By Courtney Mares – Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr of Wa, Ghana, who is to be made a cardinal later this month, has been elected head of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
The 63-year-old Ghanaian bishop, who will travel to Rome to receive a red hat on August 27, has said that he sees his new mission as a cardinal as “an invitation to serve.”
Baawobr has led the Diocese of Wa, in northwest Ghana, since 2016. He is known locally for his charity and care for people with mental disabilities in a country where the stigmatisation of mental illness is still high.
Six years ago he launched a diocesan street ministry which brings together parish volunteers and health care professionals to provide care and medical assistance for people with mental disabilities who have been abandoned by their families.
“I always think of the two sons of Zebedee who are struggling for the seats, one on the left and one on the right. At that moment Jesus reminds them that their greatness is in service, that he has come to serve,” Bishop Baawobr said in an interview with ACI Africa.
Bishop Baawobr was elected president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) at the end of the African bishops’ plenary assembly on July 30 in Accra, Ghana.
Bishops gathered at the19th Plenary Assembly of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar in Accra, Ghana, July 2022. Courtesy of SECAM.
Before he became bishop of Wa, Bishop Baawobr was the first African to serve as the superior-general of the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called the “White Fathers” for their distinctive white cassocks.
His vocation as a Missionary of Africa provided him ministry experiences in different regions in Africa. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, Bishop Baawobr served in a parish in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He later moved to Kahangala, Tanzania to take on the role of formator for the order after finishing a licentiate in Sacred Scripture and a doctorate in Biblical Theology at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Bishop Baawobr also spent time in France, studying Ignatian spirituality at Le Chatelard in Lyon and working for five years as the director of the missionary order’s formation house in Toulouse.
While acting as the superior general of the White Fathers from 2010 to 2016, he was named vice grand chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies. Pope Francis later appointed him as a member and consultor of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Born in Tom-Zendagangn in the Wa diocese, Bishop Baawobr studied at a village school and the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary before he entered the diocesan seminary in 1979 at the age of 20. After discerning his vocation with the Missionaries of Africa, he studied for his novitiate in Fribourg, Switzerland and then completed his theological studies at the Missionary Institute London. He was professed as a member of the society of apostolic life in 1986.
Baawobr will be made a cardinal along with 20 others in a consistory in Rome on August 27.
“At least now people are forced to look up what is Wa and they find it on the map,” Bishop Baawobr joked, as he described the excitement in his home diocese over the appointment.
He said that at first he did not believe that Pope Francis had named him a cardinal until he received a call from the nuncio. “The news came as a surprise. I did not expect it at all. I had just finished Mass when somebody announced to me that it was on social media, that I’ve been appointed cardinal,” he said. “I didn’t believe it until … I switched on my phone and I saw that it was true.”
“From the surprise, I came to accept it as an invitation to serve,” Bishop Baawobr said. “As a priest, that is my first calling, to serve God, to serve his people.”
A delegation from the diocese of Wa will accompany Bishop Baawobr to Rome for the August consistory, where he will become one of two new cardinals from Africa, along with Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, Nigeria.
However, he noted that it has been challenging getting visas for everyone who would like to come with him to Rome. He said that the Italian embassy has asked him “to reduce the [guest] list again and again.”
Bishop Baawobr said that he wants to make the trip “an occasion to pray and to grow in the faith,” for the Ghana delegation with pilgrimages to basilicas in Rome and “possibly a pilgrimage to Assisi so that we pray for peace for ourselves and for our families and for the nation.”
“It comes down very strongly that we are not alone in this mission. And the Holy Father is inviting us to share, to collaborate with him,” he said.
“I think from there also I draw the message that wherever we are, if people are needing our collaboration in order to attain a specific goal, we should offer that with joy and humility and simplicity.”