Rwandan bishop carries special concerns to synod in Rome

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Bishop Antoine Kambanda is carrying a very specific set of concerns with him during the ongoing worldwide meeting of Catholic prelates on family.

The head of a small diocese in eastern Rwanda, Kambanda says that one of the biggest family life issues faced in his area are the number of young people who grew up as orphans following the horrific 1994 genocide and now have no experience in how to build families.

Such young people, the bishop said, have no memories of the interaction between their parents to help them understand what a family is like.

"We are expecting a lot from the family but the family is not prepared," said Kambanda, speaking in an NCR interview Oct. 17.

"We have good, young men, young ladies, who were orphaned when they are young and perhaps are adopted or who grow up in an institute," said the bishop. "In many cases, an orphan is an orphan even if he's adopted."

"Our concern is that, especially for such young people, to learn to make their own family," he said. "Now is he getting out of that state of an orphan, having this time the proper family?"

Kambanda, whose Kibungo diocese sits towards Rwanda's eastern border with Tanzania, was speaking in a 30-minute interview that focused on specific challenges facing family life in his country. The bishop spoke particularly about the problems of helping orphans, of assisting single mothers, and providing pastoral care for divorced and remarried persons.

The bishop started the interview by relating the message he had shared to the synod during his 3-minute address at one of the gathering's open sessions. The Rwandan said he had spoken most about the need to encourage evangelical or mission work from families, giving the example of a family that the bishops in his country are trying to have beatified.

That family, Kambanda said, went through struggles like many families -- with the husband at one point even abandoning the church before returning to the faith with his wife's help.

But the couple -- Cyprien and Daphrose Rugamba -- also have a devastatingly sad story. They and six of their ten children were murdered during the genocide.

Kambanda explained that Cyprien, the husband, was an ethnic Hutu while the wife, Daphrose was an ethnic Tutsi. Tutsis were widely the target of the genocide, with an estimated 70 percent of their population among the some million murdered.

Although Cyprien was given the opportunity by a death squad to leave Daphrose, the bishop said, he refused and both were murdered along with their children.

"In this this witness you see the communion of a couple, a communion that goes on even to death," said Kambanda. "This is what I talked about."

The bishop explained that Cyprien and Daphrose had founded a lay Catholic community focused on helping other couples face crises and also developed a six-month marriage preparation course.

"They helped many other families in crisis," said Kambanda. "They would pass hours of prayer and also teach others to pray."

The Rwandan said that beyond helping orphans in his country, the church there is also dealing with cultural effects of divorce. He said separation of families and remarriage is particularly troubling because of cultural norms in the country regarding how children from first marriages are treated.

"When you see families breaking down, it is a great concern for us, especially when it comes to divorce and remarriage," said Kambanda, explaining that many times parents will not support children from first marriages after they have entered a second union.

"The child feels not well treated, not loved, goes to the mother but the husband of the mother also has his own children," said the bishop. "In the end, the child feels that he has no home. Neither with the father, nor with the mother."

Many such children, the bishop said, wind up on the streets, living practically as orphans.

"Each time there's a problem, there is a feeling that after all he's not my father, she's not my mother," said Kambanda. "There's a state of being orphaned when the parents are still alive."

The Rwandan bishop also expressed hope about Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the African continent, where the pontiff will travel in November to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic.

"The visit especially to Uganda is very significant," said Kambanda, talking about the 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics who were martyred there in the late 19th century. "Uganda is a very important country on the point of Christianity and Catholicism in particular."

"Pope Francis is very compassionate and always wants to reach the people suffering and to encourage them and to strengthen them," said the Rwandan. "The visit is very meaningful to the Catholic church in Africa."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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