VATICAN — A long, snail-paced line of well-wishers waited to greet Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo, after the ceremony in which Pope Francis placed a red hat on his head.
But the several hundred Congolese who had come to celebrate with the Capuchin prelate didn’t mind. Small groups sang or played small instruments while they waited.
Men and women waved their nation’s flag, wrapped kerchiefs of their country’s colors around their necks and sported clothing fashioned from specially made, bright-colored fabric bearing images of Our Lady or the cardinal.
“He’s a good man, righteous, speaking out against the suffering people go through,” Father Julien Matondo, who serves Congolese Catholics in London, told Catholic News Service.
“We were chosen to free people, not leave them as slaves and he does that. He can fight for the people, and for that I am proud of him,” added Father Matondo, who said he knows about the cardinal from having read his writings, homilies and speeches.
Relatives, friends and colleagues of new cardinals described them as unpretentious men who stand with the poorest and most marginalized people and who are open to dialogue.
Hamssananda Ghiri, vice president of the Italian Hindu Union, said it was an honor to be a guest of Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso Guixot, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
She has worked with him at conferences on Hindu-Christian dialogue and in small groups that studied church documents like the encyclical “Laudato Si'” and prepared celebrations honoring Mahatma Gandhi.
“His concept of dialogue is to have a sense of fraternity,” she said. “It’s very precious for us. I know that the prayers of all the faiths will guide him” in his new role.
As they waited in receiving lines, relatives and friends of several of the new cardinals told stories that highlighted the churchmen’s humility and compassion for the poor and forgotten, themes that Pope Francis stressed during the consistory.
Robert and Katharina Czerny had traveled from Ottawa, Canada, to see his brother, Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Jesuit, receive his red hat from Pope Francis.
“It was quite a shock,” Katharina Czerny said of hearing the news that her brother-in-law was to become a cardinal, especially since he was not even a bishop at the time. “It was unexpected, never talked about. It wasn’t in his plans.”
The cardinal, who is undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, has been has been involved in social justice issues all his life, she said.
She added that the pope’s choice is “confirmation that what (he) is doing is very important, and that this is where we should be as church, dealing with the real things of the world.”
Robert Czerny said his brother takes on new tasks willingly and welcomes others to work with him. “Whatever he’s asked to do, he plunges in and figures it out,” he said. “He does not assume he already knows everything.”
Many of the new cardinals are missionaries, and several work in places where Catholics and Christians are in the minority.
Asked two days before the consistory about the significance of his selection, now-Cardinal Cristobal Lopez Romero of Rabat, Morocco, told reporters, “For the people of Rabat, I don’t think it means much, because most don’t know the difference between a cardinal and an altar boy. It’s new. Most don’t even know what a bishop is.”
The message to the church, however, was one of encouragement, he said.
“I think what the pope wanted to do is make visible churches that were practically invisible,” he said. “The pope has seen how we live the faith as a minority, and he thought our experience could enlighten other churches throughout the world.”
Among the new cardinals are three over age 80, the cutoff age for voting in a conclave to choose the next pope.
Cardinal Eugenio dal Corso, 80, plans to continue working in the huge Diocese of Benguela, Angola, the country where he has spent most of his life as a missionary of the Poor Servants of the Divine Providence, also called the St. John Calabria Congregation.
Speaking with reporters two days before the consistory, he said he believes the pope chose him because after retiring, he returned to a very poor area as a missionary.
“When the pope announced he was going to make me a cardinal, (local people) started to cry, (thinking) ‘Now you will go away,'” he said. But he told them, “No, no. no, the pope can’t take me away from here. I am very happy to come back to be with you.”
The pope also honored now-Cardinal Sigitas Tamkevicius, a church leader who has suffered deeply for his faith, spending 10 years in prison in Siberia.
Darius Chmieliauskas, head of communications for the Archdiocese of Kaunas, Lithuania, told CNS that the pope had chosen a hidden jewel in their country by pointing the spotlight on their retired archbishop, Cardinal Tamkevicius.
For years, the cardinal gathered evidence about Soviet persecution in Lithuania and provided it to diplomats, the media, dissenters who fled to the West and Vatican Radio.
“He was a small stone in the big shoe of the USSR,” Chmieliauskas said.
Pope Francis got to know the cardinal during his visit to Lithuania in 2018, and he was deeply moved as the then-archbishop showed him the cell where he had been interrogated and the execution hall where Soviet KGB agents had killed priests and bishops.
After the consistory, the cardinal told Chmieliauskas that the pope had wept as he placed his hat — scarlet for the color of the blood he was willing to shed for the faith — on his head, perhaps recalling the persecution and sacrifice the cardinal had endured.
Chmieliauskas said the 80-year-old Jesuit cardinal’s courage is a beacon for the church.
“We need more people like him,” he said, “simple and brave, humble and strong.”
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Contributing to this story was Junno Arocho Esteves at the Vatican.