In East Africa, they call him “Bwana Yesu”—“Lord Jesus.” Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, C.M., 66, has been the Archbishop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia since 1999, also the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See.
Located in the Horn of Africa in the continent’s Northeast, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has a population of 87 million people, making it the second most populous country on the continent and the most populous landlocked country in the world. Its landmass is slightly smaller than Texas plus California put together. The country has the largest GDP of any country in East or Central Africa, but per capita it’s still one of the poorest places in the world. Two thirds of the population is illiterate. Sixty-three percent of the population is Christian, but less than 1 percent are Catholic.
A member of the Congregation of the Mission (otherwise known as the Lazarists or Vincentians), Archbishop Souraphiel has been a strong proponent of education, establishing in 2005 the Ethiopian Catholic University of St. Thomas Aquinas and calling on educated Ethiopians to stay in the country and help its people to thrive. “Education,” he argues, “is the key to create love of one’s country, to appreciate one’s own country and culture, and to be creative in all kinds of aspects of life so that the youth will be able to be create employment within the country.”
In addition, Archbishop Souraphiel has spoken out on moral and social issues. In 2008 he joined other Ethiopian religious leaders in encouraging lawmakers to outlaw homosexual activity in the country’s constitution, calling it “an infestation.” In 2014 the Catholic Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa that he heads issued a statement in support of marriage, saying “we strongly condemn same sex unions and other deviations that go against human nature and natural laws.”
Souraphiel has also drawn repeated attention to the scourge of human trafficking, which is a big business in Ethiopia; children particularly from rural areas are forced into servitude in other parts of the country and to a lesser extent abroad; some girls are also made into sex slaves. (Marriage by abduction, in which men hunt and kidnap young women, then rape them until they are pregnant, is also thought to be responsible for perhaps as many as 69 percent of marriages in the country.)
Reflecting on the effect Pope Francis has had in Africa, Souraphiel notes that Africans “have great respect and great love for the Holy Father because of the emphasis he’s putting on the poor, on the migrants, on the disabled, and on the simplicity of life.” When it comes to the Vatican, Souraphiel posits, “We don’t need a power structure.” Instead it should be a “moral voice in the world [that is] credible.”
How do you feel about being named Cardinal? How has your family reacted?
I feel humbled by the nomination of His Holiness Pope Francis to become a member of the College of Cardinals. I feel great responsibility in being near to the Holy Father in his great leadership of the Universal church and in his becoming a voice to the international community.
All my brothers and sisters live here in Ethiopia with their families. Only one brother lives abroad and he is married with two children. Two of my sisters have grandchildren. My immediate family and all my relatives came to wish me God’s blessing in the new responsibility to which the Holy Father has entrusted to me.
What do you hope for the church today?
My hope for the church is that it continues to become credible not only to its flock and those it serves but also to the whole world which is expecting so much from the Catholic Church.
What is one message you feel the church should be offering to today’s world?
On message which the church should offer to today’s world is the message of the Joy of the Gospel: “In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The 'Joy of the Gospel' is for all people: no one can be excluded” ("Evangelium Gaudium," 23).
What are the most pressing issues facing your region and community?
Let me speak of AMECEA (Association of Members Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa) whose chairman I am at present. It comprises of nine countries and two affiliated countries in Eastern and North-Eastern Africa (also known as the Horn of Africa). Most of the pressing issues are related to poverty alleviation, infrastructures in education, health and development. Peace and stability as well as regional and international cooperation is necessary to face these pressing issues.
One of the effects of poverty in the community is the ongoing human trafficking and violence against women and children. Besides, the community also faces erosions of traditional positive values by the onslaught and sometimes imposition of foreign influences: like lack of respect to parents and elders, pornography, homosexuality, child soldiers, etc.
What has your region and your community taught you about God and the church?
The Ethiopian community has taught me Christian values which have been inculturated in the various cultures of Ethiopia since the Apostolic Age when Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia and which became one of the first countries to make Christianity a state religion. St. Frumentius, the first bishop of Ethiopia, was ordained bishop by St Athanasius of Alexandria. Throughout the centuries, the Christian community in Ethiopia has passed on the message that the church founded on Our Lord Jesus Christ prevails against all evils.
The AMECEA Region has been evangelized by many dedicated missionaries. I have learnt that through the works of the missionaries many have encountered our Lord Jesus Christ and many have given their lives as martyrs to their faith.
What’s an image of God, passage from Scripture or figure from Church history that you look to for support and encouragement?
The image of God as the “Merciful Father” as presented in the passage of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) and Saint John Paul II who did not hide his human ailments and suffering but who pointed to the Suffering Servant on the cross.
Finally: What are your hopes for next October’s Synod?
My hopes are that the Holy Spirit shall guide the next Synod on the Family so that the church remains faithful to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and to the teaching of our Holy Mother Church as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Canon Law in the presence of our Merciful Father.
Since the world is expecting the Catholic Church to become a moral voice of society and a beacon of light for families of the world, we need to pray for the intercession of the Holy Family of Nazareth: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
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