Protase Rugambwa: New Cardinal with vast experience in the Holy See

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Protase Rugambwa during one of the activities of the Catholic Church. PHOTO | FILE

Dar es Salaam. Protase Rugambwa is one of three African Cardinals who join the College of Cardinals today.

His appointment is a sign of the esteem in which the Pope holds the 63-year-old, after 10 years of service in the Holy See.

Upon receiving the cardinal’s purple, the current coadjutor archbishop of Tabora will become Tanzania’s second cardinal elector. The other is 79-year-old Cardinal Polycarp Pengo.

Ordained by John Paul II

Archbishop Protase Rugambwa was born into the Kishumba family in Bunena, Tanzania, on May 31, 1960. Some sources explain that, like many children that year, his parents named him Rugambwa in honour of Tanzania’s first cardinal, Laurean Rugambwa (1912-1997), created on March 28, 1960. Pope John Paul II himself, during his visit to Tanzania, ordained him to the priesthood on September 2, 1990, for the Diocese of Rulenge.

After four years of pastoral work in the diocese as a parochial vicar and hospital chaplain, he was sent to Rome. There he obtained a doctorate in pastoral theology at the Pontifical Lateran University from 1994 to 1998. Returning to his home diocese, he served as formator, vocations director, secretary of the pastoral department, and finally vicar general of the Diocese of Rulenge.

Work in the Vatican

Fr Rugambwa then returned to Rome from 2002 to 2008 to work for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples — now the Dicastery for Evangelization. On January 18, 2008, he was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Kigoma, and consecrated bishop on April 13 of the same year.

Four years later, he was called back to Rome once again. On June 26, 2012, Benedict XVI appointed him deputy secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and president of the Pontifical Mission Societies with the rank of archbishop.

On November 9, 2017, Pope Francis confirmed him as secretary — number 2 — of the congregation. During his years of service, the archbishop distinguished himself in particular for his defense of African youth faced with the challenges of migration. In a report in July 2022, he urged members of the Association Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa Region (ACERAC) to “help the youth of Central Africa not to waste, but rather to shape an identity that values their origins, their culture and their religiosity in the encounter with new cultural and religious schemes and models.”

Back in Africa

At the end of his mandate, on April 13, 2023, the Argentine pontiff appointed him coadjutor archbishop of the Diocese of Tabora with the right of succession. He then returned to Tanzania to assist the incumbent archbishop, Paul Runangaza Ruzoka, who had just passed the age limit. “I see my new assignment as an opportunity to make a fresh start in my life of vocation and service,” declared Archbishop Protase Rugambwa on his arrival in the archdiocese.

Religious pluralism

The new cardinal represents Rome in an East African country marked by religious pluralism consisting of Christians and Muslims, as well as animist communities, and Hindu and Sikh minorities. The local Catholic Church is relatively well-developed, with 34 dioceses.

Protase Rugambwa is the third cardinal in Tanzania’s history, after Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa (1912-1997), and Cardinal Polycarp Pengo, who retired in 2019 and will celebrate his 80th birthday on August 5, 2024.

Five things about the consistory

As Pope Francis is set to create 21 new cardinals from around the world today, most of whom will one day be eligible to elect his successor -- or become pontiff, it is important to take a loot a the consistory. The ceremony, called a consistory, is the ninth of Francis' pontificate since his election in 2013.

It will be closely watched for clues as to the future direction of the Church, especially since the 86-year-old pope has said he would not be averse to stepping down -- as did his predecessor Benedict XVI -- should his declining health warrant it.

Pomp and circumstance

The ceremony will be held this morning at 10:00 am (08:00 GMT) in St Peter's Square.

Of the 21 cardinals-to-be, 18 are under the age of 80 and thus currently eligible to vote as "cardinal electors" in the next conclave, when Francis' successor will be determined.

As is customary, the future cardinals will kneel before the pope to receive their biretta, or four-cornered scarlet cap, whose colour recalls the blood of Christ shed on the cross. Francis will also present each with the cardinal's ring, which replaces the episcopal ring they receive as bishops.

The ceremony will be followed by the traditional "courtesy visit" in which the general public is invited inside the gilded halls of the Apostolic Palace to greet the newly made cardinals.

Princes of the Church

Long considered the "princes" of the Roman Catholic Church, cardinals serve as top administrators and advisers to the pope.

Some lead departments within the Roman Curia, the government of the Holy See, but most work from their home countries.

Among the new group of cardinals are clergy from two geopolitically sensitive areas: the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who is the Holy Land's top Catholic, and the bishop of Hong Kong, who will be key in improving the Church's fraught ties with communist China. Some of the future cardinals already hold top positions in the Curia, namely the prefect for the Dicastery of the Eastern Churches, the head of the powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the head of the Dicastery for Bishops.

Do the math

Following the consistory, there will be 137 cardinal electors. About three-quarters of these, or 99 cardinals, will have been appointed by Francis, the former Jorge Bergoglio.

That has increased scrutiny of Francis' picks, with some Vatican observers viewing the list as an indication of the future spiritual roadmap of the Church.

During his papacy, Francis -- the first pope from the Americas -- has sought to elevate to the highest ranks of the Church clergy from developing nations far from Rome, part of his philosophy of diversity and inclusion.

That has heightened speculation that the next pope may well be cast in the same mould as Francis, preaching a more tolerant Church with a greater focus on the poor and marginalised.

Of the cardinal electors, 21 percent were created by Benedict XVI and six percent by John Paul II.

Far from Rome

The Jesuit pontiff, who has championed the faithful from "peripheries" far from Rome, also wants cardinals to reflect the "universality of the Church", looking to areas where Christianity is growing, such as Latin America, Africa and Asia.

From the Americas, Francis has chosen archbishops from Venezuela and Argentina for Saturday's consistory, as well as a 96-year-old Capuchin priest from Buenos Aires. From Africa come archbishops from South Sudan, South Africa and Tanzania, while the clergy from Asia hail from Malaysia and Hong Kong, including the city's current bishop Stephen Chow.

Earlier this month, Chow travelled to Mongolia during a papal visit by Francis in which the pope sought to reassure China's communist government that the Church had "no political agenda to advance".

Europe still plays role

Clergy from Europe, where Catholicism is steadily declining, will still be represented, however.

New cardinals include the Swiss prelate serving as the Holy See's apostolic nuncio to Italy, equivalent to an ambassador, and the archbishops of Lodz in Poland and Madrid, Spain, and the bishop of Ajaccio, Corsica.

Youngest is the 49-year-old bishop of Setubal, Portugal, who most recently organised World Youth Day in Lisbon. Americo Aguiar will be the College of Cardinals' second-youngest member, just behind the apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Giorgio Marengo.

(Additional reporting by AFP and