democratic situation and suppression of civic and political rights.
Again, the cardinal came out to tell the media that he was not part of the letter which, he said, has mixed religion and politics. “I cannot see how I can be the author and preacher of that letter that was prepared by bishops. I don’t want to say that letter is bad but the whole letter is a mix-up of religion and politics. That is not the work of the bishops, it is the work of politicians,” he said.
His position on the document was met with mixed reaction.“When I look at his two decades of service in Dar and his last five years, it’s as if we had two different Pengos,” said a devout catholic who asked not to be named. Whether the cardinal has softened stance or not remains the question of further discussion and arguments.
Responding to the views, Dr Kitima says it would be unfair to judge the cardinal without considering the times and circumstances when he was making the statements.
“Personally, I say sometimes people judge a person without looking at circumstances and the position he has. We need to ask what challenges and problems that existed in that time which don’t exist today. He never remains quiet on issues that threaten the unity and peace.
“I see the values which he stood for that time are what he is defending today, but the circumstances, age and times are contributing to people’s judgment,’ he says.
The faithful started to notice the deteriorating health of the cardinal about four years ago. However, the physical weakness seemed to have fueled his spiritual strengthen. He continued to offer church services even at time his weakening health became a threat.
He led masses and offered Sacraments while seated. He defied doctors in India, the US and Germany who advised him to take a rest and continued with the church mission.
“Diseases did not block him, he continued with services in very serious health condition,” says Dr Kitima. He hasn’t resigned because of health issues but because of age,’ he says.