Cardinal Zubeir Wako: courageous witness to love

One of the things I enjoyed about the recent conclave in Rome was the steady stream of photos documenting the latest developments. I particularly liked looking at pictures of the Cardinals, especially the lesser known ones. Where were they from? What was their story?

A friend was in Rome attending the Conclave. Because of his position within the Archdiocese, he spent part of his time with the Cardinals. He developed a congenial rapport with Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, leader of the Catholic Church in Sudan. They ate many of their meals together at the same table and my friend learned many things about this quiet, courageous man.

In the west, we take our Catholic faith for granted and as Christians we enjoy many benefits and freedoms; not so in other parts of the world. Cardinal Zubeir is the Chief Shepherd of one of the most impoverished, devastated and dangerous places to live as a Christian. In a series of emails, my friend painted a picture of Cardinal Zubeir: who he is, what he’s like, and how God’s grace is moving in him. To give some background information about this holy man, my friend referred me to an on-line article in Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charitable organization.

Gabriel Zubeir Wako was born on 27 February 1941 in southern Sudan to devout Catholic parents. One of his earliest influences was Fr. Angelo Arpe, a family friend with whom, as a very young boy, he would pray the Breviary. Fr. Arpe was assassinated just hours after giving the young Zubeir his First Communion. From an early age he was drawn to the priesthood and was ordained on 23 July 1963. Special dispensation was needed from Rome because of his young age of twenty-two.

The 1962 Missionary Society Act created havoc across the Sudanese Church and foreign-born clergy were expelled. A young Fr. Zubeir had to run his parish alone and because of the shortage of priests, he was named rector of the seminary. Life was very difficult for the handful of priests who were left.

The situation intensified with Sudan’s first civil war. There was widespread killing; one priest was killed and the others were on a hit list.

At 34 years of age, he was named Bishop of Wau. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Khartoum. To many people, the widespread opinion was that he was handed a “poisoned chalice.” (Aid to the Church in Need)

By 1983, President Jafaar Nimeiri had made a deal with Islamist hard-liners and Shari’a law was introduced into the Sudan. Christians were targeted and then-Archbishop Zubeir watched “with shock and dismay as poverty-stricken Christian families desperately struggled to give their children a little education in the misery of the displacement camps.” (Aid to the Church in Need)

He organized the Save the Schools Program and the initiative spread. As part of their mandate, children received free food and families were given social support. The diocese paid all the bills with help from agencies such as Aid to the Church in Need. Despite heavy opposition from the Islamic government, Save the Schools created thirty-four schools across Khartoum. The schools are in huts or makeshift structures with very little supplies. In some cases, the dirt floor is used as the blackboard.

In 2003, he was elevated to the position of Cardinal. This was a sign of hope for the beleaguered Sudanese Church.

In 2004, a treaty was ratified, ending the second civil war. However, for Sudanese Christians life continues to be very difficult because of restrictions, harassment and human rights violations from the Islamic government.

One day during lunch, the Cardinal and my friend were discussing the criticisms aimed at Pope Francis because of his role with the military dictatorship in Argentina many years ago. This is what my friend wrote in an email to me: “He’s pretty quiet, but he does say things from time to time. In fact, yesterday, when talking about these silly journalists criticizing Pope Francis for his role with the military dictatorship in Argentina decades ago, Cardinal Zubeir just pounded his fist on the table and said, ‘These [i.e., the journalists] are people who have never lived through such situations [i.e., military dictatorships]!’ Then he went on eating. Thirty years of civil war in Sudan…he knows what he’s talking about.”

My friend describes Cardinal Zubeir as a tall man, very quiet, extremely humble, and holy. In spite of an assassination attempt on his life a couple of years ago, he is always smiling and his laugh is more like a chuckle.

It’s very fitting that we learn more about Cardinal Zubeir in this Easter season. The reason for his unflinching faith and hope is evident in his 2006 Easter Message. We would do well to imitate his example. Here is an excerpt as published in Aid to the Church in Need:

Cardinal Zubeir asked Christians to fix their gaze on the risen Jesus who stands before them with the marks of the crucifixion—the marks of the nail and the lance—still on his body.

The cardinal said that within that torn and lacerated body, Jesus had a heart which none of his torturers could touch.

That heart remained what it had always been: a heart full of infinite goodness, compassion, mercy and love.

He went on to urge all his hearers to forgiveness, despite all they had endured.

Cardinal Zubeir said: “From that heart He asks us to relay to all who have done us wrong the prayer He offered for those who were crucifying Him: ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’”