“I am a poor shepherd that the Lord has sought.” The Archbishop of Bangui, Mons. Dieudonné Nzapalainga recalled the story of the prophet Amos, “a shepherd and a collector of sycamore fruits” , with reference to Pope Francis’ decision to elevate him to cardinal during the Consistory of Saturday 19 November, ahead of the closing of the Holy Door of Mercy. His Eminence, who will turn 50 next March 14, was ordained priest on August 9 1988 in the Congregation of the Spiritan Fathers. Appointed archbishop of Bangui by Benedict XVI on May 14 2012, he was consecrated a Bishop on July 22 of the same year. He serves as President of the Bishops’ Conference of the Central African Republic since July 20l3. In November 2015 he received Pope Francis in his diocese, when the Holy Father opened the first Holy Door of the Holy Year of Mercy in Bangui. Personally engaged in furthering the peace process in the Country, in 2013 he participated in the establishment of the Central African Interreligious Platform for Peace along with the President of the Islamic Council and the President of the Evangelical Alliance in Bangui. He will be the first Cardinal in his Country. We met him on the eve of the Consistory.
How did you receive the announcement of this appointment?
I lived it as Prophet Amos: a poor shepherd sought by the Lord. I had travelled to Bossembele, 160 km from Bangui, to install the new priest. At the end of Mass, the chancellor told me I had a phone call: the Nunciature had called announcing my appointment. My return to Bangui was very lively: Christians had gathered in the streets waving palm branches. Despite the presence of law enforcement offices, it took us four and a half hours to travel 12 km. I was touched and moved by my people.
I consider myself a simple servant of the Lord.
Like Mary, I can say that I am the servant of the Lord, and be it unto me according to His Word.
What is the significance of this appointment for the Central African Church?
Central Africa is a poor, abandoned and forgotten Country. It went through a series of crises, marked by veritable misrule. The population is suffering the consequences. Nonetheless, the Holy Father has extended his glance to this small, poor Country, with an apostolic visit last year (29-30 November).
This appointment shows that God does not forget the small and the poor who have faith in Him. It testifies to our Church’s commitment to the furthering of dialogue aimed at service, reconciliation and peace.
Will this appointment further strengthen your appeals for reconciliation and peace?
I intend to continue – in conjuction with the Imam and the shepherde – launching appeals for pacification in the framework of fraternal dialogue for the reconstruction of the Country. Extending our hands to Protestants and Muslims testifies to this joint commitment.
Muslims and Protestants have spontaneously supported this appointment.
God wants to serve himself of me – and of others – to keep the population upright, virtuous and reactive. Our communities need points of reference and compasses to progress in the fog.
With Pope Francis you opened the first Holy Door of the Jubilee in Bangui. Now you will be travelling to Rome to attend the concluding ceremony of the Holy Year as newly-appointed Cardinal…
By opening the first Holy Door in Bangui the Holy Father made a historical gesture. I didn’t expect I would be in Rome as a Cardinal, by his side. Since God writes straight on crooked lines, I will be in Rome providentially representing this periphery Church.
Which fruits has the Holy Year brought to your Country?
We have had peaceful presidential and local elections, recognized worldwide. Bangui’s PK5 district has been liberated. Feelings of respect and enthusiasm towards the Catholic Church have grown. This year more than 20 young people, 13 of whom from Bangui’s archdioceses, began initial formation for the priesthood. Bangui and the surrounding territory have gone back to life, despite attacks by the enemies of peace. And the Holy Door…was touched by numerous pilgrims!
What is the situation in the Country? There have been reports of new clashes…
The situation in the Country remains unstable owing to the circulation of weapons. I just returned from the city of Kaga-Bandoro where the Bishopric was set ablaze. It was an opportunity to listen to Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, civil authorities and armed groups. It was also a way to soothe tensions and call for dialogue. All involved parties agreed on the need to undertake this path. I lit a candle, now it’s up to the local community to keep the flame alive.
The solution to our problems won’t come from the outside. We ought to assume the responsibility of our destiny. Others should help us without expecting to have a primary role.
What message will you bring back to Central Africa upon your return as Cardinal?
Central Africa is a blessed Country loved by God. It’s time to look at each other straight in the eyes to disarm our hearts and minds for the recovery of this beautiful Country. The path that must be undertaken encompasses conversion, dialogue, and acceptance of others.
Life belongs to heralds,
And if Central African people want to be recorded in history they ought to accept reconciliation and forgiveness.