Among those bishops who will be created cardinals at the June consistory is Archbishop Jean Zerbo of Bamako, a man who has already been called the “cardinal of peace.”
In announcing the June 28 consistory at the Regina Coeli on May 21, Pope Francis expressed the desire to choose men who represent the “catholicity” of the Church. His selection of Archbishop Zerbo is particularly noteworthy in this regard, as he will be the first cardinal to hail from Mali.
Born Dec. 27, 1943 in Ségou, Archbishop Zerbo was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ségou July 10, 1971. He earned his licentiate in Sacred Scripture at the Ponifical Biblical Institute in Rome, studying there from 1977 to 1981. Upon returning to Mali in the early 1980s, he taught at the major seminary in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and served as a pastor in Markala.
In June 1988, St. John Paul II named him auxiliary bishop of Bamako. In 1994, he was appointed Bishop of Mopti, and in 1998 was made Archbishop of Bamako.
Archbishop Zerbo represents Pope Francis’ frequent calls to focus on areas where the Church is persecuted: Mali is a majority-Muslim nation that often sees harsh application of sharia as well as extremist violence against Christians.
Speaking to Cuore Amico in January this year, Archbishop Zerbo described the situation of Christians in the country as “a test comparable to that of the early disciples.”
Mali has recently been ravaged by a civil war, which exploded in 2012 with various rebel forces seizing control of parts of the country, and a subsequent coup. Although it officially ceased in 2015, fighting has continued throughout the country.
The war is largely driven by several factions of Islamist militants seeking to impose sharia, as well as by ethnic separatists. These militant groups occupy much of the northern part of the country.
During his ministry, Archbishop Zerbo has participated actively in peace talks in Mali’s civil conflict. His appointment to the College of Cardinals therefore sends a powerful message in favor of peace in the country, and a red hat will give added weight to the new cardinal’s contributions to talks.
He has also called for humanitarian aid for those suffering from hunger, thirst, and disease due to war in the country. In 2013, he told Fides that “[A] new period of suffering is beginning for the people of Mali. We would welcome support so that we can help the increasing number of displaced and refugees.”
He has stressed the need for conversion, on the part of both Christians and Muslims, saying that “peace can only be achieved through the conversion of the hearts regardless of faith. We Christians are always called to an effort of reconciliation.”
The Church in Mali has recently been accused of embezzlement of funds related to the Swiss Leaks investigation. The Malian bishops’ conference said in a May 31 statement that it “takes issue with the allegations that certain bishops have misappropriated funds from the Catholic faithful” and that it “functions in full transparency.”
The bishops’ conference also asked if “the authors of the tendentious article are aiming at another unavowed objective, rather than bringing constructive information to public opinion? Does this act made at the moment that this Church has just been honored with the nomination of its first cardinal aim at dirtying its image and at destabilizing it? God who sees all and who knows all will one day restore the truth.”
Archbishop Zerbo will be absent from the consistory due to unexpected medical reasons.
By Joe Slama