The rising star of justice and peaceRobert Mickens
- 31 October 2009
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is to be the new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He is an accomplished scholar but also a prelate with a popular touch, and his appointment to the Curia confirms that he is in the ascendant
In the autumn of 1992, Pope John Paul II singled out Fr Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson to be the next Archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana. But the priest, who was still several weeks short of his forty-fourth birthday, politely tried to decline the appointment.
The reason was simple. He was working to complete his doctoral dissertation on the Old Testament at the Biblicum, the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and he knew that episcopal ordination would bring that arduous endeavour to a halt. After all, church law prohibits theologians from examining members of the Magisterium, making it impossible for “Archbishop” Turkson to defend his thesis.
“So I tried to buy time,” recalled Turkson at a private dinner with a group of journalists during the final week of the recent Synod for Africa. “I really wanted to finish the doctorate at the Biblicum,” he said while we were having dessert (tartufo nero di gelato) in the dining room at the Casa Santa Marta, a tasteful and well-appointed “hotel” for church officials visiting the Vatican. While the doctoral defence was not to be, he rose through the ranks in the Church; he was ordained an archbishop in 1993 and gained his cardinal’s red hat 10 years later.
Living up to his reputation as gracious and accommodating, Cardinal Turkson put aside his duties as the Synod’s recording secretary (relator general) and spent a leisurely evening with about a dozen or so members of the press. His musings about his appointment as Archbishop of Cape Coast came in response to a question I had put to him. “If you were invited to take a post in the Roman Curia, would you accept it?” I asked.
Everyone chuckled because for the past few months the talk in the Borgo Pio coffee bars close to St Peter’s Square was that Cardinal Turkson was to become the new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. But the official announcement had not been made – it was to come three days later during a crowded press conference for the close of the Synod – and the cardinal seemed to dodge the question. Actually, he gave a cryptic answer by suggesting that he would probably react to a Curia job offer as he had to his promotion from priest to archbishop. He would try to buy time, but would eventually submit under obedience.
That story gives a bit of insight into the person of Cardinal Peter Turkson. Some would say his response to these promotions shows a refreshing lack of ecclesiastical ambition; others might see it as hesitancy or indecisiveness. Either way, what became apparent over the course of our evening was that the cardinal is quite comfortable in his own skin. There are no pretensions, no airs; no sense that he feels his ecclesial rank makes him more special or entitled than others. “He will be a great breath of fresh air in the musty corridors of the loggias of the Vatican,” said one long-time Curia official.
It was this informality that may have prompted Cardinal Turkson’s answer to a question at the press conference prior to the Synod about whether the next pope could be an African.“Why not?” he said, “If God would wish to see a black man also as pope, then thanks be to God!”
At the dinner, dressed in a simple grey clerical suit and V-neck wool jumper, the cardinal never became defensive or combative. He was just as calm and conversant at the several press conferences he held during the three-week synod as he was around the table. With such a demeanour, he is likely to become one of Vatican’s most popular officials.
“He’s outgoing, friendly and warm – and very capable and dedicated,” said Fr Stephen Pisano SJ, vice-rector at the Biblicum and the man who was directing Turkson’s doctoral work when he was named archbishop. “I remember the day he got the call. He came into my office and said, ‘I have a problem. I have been named Archbishop of Cape Coast’,” the Jesuit laughed. Cardinal Turkson was doing an exegetical study of King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, specifically examining the king’s prayer that God hear the voice of the “foreigner, who is not of your people Israel” (1 Kings 8:41-43). Despite the interruption, Cardinal Turkson is still the only active cardinal to have advanced so far in formal scripture studies (three others with doctorates are now retired).
The conversation at Santa Marta naturally waded into some of the themes that were raised during the 4-25 October synod assembly and into Africa in general. Many were items that Cardinal Turkson has already addressed publicly, including at a lecture at Cambridge in 2007, captured afterwards in a Tablet Interview (10 November 2007).
One of the things I asked him was if he thought the Church was too Euro- or Italo-centric. He acknowledged that many people believed this, but answered by saying that the African Church had to “develop its own philosophy and anthropology” in order to really help the Gospel permeate and transform society. And he pointed out that in his 16 years as Archbishop of Cape Coast he has never sent a single seminarian to Rome for studies.
But will Cardinal Turkson and his views find a welcome in the Roman Curia? And, more importantly, will the cardinal be given full authority to shape policy in his own office? A sign that he may have trouble doing so was the announcement of the Justice and Peace office’s new secretary, or second in command, two days before his own appointment. This other new man, Bishop-elect Mario Toso SDB, is a former rector of the Pontifical Salesian University and considered a highly qualified scholar of the Church’s social teaching. But it is doubtful that, given the chronology of events, the cardinal was consulted about selecting this Italian confrère of Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB. One wonders who will really be in charge.
Nevertheless, Cardinal Turkson has all the talent and grace to be able to hold his own. He speaks several languages fluently, including Italian. He has had a cosmopolitan formation, having completed his primary, secondary and philosophical studies in Ghana before spending four years in New York State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology at a seminary run by Conventual Franciscans. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1975, he spent a year teaching in a minor seminary in Ghana before coming to Rome (1976-1980) to get a licentiate at the Biblicum. He returned to Ghana, where he resumed seminary teaching combined with parish work. In 1987 he was sent back to the Biblicum for the doctorate in scripture. And he went back home as Cape Coast’s second consecutive homegrown archbishop.
Now if you believe in omens, there are also a couple of esoteric “signs” that could augur well for Cardinal Turkson. First of all, his birthday is 11 October, the liturgical feast of the Blessed John XXIII, father of the Second Vatican Council and author of the acclaimed encyclical Pacem in Terris. And secondly, his given name – Kodwo – means Monday, the day of the week on which he was born. In the Ghanaian languages every day of the week is associated with some property or thing. Call it providence or a happy coincidence, but the name Kodwo is associated with peace.