You will be named ‘priests of the Lord’, they will call you ‘ministers of our God
The last three weeks have seen tumultuous events unfold in South Africa. On the one hand we recognize that all of this is part of a democratic process and is indicative that our democracy is alive and well, and the principles of free association and freedom of speech are indeed respected. On the other hand, we recognize that we are a divided country, that polarization of our society is a reality and that the struggle to overcome our past continues.
At the root of our present difficulties and the difficulties we have witnessed in the past few years, lies greed and corruption. The fight is not against any particular party or, for that matter, against any particular person. It is a fight against corruption with deep, deep roots, it is against a system of patronage and the advancement of an elite few, and it is against the destruction of the democratic process itself – popularly called “state capture”.
In this climate of polarization, rooted in the past which has never adequately been addressed, and becoming much more defined as “battle lines” are drawn, the potential for violence is heightened. Indeed, we are already a violent society. Sadly, we have heard political leaders administer thinly veiled threats and even incite followers to violence. These are not idle threats. According to statistics by 2013 there were more than 450 political assassinations since independence in 1994. Last year alone, in the run up to the local elections, there were at least 20 political assassinations in Kwa Zulu Natal. We cannot deceive ourselves by thinking that in this highly charged political atmosphere increased violence in not a real and present threat. Indeed we have heard from high profile leaders of death threats against them. More and more people turn to leaders of faith and expect leadership and guidance from them. It is certainly true that there is always a prophetic role for the Church – perhaps Martin Luther King jnr captures it well when he says:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.
The prophetic voice is to speak truth to power, to be the voice of the voiceless, to stand in solidarity with the poor and excluded of society. It is to remind all, but especially those in power, of the values of the Gospel but which are, in fact, human virtues: honesty, truth, sharing, service, justice, reconciliation, peace. In the face of greed and corruption it is the responsibility of all citizens to make their voice heard, but the Church has a particular responsibility. As Pope Francis has said, corruption is a cancer in our society. He described corruption as being like bad breath: “it is hard for the one who has it to realize it; others realize it and have to tell him”. Rooting out corruption is more than a call to conscience, as important as that may be. The Holy Father again says, “The corrupt person does not perceive his corruption. For this reason, it is difficult for the corrupt person to get out of his state through remorse of conscience. More than forgiven, this evil must be cured”. After all, as he said on another occasion, “corruption is something that enters into us. It is like sugar: it is sweet, we like it, it’s easy, but then it ends badly.” His conclusion that corruption needs to be “cured” is pertinent as it points to a deeper level of encounter and action, that of healing.
Corruption is not the preserve of the State but is present in every sphere of society and must be rooted out in all spheres.
There could be confusion that the “prophetic voice” means only a critical voice, pointing out mistakes and failings. In such a scenario, it would be a hypocritical voice, speaking from an aloof and lofty position. The prophetic voice must always be positive, leading people into a reality of reconciliation with God and Man, unity and love. It is not only the “voice of truth”, it is the voice of mercy. Our response to the present realities should not blind us to the fact that, as Church, we must go beyond the symptoms of sickness in order to deal with root causes. Corruption, says Pope Francis, must be cured. The Church, more than simply “speaking the truth” must also respond to the Gospel imperative of mercy and seek to heal God’s children. Our society is a society that is broken, wounded and hurting. It is very much in the ambit of our mission, as Church, to reach out, to soothe and to heal. Again in the words of Pope Francis, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful….I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
Integral to healing society is to work for and promote peace, rejecting outright all forms of violence. Violence is not only the drawing of blood or the striking fist, it includes insults, derision, ridicule and degradation of people, demonizing them, treating them as fools, name calling – these are all forms of violence. And so, even when we have what we term “peaceful marches” it is often only in the sense that nobody has been physically hurt – but there is the violence of words and of attitude that attempts to diminish people to being less than human. The promotion of peace means that there will always be respect even of one’s enemies – the focus will be on the issue not on the person. Oscar Romero put it well: “I don’t want to be anti against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and wants to save us”. Many of the utterances in South Africa are absolutely unacceptable and contribute nothing to peace. As Church, we commit ourselves to treating others with humility and respect.
But Romero also points to another truth regarding the promotion of peace. “I will not tire of declaring that if we want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally”. In the words of Pope Paul VI, if you want peace work for justice. Promoting peace will never be achieved by burying our heads in the sand, nor by simply being “nice” and “polite” to others – although that is necessary. It must entail the recognition of those structures, processes and systems that keep people poor, denying them of opportunity and a decent life. Working for peace necessarily means working for the transformation of our society with the vision that reflects the Creator’s purpose in creating the world – for the good of all people, for harmony and prosperity. Thus, an essential part of promoting peace is also to promote economic transformation. There will never be true peace in a society of great inequity and Pope Francis has spoken forcefully and eloquently on the subject. A commitment to peace is far more than saying “I shall not kill”, nor, “I will temper my language and show respect”. It is also about tackling the root causes of those thing that de-humanize people through poverty and exclusion.
We are called to be a prophetic voice, to promote peace and to be a healing Church, healing memories, relationships and communities. Of necessity, as we face the present crises in our country and ask ourselves how have we arrived at this point, we must take a good, long, hard look at ourselves. Over the past 23 years what positive contribution have we made, as individuals and as parish communities, as the Archdiocese, to healing our society, to correcting the imbalances, to building bridges between people, to forming a true community. My impression is that since 1994, by and large, we have been quite happy to remain in our comfort zone and in parochial isolation expecting the hurts, wounds and destruction of the past to simply disappear or, at least, to do the decent thing and resolve themselves. To a large extent we continue to live in parallel universes – we don’t really know each other. We have succeeded in building the three Year of Faith churches, churches of brick and mortar. But have we succeeded in building the Church of living stones, of flesh and blood? Are we closer together now than we were before? Are we more authentically Church today than we were before? As we look at the present situation in South Africa, can we honestly say that we have not contributed to it through our inaction, our comfort and our resistance to change?
Today , as the Holy Oils are blessed, oils of healing, strengthening and God’s favour, we must respond to the needs of our time with generosity, leadership and healing, to be instrumental in ending angry divisions and conflicts in our society.
To quote Archbishop Romero again we need to be “Like a voice crying in the desert, we must continually say ‘no’ to violence and ‘yes’ to peace” – not peace in a restrictive sense of the absence of physical violence, but embracing the whole meaning of peace as “shalom” – harmony and well-being. As we look to the future, the words of St Teresa of Calcutta resound “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin”. Everyone can and must do something. We turn to Christ, knowing that we are only the earthenware vessels, imploring that he will be our source of courage and determination.
Archbishop Stephen Brislin
Our Lady Help of Christians Parish, Lansdowne
13 April 2017