Rwanda’s first cardinal lost seven members of his immediate family in the 1994 genocide. Now he is using his role as archbishop of Kigali to plant “seeds of peace” by promoting the family as the foundation for building a peaceful future.
Cardinal Antoine Kambanda made history when he received his red biretta from Pope Francis in the consistory on Nov. 28 as the first cardinal from the east-central African country.
“It was a great joy and I was thanking the Lord for this great grace for the Church in Rwanda and the country and Africa,” Cardinal Kambanda told EWTN News Nov. 30.
Immediately following the consistory, the 11 new cardinals present in Rome greeted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City.
“He still has a very good memory,” Kambanda said. “When I was presented as the archbishop of Rwanda, he remembered Rwanda and he told me: ‘Your people suffered so much.’ It showed that he had a good memory of Rwanda and what took place in Rwanda, and he prays for us.”
Rwanda experienced a 100-day genocide in 1994 in which more than 800,000 people were killed as members of the Hutu ethnic majority took up machetes and turned on their minority Tutsi neighbors, friends, and colleagues.
Kambanda lost his parents and five of his siblings in the genocide. The only other surviving member of his family is a brother who currently lives in Italy.
Kambanda was 35 years old and studying moral theology in Rome at the time of the genocide. He returned to Rwanda in 1999 after receiving his doctorate to direct the local Caritas in helping to rebuild the country torn apart by violence.
“The Church in Rwanda has taken an important role, has had an important role in the process of reconciliation,” Kambanda said.
For the past 20 years, Kambanda was directly involved in this process of reconciliation and rebuilding in Rwanda, first as the director of the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace in Kigali from 1999 to 2005 and later as bishop of the dioceses of Kibungo and Kigali.
He told EWTN that in the process of rebuilding, strengthening the family was especially important.
“The family is something that we are working upon because the family is the domestic church and the family is the foundation of the society to prepare the lasting peace in the future,” he said.
“When we take care of the young ones, the children are brought up in love and peace and kindness. It is a seed of peace that we plant in their hearts and a foundation for the peaceful relationships and peaceful country in the future.”
The formation of the next generation is critical, he explained. “The youth have got the strength, they have the talents, and they need formation in skills in order to have their talents developed. … The youth are vulnerable, but when they are well trained, well taken care of, they become a solution instead of being a problem in the society.”
Kambanda, 62, has served as archbishop of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, since 2019. Prior to this appointment, he was bishop of Kibungo from May 2013. His episcopal motto is “Ut vitam habeant’’ (That They May Have Life).
Born in Kigali in 1958, Kambanda attended primary schools in Burundi and Uganda before completing secondary school in Kenya.
He returned to Rwanda for seminary and was ordained a priest by St. John Paul II in 1990 during the pope’s pastoral visit to Rwanda.
After receiving his doctorate in moral theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, he taught moral theology and was a spiritual director at seminaries in Rwanda. He also served as rector of the major seminary of philosophy in Kabgayi and the Saint Charles Borromeo Major Seminary in Nyakibanda.
“I never ever dreamt of being a cardinal. It was the Lord who wanted it. I love the Lord, and I consecrated my life to work for Him. Being a cardinal gives me the opportunity to do even much more for the Lord,” Kambanda said in an interview with Vatican News the day after Pope Francis announced that he had chosen 13 new cardinals.
“I thank the Lord for his grace which is at work in his Church all the time –a Church which today faces several challenges. Therefore, we must work hard to share and make the message of salvation better understood. It is both joy, a great burden, and a challenge,” Cardinal Kambanda said.
In a 2014 interview with Patheos, Kambanda recalled the genocide.
He said “1994 was a terrible agony for all Rwandans. Those in the country lived it physically, psychologically and spiritually. For us outside the country we lived it psychologically and spiritually. It was quite painful to live it from far in Europe where I was surrounded by a rather an indifferent society that continued its normal life. I have to adapt to it in order to be able to go ahead with it in spite of my deep sorrow and suffering.”
“But I must say that it was faith and prayer that sustained me in that difficult period ... I developed an intensive and deep prayer. Hours of meditation of the word of God and prayer brought me to deeper communion with God and through Him also communion with the dear ones who passed away. This gave me life courage and strength to finish my studies and accomplish my mission in Rome despite the difficult situation.”