Pope Francis elevated five new cardinals on June 27. One is the current archbishop of Bamako, Mali, Jean Zerbo and another, archbishop of Barcelona Jose Omella, served as a missionary in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) earlier in his clerical career. Soon-to-be Cardinal Zerbo is not young; he was born in 1943. As archbishop, he is known for having fostered dialogue among political factions and between Christianity and Islam in Mali. As with many prominent Malians, he has been accused of corruption involving Swiss bank accounts, but has never been indicted, let alone convicted.
Mali’s security in the far north and in parts of the Niger River Valley is deteriorating, with an upsurge in radical, jihadi activity. The archbishop has long been among the most prominent clerics in Mali and his elevation to cardinal is unlikely to have an impact, either positive or negative, on security questions. In any event, Mali’s Roman Catholic population is estimated at only 1.5 percent of the country’s population.
How, then, to account for Archbishop Zerbo’s elevation? Perhaps the Pope wished to call attention to the prelate’s peace and reconciliation work. Then, too, the Pope may have been acknowledging the rapid growth of Africa’s Roman Catholic population and its under representation in the upper reaches of the church. Africa’s Catholic population has grown 238 percent since 1980, and as of 2010, Africans made up 16.6 percent of the world population of Catholics. There are 199 cardinals, of whom 93 are 80 years of age or older and ineligible to vote in papal elections. The remaining 106 are known as ‘cardinal electors’ because they can vote for a new pope. Sub-Saharan Africa has 17 cardinals of whom 11 are cardinal electors. As strictly a matter of percentages, Africans are underrepresented in the College of Cardinals. They are about eight percent of all cardinals and just under ten percent of cardinal electors.