Sunday 22nd January was chosen by the SACBC to celebrate the 75 years of the establishment of the bishops’ conference of Southern Africa and the 100 of the apostolic representation in Southern Africa. The first appointee as a Papal Representative to South Africa was appointed on 2 December 1922.
In his speech at the end of the Mass celebrated by all the bishops present for their January Plenary in Pretoria, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Peter Wells, who is the current apostolic representative of the Pope, thanked the bishops for allowing him to be with them at the great celebration of the 75 years of the conference and 100 of the Papal representation. “Today is really a milestone, it’s a hundred years for us of being here in this place. In sense it’s a hundred years of the Pope’s personal presence in Southern Africa.”
Archbishop Wells said the Papal Nuncio acts as the eyes, ears, mouth, hands, and most importantly the heart to the Holy Father wherever he is sent. He said not only does the Nuncio belong to Christ, but he also belongs to the successor of Peter, the Pope because without the Pope there no need for a Nuncio. He pointed out that the Nuncio must note the needs, desires, sufferings, joys and dreams of the men and women where he is sent, “It is his role to bring this to the Holy Father so that the Pope is always aware of what is happening.” The Nuncios said there are Papal nuncios in 184 different places in the world and it doesn’t matter how small the place is.
He explained that in the 1940s it was clear that the faithful of South Africa were asking for more, they wanted the Church to be ever more present and so in the 1940s Archbishop Martin Lucas and his predecessor started to implement what was truly a blossoming local church and the establishment of many dioceses and archdioceses by 1951. Archbishop Wells said it is amazing to see how strong Archbishop Lucas was in his time, “He had to be strong. The letters at the time from government were times very ugly,” because the Church was mistrusted and often treated very badly.
The Nuncio also pointed out that as the mouth of the Pope the papal representative is called to be the true voice for the voiceless and as well, “He must not only announce the endless truth that we have been given as Christians, but must also announce the Good News to all, not just to Catholics. Christians and none Christians alike, must hear the Good News.” Archbishop Wells elaborated that it is the duty of Papal representative to speak truth to power especially when the weakest and the most vulnerable are at risk.
The Papal Nuncio then noted that it is not coincidence that the Holy did not establish full diplomatic relations with South Africa until 1994, the year that the evil of apartheid was finally abolished. “As the hands of the Holy Father, it is the Nuncio’s role to take hands of those who need his assistance and walk with them, offering encouragement and support,” said the Nuncio.
Archbishop Wells said he would be remiss if he did not mention Archbishop, later Cardinal, Edward Cassidy, because he left an indelible mark when as a Papal delegate marched hand in hand together with young people in protest of violence and injustices of apartheid.
“A Nuncio is called to be a heart of the Holy Father,” added Archbishop Wells in concluding that the Nuncios must take all that he has seen, heard, said and done, and ponder it in his heart and prayer and thanksgiving. “We must constantly let our brothers and sisters know that they always have a place in the heart of our universal pastor, the Pope.”
The lineage of Papal representative in Southern Africa started over 100 years ago with Archbishop Bernard Gijlswijk to the now Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Peter Wells, amounting to 14 in total. Archbishop Peter Wells is an Apostolic Nuncio to five countries in Southern Africa; South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and eSwatini.
Bishop Masilo Selemela, the Auxiliary Bishop of Pretoria, thanking everyone present for the roles they played in the celebration and wished the Apostolic Nuncio a happy jubilee. He also thanked the Emeritus Archbishop of Pretoria, Archbishop Slattery for his inspiring homily reminding everyone that all are missionaries.