Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican cleric whose inspiring message and conscientious work for civil and human rights made him a revered leader during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, died at age 90 on Dec. 26. CNS photo/Allison Joyce, Reuters

A life of hope and justice: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

By  Bronwen Dachs, Catholic News Service
  • January 5, 2022

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s compassion and sense of humour, as well as his commitment to justice and processes of peace, were among the many reasons he was an icon, said Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg.

The retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town — who in 1984 won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to bring about a peaceful transition to a society with equal rights for all — died in Cape Town Dec. 26 at the age of 90.

When he was asked at a meeting of young people why he was always so positive, Archbishop Tutu told them, “I’m a prisoner of hope,” Dowling said. “That sums up his life,” the bishop said in a Dec. 26 telephone interview.

Dowling said there was a great affection and respect among the late Catholic Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, the late Rev. Beyers Naude, an Afrikaner cleric who condemned his church’s support for apartheid, and Archbishop Tutu.

Like Archbishop Hurley — “on whose shoulders we stood,” as Archbishop Tutu once put it — the Anglican cleric condemned apartheid as a heresy. The blasphemy of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu said repeatedly, “is that it can make a child of God doubt that he or she is a child of God.”

Dowling said he still has a letter of support Archbishop Tutu sent him decades ago when he was struggling in his work against human rights abuses in his largely rural diocese.

“That’s the kind of person he was; he would take the time to write a letter to an insignificant bishop in a remote area,” he said.

“There is no doubt that his passion and commitment to human rights were rooted in his spiritual life,” said the bishop, who got to know Archbishop Tutu through ecumenical meetings to examine the post-apartheid role of churches in South Africa.

Dowling testified as a witness to atrocities in Rustenburg diocese during hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Archbishop Tutu headed. The commission probed human rights abuses during the apartheid era.

As well as working for South Africa’s liberation from apartheid and against corruption in post-apartheid South Africa, Archbishop Tutu did a “tremendous amount of work internationally for human rights,” Dowling said, noting that the archbishop chaired the Elders for six years and continued to serve as an elder emeritus. The Elders is an international organization of public figures brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007.

When Archbishop Tutu headed the South African Council of Churches in the late 1970s, he instituted a daily 7 a.m. Eucharist and the Angelus at noon.

“A lot of people thought he was Catholic,” said Fr. Russell Pollitt, director of the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg.

The archbishop “was a leader with integrity, with an extraordinary ability to bring people together,” Pollitt said. While “we have lots of people in leadership positions, we don’t have many leaders” in South Africa, he said.

Pope Francis was saddened to learn of the death of Archbishop Tutu and sent “heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said in a Dec. 26 message.

“Mindful of his service to the Gospel through the promotion of racial equality and reconciliation in his native South Africa, His Holiness commends his soul to the loving mercy of almighty God,” it said.

Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” that Archbishop Tutu was among the people who inspired him.

In 1987, Archbishop Tutu received a prestigious Catholic honour: the Pacem in Terris Award, named after St. John XXIII’s landmark encyclical on peace on Earth.

Archbishop Tutu visited Canada several times, including a 1986 visit in which he asked the country for help in ending apartheid. Shortly after, Canada led a campaign among Commonwealth countries to impose trade sanctions against the South African government.

Archbishop Tutu also received several honours in Canada. In 2000, he was given an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Toronto as well as a doctorate of divinity from Trinity College.

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