The Zambian newspapers, radio and television stations this past week have had several stories about the former Archbishop of Lusaka, Medardo Joseph Mazombwe, going to Rome to become a Cardinal. The stories speak of his being "created" or "elevated" or "made" a Cardinal. But what does all that mean? And what significance is it for the rest of us here in Zambia, Catholic or not, Christian or not?

I would like to devote a few paragraphs this week to explain why I think that this honour coming to Archbishop Mazombwe does indeed have significance for the wider community of Zambia, even some political significance in the current mood of political controversy about the role of the church in this country.
But let me first make a passing comment on the other big news in Zambia at the moment, the steps being taken to submit to Parliament Bills for amending the current Republican Constitution. Obviously more substantive discussion can only go on once Zambians have had a chance to go to the government printing office to purchase copies of the Bills. So I will save serious comment until actually seeing the Bill. (Surely we hope that the Bills will also be posted on a Government website for wider study!)

At least at this moment we can ask two questions about both the process and the content of the constitutional review. These are very serious questions that the citizens of Zambia surely will be asking in the days ahead. And they are questions that deserve some very serious answers if we are ever to get that longed for "Constitution that will stand the test of time"!

First, when and why and by whom was a decision made that Zambia would not receive a "new Constitution"? The promises made by President Mwanawasa (R.I.P.!) when appointing the Mung'omba Constitutional Review Commission in 2003 and then appointing the National Constitutional Conference in 2006 were representative of the general public sentiment that what the country needed was not bits and pieces of amendments to the current Constitution (already over-amended in bits and pieces!) but a really new and fresh Constitution.
Second, why will Zambians be denied the opportunity to vote in the tripartite elections next year with a clear mandate one way or another about the major electoral reforms so widely discussed in recent years? Do the majority of citizens want the 50 per cent plus one clause to be in effect when a President is chosen? Since the requirement has been a key feature of national debate ever since the Second President personally scratched it from the Mwanakatwe Commission Draft of 1996, surely something more democratic should be pushed by the current Government than simply deferring everything to a referendum in the unforeseeable future when money might be available for a referendum.

While waiting anxiously for some clarification to these two burning questions, what can we say about the fact that Zambia now has its first indigenous Cardinal? I think that this is indeed an important issue to look at since it throws some light on the role of the Church in Zambia, in pastoral care and in political action.

The first thing to say is that Archbishop Mazombwe has been selected by Pope Benedict XVI to be honoured because of his well-known pastoral care of Zambians, Catholic or not. As a priest for over 50 years, as Bishop of Chipata for many of those years and then Archbishop of Lusaka from 1996 to 2006, the new Cardinal has been recognised for strong spiritual leadership and a commitment to pastoral projects of building churches, schools and clinics and other developmental efforts. Anyone who has participated in his liturgies or listened to his homilies knows the foundation of the new Cardinal's pastoral care, his faith in Jesus the Servant.

At a time when too many so-called pastors preach about making their flocks rich, it has been good to hear the clear voice of Archbishop Mazombwe speaking out for the poor of Zambia. He has not been hesitant to challenge fellow Catholics, all Zambian citizens and the Government itself to exercise a prime principle in the Church's social teaching, the "preferential option for the poor." This means that the well-being of the poor must take a priority position in the decisions made by families, businesses and government institutions. For example, that has implications on a National Budget - do MPs currently debating the 2011 Budget constantly consider its implications on the condition of more than two-thirds of Zambians who live below the poverty line?

This concern for the poor is surely the reason Archbishop Mazombwe became a leading figure in the international campaign to secure debt cancellation for Zambia. Politically, he was a strong supporter of the Jubilee-Zambia movement, frequently joining in programmes to publicise the debt situation and willing to speak out, in Zambia, Europe and North America, about the economic, political and moral reasons Zambia's immense debt should be cancelled. In our Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection efforts with Jubilee-Zambia, we could always count on his encouraging participation.

I believe that remembering the new Cardinal's pastoral role that had clear political implications is important to lift up at the present moment in Zambia. As Zambian Catholic lay leaders recently commented, the verbal attacks on the Catholic Church and its leadership have reached very disturbing levels. Major spokespersons for the ruling party and Government, and state-owned and government-controlled print and electronic media have made assertions about the current role of the Catholic Church that are not only untrue but also are defamatory.

Zambia Episcopal Conference pastoral letters - often in conjunction with the other two mother bodies - have fearlessly spoken out against undemocratic practices, corruption and misplaced economic priorities. Because some priests have challenged Government and MMD policies, not as official spokespersons of the Church but in their individual capacities, a torrent of vicious abuse has been heaped upon the Church and its leaders. "Promoters of genocide" has been one such accusation.

Surely many must have noted the irony of the chief propagator of this charge (originally made in Parliament last year and never retracted or apologised for) being the one to express Government's pleasure on the honour bestowed on Mazombwe!

So what can be learned about this new status for Medardo Joseph Mazombwe? Surely it is more that a new title ("His Eminence") and maybe some new liturgical clothes (red colours)! For all of Zambia, it is certainly a privilege to have a "son of the soil" honoured by being named a Cardinal. Moreover it is a recognition for the Catholic Church for its pastoral concern for the people of Zambia.

But I don't think it is fanciful to argue that it is also a recognition that the Church has had, in the ministry of Cardinal Mazombwe, a special political stance that is very right and proper, a social concern based on the Archbishop's deep faith in Christ and care for the poor. And that, dear readers, surely has implications in the current political scene here in Zambia, especially as we move toward the 2011 elections and constitutional decisions.
Congratulations and many prayers, Cardinal Mazombwe!