Rights That Can't Wait

Interview With New African Undersecretary to Health Council

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By Carmen Elena Villa



ROME, OCT. 28, 2009 (Zenit.org).- There are some human rights that just can't wait, says the new undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Monsignor Jean-Marie Mpendawatu was named last month to the post, after working 20 years at the council. He says his appointment is being seen, particularly in his homeland, as one more sign of how Africa is in the heart of the Church.

ZENIT spoke with Monsignor Mpendawatu about Africa and about the synod of bishops this month, dedicated to considering reconciliation, justice and peace on the continent.

ZENIT: How did you receive your appointment as undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: In my diocese, the appointment has been received as a grace of this synod. Some have even said that, after the Pope's trip to Africa [in March], the situation of African poor and sick people has been seen and that this appointment is to show that Africa is in the heart of the Church.

ZENIT: Did you take part in some of the synod discussions? How do you see its development?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: The new president of this dicastery, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, did participate. I met with some bishops and I attended two sessions.

I think the experience has been positive because a synod is an intense moment of episcopal communion and fraternity, of sharing the responsibility of the Church.

I think the presence of the Pope, the Successor of Peter, who effects communion with all the churches and dioceses, as well as being able to pray together, to discuss and find solutions, are elements that reinforce episcopal collegiality, that goes from being affective to being effective.

It has been an opportunity to be aware of the joys, lights, hopes of a Church such as Africa's that, in spite of all its problems, is advancing from the point of view of deepening in the faith.

The Church is very committed to having more people adhere to Christ. Let's not forget that in Africa there are new catechumens, many former pagans that are being baptized. So there is a continuous missionary endeavor.

ZENIT: And what do you think of the discussions in regard to health care ministry?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: In many African countries, about 60% of hospital structures belong to the Church or to religious communities. They give health care to patients of all religions.

The issue of health isn't an option. It's a duty, a mandate of the Lord. It is a binomial that also includes catechesis. To make known the name of the Lord. In his name is salvation. Jesus Christ is the true physician of bodies and souls. When the Church carries out missions, she seeks to heal bodies and souls. In developed countries also, the Church must humanize and evangelize health.

ZENIT: Tell us about sexual education in Africa: in Uganda there is an educational plan on abstinence and fidelity, with the condom as a last resort. How do you see this, from your perspective as an African and as undersecretary of the pontifical council for health?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: There has been much talk of the experience both in Uganda as well as in other communities where there are programs to combat AIDS. They are focused on prevention, correct information, the virus and infection. Then they are told about permanent conjugal fidelity, abstinence and chastity. This also happens with the help of grassroots ecclesial communities. Hence, there is an education that takes into account the faith, morality and, above all, education to mature in a responsible way.

Another aspect is that of the value of the family, which is part of our cultural and anthropological genotype. However, to us come the "toxic residues" of which Benedict XVI has spoken.

ZENIT: How can these programs be developed when there is so much polygamy?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: Speaking personally, I have seen that my parents' and grandparents' generation, which are among the first baptized, never knew polygamy. Prior to my grandfather's generation, when we were not evangelized, there was much polygamy but now there are already three generations where I don't find polygamists. Christianity has helped us.

ZENIT: What do you expect from this synod both for your continent as well as for health care ministry?

Monsignor Mpendawatu: In Africa there are, for many reasons, wars and conflicts. The subject of peace is essential. There are divisions, separations between groups, ethnicities and policies. Families that have lost their loved ones remain with this suffering. Moreover, our countries are young. They have 40 or 50 years of independence. The subject of this synod is justice, peace and reconciliation.

Through health, the apostolate of mercy, the Church helps to heal some of these difficulties.

In regard to AIDS, there are several institutes and associations -- of different confessions -- that work in this sector. I believe we can work together and thus have greater strength in appealing to governments to help the population and to take care of problems regarding basic needs.

I believe it can be a great hope, which must come out at the end of the synod and that, through health, we can contribute to reconciliation in Africa, with God and with others, so that there will always be more justice in this continent. Without justice, it is difficult to access health. There are rights that cannot be kept waiting.