CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Cardinal-designate Desire Tsarahazana of Toamasina, Madagascar, is a quiet leader who is as comfortable talking to political leaders in plush offices as he is walking long distances to converse with people in remote villages, said a Catholic Relief Services official.
The cardinal-designate has a “quiet and respectful style of leadership” as well as “an incredible balance,” said Joshua Poole, CRS’s country representative in Madagascar.
Poole, who in his role as country director for the U.S. Church’s overseas relief and development agency has worked with Tsarahazana for three years, described the cardinal in a June 11 email to Catholic News Service.
“He can easily shift from a meeting with the prime minister to speaking with a small group” of parishioners, he said.
However, he does seem to feel “most at home and at peace in the countryside, building relationships and talking with the people in villages,” Poole said.
The Toamasina Archdiocese serves more than half a million Catholics — some 30 percent of the Indian Ocean island’s population of nearly 2 million people.
Tsarahazana, who will be elevated to cardinal June 28 at a Vatican ceremony, was elected president of the bishops’ conference of Madagascar in 2012 and confirmed for a second term in 2015. The conference covers 22 dioceses and the cardinal-designate’s ability to unite the bishops so that the Church in Madagascar speaks with one voice “has been inspirational to observe,” said Poole.
Desire Tsarahazana was born in 1954 in Amboangibe, in the northeast of the island, where 80 percent of the world’s vanilla is sourced.
“Despite this incredible ‘gold mine,’ many vanilla farmers and others in the region suffer from poverty and experience the same challenges” as those in the rest of Madagascar, including hunger and difficulties in obtaining clean water, a weak education system and poor access to health care, Poole said.
Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, and more than 90 percent of its population lives below the $2 a day poverty line.
The prelate listens carefully and gives wise guidance, said Poole, noting that “the needs in Madagascar are so great that it can be overwhelming and take a toll personally.”
Poole said that, earlier this year, he and the cardinal-designate “traveled together in his diocese to look at a large piece of land owned by the Church.” He said they looked at old training centers and houses “that with a little rehabilitation could be up and running again” and hiked to check on fruit-tree plantations and other projects.
“While we had a vehicle with us, he was perfectly happy to walk around the town, greeting people and talking along the way,” he said.
Tsarahazana will walk distances of 10 miles and longer to reach places that are inaccessible by road, Poole said, noting that his support has enabled CRS to partner with many Madagascan dioceses in efforts to improve education.
He “has been a driving force” for better schools, including working for “improvements to primary school opportunities, school meal programs and adult literacy,” Poole said.
When the cardinal-designate spoke at the special Synod of Bishops for Africa in 2009, he talked of the need for the Church to make a greater effort in helping laypeople live their faith in politics, saying a changed mentality, a conversion of heart, was a great challenge for Africa.
Tsarahazana studied at the seminary in Mahajanga and in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, and was ordained a priest in 1986. St. John Paul II named him bishop of Fenoarivo Atsinanana in 2000. Pope Benedict XVI named him bishop of Toamasina in 2008 and elevated him to archbishop in 2010.