A Cardinal from Africa Goes to London

The Church is on the side of the poor, and always must be.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson speaks at a media conference at the Vatican on Dec. 15, 2015.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson speaks at a media conference at the Vatican on Dec. 15, 2015. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The Palace of Westminster is undergoing substantial repairs at the moment, and so it looks rather odd. The great gothic-inspired tower that takes its name from its famous clock is under wraps: a mesh of scaffolding and plastic sheeting. And the chimes of Big Ben have fallen silent, although they rang out  solemnly for the commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice on Nov. 11.

But the work of Parliament goes on… and a tiny but notable piece of history happened in the Speaker’s House recently with the arrival of Cardinal Peter Turkson, of the Church’s dicastery for Integral Human Development.

That title is something of a mouthful, and the cardinal is the first president of this new dicastery. But in everyday terms, it means fostering the Church’s work for the downtrodden and the poor – and that includes working to end the international scandal of human trafficking. Young men and women are lured – with the promise of money and prosperity – to countries where they are put into what is effectively forced-labour, with no care for their welfare, proper payment, or safety. The work may in some semi-hidden factory where the authorities are unaware of the working conditions, or the living conditions of the labourers. Or – and this is the case for large numbers of young women –  the work is sexual prostitution.

Helping women to escape from this can include providing safe house, and campaigning to get realistic laws tackling the matter.  Religious sisters are busy on both of these projects. Cardinal Turkson highlighted one particular aspect of law that could make a difference: prosecuting men who use prostitutes, who solicit them in the street, is more effective than trying to prosecute the women themselves. This has been proved in recent years in Sweden, where districts that had become wholly taken over with this sordid trade  have been slowly transformed.

The Speaker’s House is a rather grand setting –  sweeping staircase, vast formal portraits of 18th-century Speakers of the House of Commons in robes and white wigs, dark flock wallpaper, mullioned windows. As he began his speech, the cardinal spoke of what it meant to be speaking in this setting, in the heart of Westminster: he recalled that as a boy growing up in Ghana, he sang “God Save the Queen” regularly at school… shades of the Empire.

The cardinal is a genial, friendly presence – he made the tough and potentially grim subject come alive, with a message of hope and practical wisdom. The Church is drawing together a range of people and institutions to work on this whole issue of human trafficking and can be a bridge between groups who approach it from different angles.

The Church is on the side of the poor, and always must be. As he spoke, I thought of Bakhita House, a London refuge established recently through the diocese of Westminster and the Congregation of Adoratrices. A recent Catholic women’s lunch raised funds for the venture. The work of such places of refuge is not easy – but the Church has always been present where things are at their most challenging and difficult.

Cardinal Turkson’s visit to Parliament was organized by Catholic MPs and members of the House of Lords, and the gathering was a good opportunity for a number of groups – pro-life organizations, various Catholic charities, representatives from other groups such as the Salvation Army – to pool together. It was a reminder that the Church is unafraid to tackle great issues, and has unique drawing-power in doing so. A cardinal from Africa in dialogue with people of goodwill for the common good. In an often too gloomy scene, here was quiet hope.