Pope Francis Mourns ‘Tireless’ First Cardinal of Lesotho

Cardinal Khoarai died April 17 following a diagnosis of throat cancer.

Cardinal Sebastian Koto Khoarai.
Cardinal Sebastian Koto Khoarai. (photo: Courtesy of IMBISA. / Courtesy of IMBISA.)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis paid tribute Tuesday to the first cardinal from the African nation of Lesotho, who died at the age of 91 after a lifetime of service in the African nation.

The pope said in a telegram released April 20 that Cardinal Sebastian Koto Khoarai would be remembered for promoting priestly vocations and Catholic education in the country situated inside South Africa.

He said: “With gratitude for Cardinal Khoarai’s witness of consecrated life as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, his longstanding commitment to the promotion of vocations to the priesthood and his dedication to the Church’s educational apostolate in Lesotho, I willingly join you in praying that our Heavenly Father may grant him the reward of his tireless labors and welcome his noble soul into the joy of his eternal kingdom.”

The pope’s condolence message was addressed to Bishop John Joale Tlhomola of Mohale’s Hoek.

Lesotho, which has a population of two million people, is one of only three independent states in the world entirely surrounded by the territory of one other state, along with Vatican City and San Marino. 

Lesotho, which gained full independence from Britain in 1966, is by far the largest of the three states, although it is one of the smallest countries in Africa. Approximately half of the mountainous nation’s population is Catholic. 

Cardinal Khoarai died April 17 following a diagnosis of throat cancer. 

He was born on Sept. 11, 1929, in Koaling, in what was then the British colony of Basutoland. Baptized at the age of 11, he later entered the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious congregation founded by St. Eugène de Mazenod. 

He made his religious profession in 1951 and was ordained a priest in 1956.  

In 1971, he was appointed vicar general of the Archdiocese of Maseru and parish priest of the cathedral in Lesotho’s capital city of Maseru.

In 1977, Pope Paul VI named him as the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of Mohale’s Hoek in southwestern Lesotho.

According to an official biography provided by the Vatican, the number of baptized Catholics in the diocese increased by 20% under his leadership. Priestly vocations also rose so rapidly that the major seminary could not accommodate them all.

Cardinal Khoarai served from 1982 to 1987 as president of the Lesotho Catholic Bishops’ Conference, helping to make the Catholic Church the premier supporter of education in the country. 

He officially resigned as bishop of Mohale’s Hoek in 2006, having passed the customary age limit of 75. But he remained as apostolic administrator of the diocese until Pope Francis accepted his resignation from pastoral governance in 2014, when Khoarai was 84 years old.

The pope named him a cardinal on Nov. 19, 2016, but he was unable to receive the red hat in person in Rome for health reasons. 

Following his death, there are 224 members of the College of Cardinals, including 126 eligible to vote in a conclave.

ACI Africa, CNA’s African news partner, reported that Cardinal Khoarai had initiated the construction of a vast church in the Diocese of Mohale’s Hoek before his death.

Fr. Hosea Chale, secretary general of the Lesotho Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told ACI Africa that the building would be the “mother of all the churches in the country.”

“Once completed, this is going to be the biggest church in the country,” he said.