Cardinal Turkson: Do not overlook the ‘basic unity of the human family’

ORLANDO  |  Although Cardinal Peter Turkson is a high-ranking figure in the Catholic Church who has personal meetings with the Holy Father, when he offered a keynote presentation to an audience of 2,000 mostly lay black Catholics it sounded, at times, like an intimate sermon during a Mass.

The cadence of his accented voice reflected his Ghana heritage, as did the meandering nature of the hour-plus-long address. In response to his presentation, there was laughter, there was applause of affirmation. He inspired active listening as he intertwined Scripture with social justice. And as the time on the clock revealed his allotted time as the opening speaker of the National Black Catholic Congress had just about run out, that cardinal confessed to the audience that he would humbly ask Bishop John H. Ricard, the congress’ president, for five more minutes. The Vatican official added he wouldn’t ask for more time than that because he knew that would be pushing his luck.

The comment inspired more laughter, even from Bishop Ricard.

When the cardinal stepped away from the podium after his presentation, Bishop Ricard, retired bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, tried to escort Cardinal Turkson quickly to the exit. But sporting an affable smile, the cardinal graciously greeted people in the aisle. There were hearty handshakes and a few selfies here and there before he was corralled to another room while the audience dispersed to attend workshops.

Cardinal Turkson sat in a small meeting room with Bishop Ricard and another high-ranking Vatican official — Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio. The trio sat at the table and chatted. When a congress representative asked the cardinal if he would be willing to take a few minutes to speak with the Florida Catholic before a lunch gathering, his answer was a smile and a small request: that he could finish his candy bar first. (It was actually a type of nutrition bar, but it had caramel and chocolate pieces in it. Who could tell the difference?)

Cardinal Turkson served as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 2009 until Pope Francis appointed him in January as the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. In evolving the pontifical council, which was developed 50 years ago, the dicastery combines the responsibilities of the former pontifical councils for Justice and Peace, Migrants and Travelers, Cor Unum and Health Care Ministry. It was established to help better promote Catholic social teaching and ensure appropriate assistance to vulnerable people, especially victims of war, refugees and the sick.

The pope tapped Cardinal Turkson because of his impressive track record of social justice, and it was that understanding that brought him to Orlando to address the National Black Catholic Congress July 6-9. The core of his presentation focused on the unifying nature of the one Gospel, the beauty of diversity and the interconnected nature of human kind. Christians — whether in the U.S. or Ghana or Central America, people of color or of white European descent — are all invited to become disciples of Jesus, but diversity must be seen as enriching humanity, not as a detriment.

“As disciples we are called to a life of communion. The anointing of Holy Spirit bestows on us a new life, not that one is supernatural, but a new life in the Lord,” he said. “We need to recognize this is open to a lot of challenges. And with power available to us through the Holy Spirit we will be able to surmount those challenges. … When we fail to see God’s gift (of diversity) as a gift, we fail to see people as God sees them.”

During his presentation, Cardinal Turkson offered an example of how tribalism in areas of the African continent has impeded unity among Christians because of the chasms developed among different groups within the same geographic areas. In an interview with the Florida Catholic, he was asked if nationalism, a societal and political principle sweeping many different areas of the world, could impede the Gospel in the same way. Cardinal Turkson said it is true that nationalism is a political viewpoint and the Gospel is religious dogma. But that does not mean the two cannot become interrelated and Christians must examine when a social or political philosophy is creating human habits that mistreat others. If one group states “We’re No. 1,” who has to accept being “No. 2,” the cardinal questioned.

“Diversity and unity are symbolic (of how) human history began. (Through the biblical story of Adam and Eve), we know the spread of humanity is based on the principle of brotherhood. We are different, but we all have the same origin. And there is only one Gospel for all of us,” he said. “We as a Church believe we can send a message of salvation and redemption. When we as Christians talk about salvation, we talk about sin, fallen state. Certain human habits reflect these fallen states.”

One example is the environment surrounding the treatment of outsiders. While people can be defined as different based on nations or characteristics, those distinctions should not overlook the “basic unity of the human family.” While pride in one’s country is not wrong, people must recognize the words and actions used in living out that philosophy could lead to tension, and sometimes conflict and animosity. Gone unchecked, nationalism and tribalism have the potential to exclude and divide, in ways similar to racism and discrimination.

“If any political system finds reason to emphasize its character it might lose the fact that we are all related,” Cardinal Turkson said. “No individual  can live at peace as long as there is another person living in hardship.”

In his position, Cardinal Turkson works to ensure Pope Francis’ vision of human development allows human dignity to flourish. In the last few months, the cardinal has offered opinions concerning participation in the Paris Agreement — the climate accord within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In “Laudato Si’” Cardinal Turkson explained how the Holy Father emphasizes the connection of caring for the environment and caring for the human condition. Abuses to the environment are done by wealthy nations and large corporations as well as impoverished communities. Carbon dioxide emissions and global warming create concrete and detrimental environment conditions with effects on farming, air quality and vegetation. But the cardinal added poor communities that deplete the only resources available to them also lead to abuses such as deforestation.

It is that interconnected nature that displays how ecological conditions affect global public good and why agreements to protect the environment and calls for global responsibility are so important. Abuses to the environment lead to a disruption of vegetation, which leads to migration to other areas, which leads to issues of immigration, homelessness and refugee status. Ignoring the environment has a domino effect nationally, internationally and locally.

“Pope Francis spends much time and energy speaking about interrelatedness and wishes for all of us to recognize that,” the cardinal said. “Therefore there is a role in protecting the environment for all of us. Everyone can contribute to this.”