The Bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference are currently gathered for their Plenary Session in Pretoria. The SACBC President, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of uMthatha Diocese, delivered the opening address yesterday, 18 January 2023. Here is the address below.
Dear brothers and Sisters in Christ
I welcome you all to this first plenary of 2023. First, I want to mention the Holy Father’s representative, who expresses visible unity between the local Church and Rome, Archbishop Peter Wells. Thanks for your presence, your excellency. Bishop Selemela attended the last plenary after his appointment and is attending this one for the first time as bishop; welcome, bishop Selemela. Fr. Michael Rasello, the new administrator of Kroonstad, is attending the bishops’ plenary meeting for the first time. Welcome, Fr. Rasello, we may look intimidating, but as you will see, we are the kindest group you will ever meet. We keep bishop Holiday in our prayers and wish him a full recovery.
As it was announced, Sr. Phuthunywa has just been elected to serve as the Provincial Superior of her congregation. While we are sorry to lose her, we understand the importance of this task for the congregation and wish her well. This calls us to the drawing board to begin the process of getting another Associate Secretary General during this plenary.
On a sad note, last week, we heard of the passing of Sr. Jordana Maher, buried yesterday, and some bishops represented us at the funeral. Sr. Jordana has been part of the plenary as a minute taker, a task she did faithfully and diligently. I am sure you have a picture of her pulling a bag full of documents. She was a friendly and motherly presence at the conference and will be greatly missed. May her soul rest in peace. We also remember and pray for brother Jude, a former SACBC Secretary General who died in December. May his soul rest in peace.
We are having our Plenary soon after the historical event of the passing on of Pope Benedict XVI. Historical because his mark as a theologian, a Pope and a leader is recognised globally. He is remembered as one who invited us to the truth that transcends our limited understanding, the truth that gives us a theoretical framework of how we must relate to and treat each other, a truth that liberates us from the dictatorship of our lower levels of existence, a truth that holds us accountable.
He taught us that a life worth living is not based on a personal construct of what we feel is good or right for us but on one that is grounded in something greater than ourselves, a truth independent of time and culture, binding everywhere and for everyone. He reminded us that ideologies that begin with the noblest intention, given their human origin, can turn out to be destructive later on. In contrast, a truth greater than us ensures that we will always strive to live according to its summons, even if, at times, we fail.
We live in a world where failure and weakness are made the norm, leading us to stop pursuing the ideal and accept our failures as the way things should be. We are more like the Pharisees who came to Jesus with confidence that divorce was right because Moses gave them permission to provide the woman with a certificate and send her away. To that, Jesus responded by saying it was because of the hardness of their heart that Moses resorted to that compromise; otherwise, it was not meant to be like that by God.
Similarly, today because of weakness, we settle for less and not the ideal; we do not believe Jesus when he invites us to be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect.
Pope Benedict has been accused of being hard and pastorally insensitive on difficult matters like divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage, condoms etc. Still, he is calling us to the ideal instead of settling for what appears to be easy. He makes this call to strive for the ideal not because he thinks we can make it on our own but because of the faith in God, who is in solidarity with us through Jesus Christ. He repeatedly taught that despite our human struggles, we must place our hope in Jesus. As we are called to the ideal, we are not left to our means but assured of the grace of God and the assistance of the power of the liturgy and the Sacraments.
In his writings and sermons, he explains the beauty and power of this faith that accompanies us in our struggles. The most often quoted piece of Benedict, also quoted by Pope Francis about Jesus as the one who shares life with us and accompanies us on our journey, is from Deus Caritas Est, which says: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (#1). We are called to the ideal, but we are not left to our own means of getting there; Jesus is with us.
Apart from making Christ the focal point of our faith in his three volumes of Jesus of Nazareth and love as the foundation of our Christian life in his two encyclicals Deus Caritas Est, and Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict has also been an excellent expositor of Christian doctrines and morals. He is known as the father of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and his book, Introduction to Christianity” is widely regarded as an excellent exposition of the articles of the Apostles’ creed. Although his theological stance and style of leadership as universal pastor of the Church remain a matter of debate, he has no doubt left a legacy about the exposition of the Christian faith. As we begin this plenary meeting, we renew our gratitude to God for Pope Benedict, and we accompany him with prayers.
The ended year also saw us bidding farewell to Fr. Albert Nolan. His passing away reverberated beyond the confines of the Church. I was part of the memorial service organised by the South African Council of Churches, in which gratitude to God was expressed about him. He was fondly remembered for his humble but powerful witness during the dark years of apartheid.
As I stated in the message of condoling soon after his death on behalf of the SACBC, “Fr. Albert Nolan stands in the league of Beyers Naude, Joe Slovo, Trevor Huddleston, Helen Joseph and many other white South Africans who transcended social conditioning and racial prejudice. He took a position against the apartheid system and the continuing exclusive economic system when it was not popular to do so”.
If Pope Benedict’s methodology of theologising was from above, Fr. Nolan’s way of reflecting on God started with the grassroots experience of the suffering and poor people.
Three points from his latest book, edited by Fr. Stan Muyembe, “Hope in an age of Despair”, are worth noting as we begin this plenary. The first is the book’s title, “Hope in an age of Despair”. Despair is pervasive in our conference area, particularly in eSwatini and South Africa. In eSwatini, we are beginning to hear of people disappearing and being found dead. In South Africa, we are told that stage 6 power load-shedding is likely to be the order of the day for the whole of this year, and this stage 6 is estimated to cause a loss of R6 billion a day to the economy. Keep in mind that this negative impact of the load-shedding on the economy is just one of many factors that are killing the economy, resulting in hopelessness for many people, particularly the young.
More concerning is that in addition to this economic despair, there is also an increasing moral bankruptcy, which adds to a lack of hope about improving things. We are becoming a country controlled by syndicate criminals who destroy the country’s infrastructure, steal railway lines, copper wires, and electricity lines, and vandalism of infrastructure and buildings; our churches and buildings are vandalised, and the government seems overwhelmed by this.
Then there is a growing practice of kidnapping and demanding ransom and, add to that, the assassination of those trying to fight corruption. We are becoming a country that is gradually being ruled by Mafias, and the government appears to be powerless. We are now into the second year since the looting and destruction of property in Kwazulu Natal and Gauteng, yet to date, not a single person has been prosecuted. What we see instead is the use of our courts by our leaders to settle their personal and political scores instead of addressing issues hindering service to the people. By the look of things, there is little hope that we will overcome this hopelessness of poverty and moral bankruptcy any time soon. Yet, as a Church, which has hope as one of its characterising traits, we must come out of this plenary we some message of hope, or better still, with some action of hope.
One action that could bring hope is for us to join the movement of national dialogue about the situation in South Africa because the government is unable to deal with the situation, even though it will not admit it. We need something like the CODESA, which was a multilateral meeting of various groups that paved the way for a democratic South Africa in the 90s.
Joining efforts towards a solution to this hopelessness of South Africa is what Fr. Nolan says about compassion and solidarity with the poor. I dare say that the poor are struggling alone for the most part, while we and other people of the middle class like us, all we do is complain while we are secured in our comfort and with our three meals a day guaranteed. It is time for us, middle-class and educated people, to come to the party to stop our country from going down the drain and engage with what is happening.
Generally, the problem with educated people and the middle class is that while they see that things are getting bad, they still live relatively well and suffer no basic needs or the desperation of not knowing where the next meal will come from and so they are not moved to do anything practical to solve the social and political problems that cause great suffering to most people, except to complain. We need a CODESA.
Finally, Fr. Nolan dismisses the romanticisation or canonisation of the poor, noting that they are not necessarily good and virtuous because they are poor. He gives his reasons for saying this, which can be read in the book, but for me, the problem with the poor is their collusion with the government in being made dependent. They have made themselves objects of delivery by the government, and the government likes that. While it is true that the government has a major role in providing for the vulnerable, many poor people can do something for themselves and live a dignified life, but they won’t. They are waiting for grants from the government, and then they antagonise and terrorise other African people who come and use the opportunities they throw away. We must constantly challenge our people to appreciate their dignity and do what they can to provide for themselves.
And then there is the problem of poor people engaging in criminal activities. Part of the problem of electricity that is rarely spoken about is that the poor engage in illegal electricity connections to avoid paying. Back where I come from, we even have a vocabulary for that “siyawutsweba umbane” even a little child knows that, and that is what the child will do when he grows up. Add to that the culture of non-payment for services, even when one can. We must tell poor people that Jesus loves them, but we must also tell them that they must be responsible citizens.
Last year, the SACBC celebrated 75 years since its foundation, and I would like to thank the Southern Cross for its comprehensive coverage of this occasion. Let me first note that two bishops were born in the same year the Conference was founded; if their parents knew this, they would have probably named them SACBC or Khanya. So I begin by wishing Archbishop Buti Thlagale and bishop Jan De Groef a happy 75th birthday and thanking them for their presence and contribution to the conference. They will cut the cake for the 75th celebration of the Conference.
There are other bishops who have been part of this conference and are now retired, and I would like to acknowledge and appreciate them. Let me name them, and I will start with the eldest, Bishop Verstate, who participated in the Vatican II council,
Bishop Lobinger, Archbishop George, Bishop Potacnak, Bishop Slattery, Bishop Adams, Archbishop Khumalo, Archbishop Slattery, Archbishop Nxumalo Bishop Dowling, Bishop Dlungwana Bishop Wusternburg, bishop De Gouveia, Bishop Seane and Bishop Holiday.
We could also mention the Cardinal, but we are still sucking the last drop of blood from him. These are the bishops who were part of the conference, and we would like to thank them for the foundation they laid. Bishop Lobinger has become really frail; I visited him on my way here. It would be good to make time to see him.
In the interview covered by Southern Cross over three publications, I tried to articulate the significance of this event. Still, I would like to pick one or two points for our consideration.
One sign of the strengths of a conference is its institutions through which it exercises influence in society. We have lost many of our institutions, and even the remaining ones are precarious. One institution that remains strong but will also become weak if we do not plan appropriately for it is our schools supported by the Catholic Institute of Education. CIE is helping our school to continue to be a force of influence, and I propose that we give it more support because if it also dies, we will lose a significant public platform to influence.
One of the major challenges we have in our Catholic schools is the quality of the teachers who do not have work ethics to say anything about the Catholic ethos. To strengthen this significant foothold for influence in society, I propose establishing our own teachers’ training college so that we can produce teachers of good quality for our schools first and the country.
The other matter of concern is financing. Like all other institutions, the financial situation of our Dioceses, and therefore of the Conference, is getting worse and worse. Using the seminary as a demonstration of this dilemma, some bishops cannot send and pay for their students in the seminary, and soon we will see more bishops being in this situation. In her report to the November board, the finance coordinating secretary painted a gloomy picture where fees will be drastically going up every year; in 5 years, this seminary will be struggling to survive because bishops will not afford to bring their students here.
Without wanting to pre-empt the work and thinking of the vision committee, I propose that we seriously think about continuing with our system of forming priests in this expensive fashion or keeping our seminary here in Pretoria because, very soon, it is not going to be affordable for most of us. The Seminary is just one example of the consequences of our financial crises. As we shall discuss, our levies will soon not be enough to run our headquarters, Khanya House and its work. We have made a good effort with the foundation fund to raise money for the conference, but we need to think of more ways of doing so.
Let me move to talk about our closest collaborators, the priests. There is a presumption that we make that, as was expected when they were still in the seminary, all our priests have spiritual directors and regular confession, but this is not necessarily so. I have no solution to this challenge because we do not have enough priests and women religious as spiritual directors. Still, I am raising this so we can grapple with it because, as you may agree, the consequences of a lack of spiritual direction and confession for priests are ghastly to contemplate.
Still, about priests, I want to note a growing phenomenon of making huge celebrations for the priestly 10th anniversary. It is a sign of appreciating one’s priesthood to celebrate any anniversary, but it should not be overdone. If the liturgy, with its ranks of feasts from ordinary to the optional memorial, memorial, feast, and solemnity, can be taken as a benchmark for celebrating anniversaries, one will understand that it means that we cannot be celebrating every anniversary as a solemnity.
As Archbishop Mpako noted in his homily yesterday, we must guard against the culture of wanting to be celebrated too much. Failure to guard against this temptation will confirm the accusation of clericalism where we, as priests and bishops, expect to be treated differently from women religious and the faithful who do not usually have a splash and a banquet feast of the 10th anniversary; let us do it modestly without much fanfare and splashing.
Finally, I wish to refer to the latest racial tension that played itself out at a holiday resort in Bloemfontein, where some white people allegedly violently prevented some black teenagers from using a pool. After almost 30 years of the new dispensation, this is yet another manifestation of the lingering lack of social cohesion in South Africa. If we take seriously the continued conspicuous absence of white people in our Diocesan celebration and other manifestations of the lack of cooperation and fellowship between black and English-speaking Catholics, we, too in the Church, are sitting with a lack of cohesion and how do we hope to champion it in society when we do not have it ourselves. For the most part, white people do not respond to the olive branch that blacks have and continue to give. This needs to be stated, and a call to conversion be made.
Let me conclude by referring to the upcoming ad limina visit in June. I was pleased when Pope Francis, in one of his interviews about viri probati, referred to the book of bishop Lobinger on this subject and referred to him as “Pater Lobinger”. A shortage of priests is a huge challenge in our conference, and I propose we have a conversation when we meet him about this.
Bishop Jose, thank you for your constant update on the political situation in eSwatini. We always carry you in our hearts as you strive alone to be the voice of the church in such a difficult and complicated political situation, as they say in Italian, Coragio! In Botswana, I hope that nothing is too overwhelming; as the saying goes, “no news is good news”. Archbishop Frank, I hope my government has given you enough days on your visa to remain until the end of the conference.
If Pope Benedict and Fr. Nolan had a chance to meet here on earth, I am sure they would have crossed some theological swords, but now that they are both in heaven, where they see the Lord face to face and not dimly, I am sure they are hugging. May their souls rest in Peace. Welcome to you all!