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Ethiopia’s future cardinal hopes to inspire the young to serve the poor

Ethiopian Cardinal-designate Souraphiel Below: Cardinal-designate Soane Mafi from Tonga (CNS)

Ethiopia’s cardinal-designate has said that he hopes his story of serving the people in one of Africa’s poorest countries will inspire young people to do the same.

While Ethiopians are “easily tempted to leave” to live and work in developed countries, “the need for educated people here is great,” Cardinal-designate Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa said in a telephone interview on Monday from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Almost two-thirds of Ethiopia’s people are illiterate and, while now considered politically and economically stable, the country has suffered drought, famine and war.

“As a Church, we need to work to change the situation in Ethiopia” of poverty and injustice, so that young people have more opportunities, Cardinal-designate Souraphiel said.

Born into “a family of Catholics for generations” in the village in Tchela Claka, near Harar in eastern Ethiopia, the 66-year-old cardinal-designate said all but one of his seven siblings live in Ethiopia.

Cardinal-designate Souraphiel is president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea and in July 2014 was elected chairman of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) based in Nairobi, Kenya.

After studying theology at King’s College in London, the cardinal-designate returned to Ethiopia and was ordained in 1976 as a Congregation of the Mission priest, also known as Vincentians or Lazarists.

He worked as a missionary in the southwestern part of the country and was imprisoned in Jimma for seven months during a crackdown on religious leaders by the communist military regime. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s junta killed many thousands of its opponents, imprisoned people on religious grounds and confiscated property.

After his release from prison, Cardinal-designate Souraphiel studied social sciences at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before returning to Ethiopia.

He became provincial superior of the Lazarists in Addis Ababa and, after the junta was overthrown in 1991 and Ethiopians were free to practice religion, he taught at the seminary there. In 1994, he was appointed prefect of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jimma-Bonga.

“It was good to be back” in Jimma, where he had suffered repression and imprisonment, “when things had changed and we were able to practice our faith in freedom,” Cardinal-designate Souraphiel said.

Cardinal-designate Soane Mafi, 53, was also among 20 men Pope Francis announced would be made cardinals at a consistory in Rome on February 14.

The youngest cardinal-designate named by Pope Francis is the son and grandson of catechists and will be Tonga’s first cardinal.

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When Cardinal-designate Mafi became bishop of Tonga in April 2008, he became the first diocesan priest to be bishop in the history of the nation, an archipelago with a land mass about four times the size of Washington DC.

Soane Patita Paini Mafi was born in Nuku’alofa, capital of Tonga, on December 19 1961. He grew up in Tonga and joined a youth group at his parish in the settlement of Kolofo’ou, near the capital, on the main island, Tongatapu. He studied at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva, Fiji.

After his priestly ordination, he spent four years at Ha’apai parish on an outer island. In 1995, he became vicar general of Tongatapu.

In an interview with Catholic San Francisco in 2008, then-Bishop Mafi said his bishop sent him for three years of study at then-Loyola College in Baltimore. After he graduated in 2000, he returned to Fiji to join a formation team training local priests.

After six years at the seminary, he received the call that the church would like him to be a bishop – an adjustment that he found difficult. He told Catholic San Francisco that at the time, being the bishop, the shepherd, was exciting and something that made him uneasy, “because I want to be myself. It’s kind of a mixed feeling, excited but at the same time overwhelming. Now I belong to everybody.”

He has served a nation in transition, a monarchy in which people are pushing for greater democratic rights.

Most Tongans are Methodist, but about 17,000 are Catholic. In 2012, there were said to be about 57,000 Tongans and Tongan-Americans in the United States, many in and around San Mateo and Oakland, California.