Bishop Sithembele First Address as SACBC President

Plenary Opening Address: Marianhill

August 2019

Bishop S. Sipuka

Let me begin by welcoming you all to this Second Plenary Meeting of 2019, particularly the representative of the Holy the Father, present among us, Archbishop Peter Wells, Apostolic Nuncio to Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa; Frs. Roman the First Counselor and Fr. James, the Intern. Welcome to Fr. Hans Zollner SJ from Rome who is among us to help understand deeper the scourge of sexual abuse of minors, and Fr. Michael Lewis SJ our Chairperson of the Professional Conduct Committee. I welcome the two Bishops from Lesotho, Bishops Bane and Sephamola and Fr Chale the Secretary General of the Lesotho Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

 I welcome those who are participating in this meeting for the first time. Fr.  Vangqa the Diocesan Administrator of Queenstown who has been appointed because the Bishop of Queenstown was transferred to Pretoria. In the same breath at this Plenary Meeting we congratulate Archbishop Dabula Mpako for his appointment as Archbishop of Pretoria, and we renew our gratitude to Archbishop Emeritus William Slattery OFM for his work and presence in the Conference, Welcome also to the Bishop-Elect David Sylvester OMI, the Auxiliary Bishop-Elect of Cape Town. We congratulate him and the Archdiocese of Cape Town for this appointment. He will be consecrated on the 25th of August 2019.

Congratulations also goes to Bishop Frank Nubuasah SVD and the Diocese of Gaborone for his appointment to that Diocese, and the whole Church in Botswana that is presently under his leadership. Bishop Frank rest assured of our prayers in your heavy responsibility.  Bishop Nubuasah will be installed on the 17th of August 2019. We thank the Apostolic Nuncio and his collaborators for their hard work in facilitating the process of these appointments.

This Plenary is missing one, its valuable member, Bishop Joe Sandri MCCJ who passed on in the month of June; hence we extend our condolences once to the Diocese of Witbank and we welcome Fr. Molewe Machingoane in his new capacity as the Administrator of the Diocese of Witbank. We extend our condolences also to Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI who lost his mother recently.

Coming to the bigger part of my address, let me begin with a story about a mother in her home sitting with her children around the fire and its cold and no one wants to go outside. But there is a problem of piglets that keep going to the garden, and the mother keeps sending the children to chase the piglets out, and they take turns and they cannot wait to be back around the fire because it’s cold outside. One little fellow (when his turn came) to chase the piglets out, came back and told the mother, “mom the piglets’ mother is in the garden, can I chase her out of the garden, and the piglets will not go back to the garden again”, and the mother says yes. The little fellow comes back and he tells his mother, the piglets’ mother is too huge and she wants to bite me” Then the mother and the children all go out and chase mother pig from the garden. After that, with mother pig and piglets gone out of the garden, they all come back to enjoy the warmth of the fire.

Almost in every meeting by any group, there are always some problems that must be dealt with, and many of those problems are usually symptomatic of a larger or systemic problem, that the people are not even aware of and they keep going round in circles worrying, talking and trying to solve the symptoms, only for them to resurface again because mother pig is still in the garden. If they do become aware of the cause of the symptoms, they hope for a little clever fellow to emerge in the form of a leader who will deal with the origin of the problem for them. 

This phenomenon of placing our hope on little clever fellows manifested when almost the whole country and the world were exhilarated with the emergence of Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa. There was a palpable sense of hope when he finally succeeded a President who did not want to go, and was literary pulled from power by the scruff of the neck, kicking, screaming and wondering, “What wrong have I done?”  Asking this question when for a very long time the media, the civil society, the MPs, the Constitutional Court and people within his party have been pointing out to him the wrong things he has been doing.

It was this sense of hope against the context of much damage done under the supervision of the old President that the new President, both in his first speech as President and in the State of the Nation Address in February he was listened to with great interest. For the first time after a long time there were no major disruptions and theatrics that we have grown used to during the State of the Nation address. So important was this State of the Nation address that even our own SACBC President here in the Conference abandoned us for two days to attend it. It has been suggested by some commentators that for the first time, South Africans both within and outside the governing party voted for a presidential candidate named Cyril Ramaphosa and not his party. 

After his first address as President and his first State of the Nation address, some of these expectations were seen as fulfilled, if not partly so. The various Commissions began their work. In particular the State Capture Commission appeared to be succeeding in exposing hitherto unknown corrupt operations. The resignations of some Ministers and Directors, the non-return of some MPs to Parliament, the non-reappointment of some Ministers and the reduction of the Cabinet from 36 to 28 Ministers have all been seen as signs of hope about Mr. Ramaphosa.

Yet there are some unnerving developments that make one wonder if Mr. Ramaphosa is a real hope for South Africa or just a passing euphoria. The present developments make one wonder if we are progressing towards any genuine change or towards change of benefactors from corruption and political patronage.  In continuing the story of mother pig and the piglets, are we being realistic in expecting the little fellow to tackle the mother pig alone. In his book “Power in Action” 2018: Steven Friedman, warns against this dependence on one little fellow for things to improve and suggests a united or collective informed civil action that goes beyond establishing democracy by voting but also by ensuring that democracy works after elections. Something similar to Friedman’s suggestion about civil action was proposed at the launch of the manifesto for the National Convention of South Africa in March 2019 spearheaded by the South African Council of Churches. This manifesto propagates for active citizenship with concrete value premises and action proposals. For 25 years politicians have been put on the pedestal and telling people what to do; is it not time now that politicians listen and do what the people tell them?

One of the major problems we face in South Africa are violent protests, which often undermine their cause and make the people engaging in them look unreasonable because they destroy the facilities they have in order to get another facility. If they want a road, they will destroy a clinic, and if they are angry against crime they burn a school.

Part of this violence is due I think to our absence as Church leaders. When people are left alone in desperate situations; they resort to emotionally desperate and destructive measures. If we journey with them we can facilitate a more constructive engagement with elected leaders. Some may recall during apartheid how some protests that were potentially destructive but turned constructive, thanks partly to the presence of Church leaders. As Church leaders we are not with the people in their struggle, at least not as much as we used to be during apartheid. We have retreated to the sacristies and occasional pastoral statements. 

One major mother pig is the economic system that is failing to reduce poverty and which, except for the EFF we are afraid to robustly deal with it. There is a tendency to accept the system of economy as something about which nothing can be said, as something sacrosanct. This reluctance to deal with the skewed economic system manifested in the recent debates on whether the Reserve Bank should concern itself only with the stability of the rand or to also include provision for it to play a role in development and employment.

I am not clued up about the merits or demerits of changing the mandate of the Reserve Bank, but one thing that is clear to everyone, is that the present system of economy to which the Reserve Bank is closely linked is benefitting very few people and the majority are left out. As Pope Francis frequently states, the prevailing economy is the economy of exclusion and inequality and needs to be changed. Given the enormity of economic inequality in the world, and with our country counted among those with the widest gap between the rich and the poor, there should be no institution that is insulated from dealing with this problem.

All institutions, private and public, faith based and secular must come to the party in dealing with the problem of economic inequality. One is not saying that this extension of the role of Reserve Banks must be immediately and carelessly implemented, but debate on it must be encouraged until a constructive way of doing it is found. It will be recalled how the expropriation of land without compensation when it was first muted was like a monstrous taboo. It was feared that talking about it would bring this country to tatters, yet today expropriation of land without compensation is viewed as something doable and the right thing to do.

There was a time when I thought that talking about systems of economy is too big for us as the Church and that we should rather focus on random issues that emerge, on the piglets rather than mother pig.  I have since realized that we are a worldwide Church, and it is this worldwide character and its long tradition of social teachings that should give us courage to say that as the Church we must make a contribution on the debates about possibilities of an economy that is inclusive. The concerns about the economy cannot be allowed to be the domain of the Economic Freedom Fighters alone.

Prior to his election as the President of the country we had hoped to meet with Mr. Ramaphosa as Bishops. With chances getting slimmer to meet him, now that he is President, would not a letter from us, cautiously affirming the good efforts he is making but also offering advice on what the priorities could be, be a viable way of engaging him? The suggested priorities could include among others focusing on making the present dysfunctional cities work before we build a new one.

Drug pushing and drug abuse, which is a problem, now even in rural areas is another issue that could be noted with him. At the civil society manifesto launch, the former statistician general Pali Lehohla noted that education is a low priority in South Africa, something that should be the opposite not only for job opportunity but also for empowerment to hold the elected leaders accountable. We all know how politicians manipulate people in the rural areas and make them feel indebted to them. Education as a priority is therefore something that could be added in the letter to the president.

On the Church front, issues of concern have centered on sexual misdemeanors of clergy and the religious. The year began with the summit on sexual abuse of minors in Rome called by the Pope and I represented the Conference. The sign of hope here is that there is the decisiveness to deal with this problem. All Bishops represented by their Presidents were called to Rome to find working and lasting solutions to this problem.

The aim of the meeting was in my view to create more awareness among Bishops about the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors and to understand its pain on the victim; hence some victims were part of the meeting. The meeting sought to elicit pastoral solicitude and compassion about the problem so that we as Bishops are moved to address it. During the presentations and discussions concrete suggestions were made, some of which have found their way into the Motu Proprio Document that the Pope has been released for the whole Church, and which we will have more opportunity to delve in during this Plenary.

Yet while the summit is a sign of hope in dealing with the problem of child abuse by clergy, there are some ambiguities that remain, which have been noted in the media, some of them very forcefully and passionately presented. There are some who view the summit as nothing more than public relation attempt to save the face of the Church, with no real concern for the victim. Some resented what appeared to be a double talk when other factors contributing to sexual child abuse were noted simultaneously with clergy child abuse as if to play down the clergy sexual abuse of minors because it also occurs outside the Church, and that there are many other causes of sexual abuse other than clericalism.

While perhaps the timing and context of mentioning other factors contributing to sexual abuse gave way to this interpretation, that, these other factors were mentioned is not wrong itself. Sexual abuse of minors is a heinous and evil act that must be dealt with in all its manifestations. We cannot wait until we have dealt with clerical abuse of minors before we address ourselves to the other existing forms of sexual abuse. As we deal with sexual abuse of minors by clergy, we must also deal with and prevent all other forms of child sexual abuse in our institutions and in society. That is why it is important for all Dioceses to have a child safeguarding policy, which is comprehensive in its protection of the child, not just against the clergy.

Clericalism, by most accounts has been identified as a big mother pig to clergy child sexual abuse.  Simply stated, clericalism means: Use of clerical status or power for selfish reasons and getting away with it. In the case of sexual abuse, the selfish reason is the perverted sexual engagement with children by priests with impunity and being offered the opportunity to repeat the offence by being covered up by the bishop and lay people.

It has been suggested that trusting and collaborating with lay people is a solution to the problem of clericalism. Yet lay people themselves also contribute to the culture of clericalism by according priests exaggerated deference and honour, which make them unable to challenge the priests and to call them to account. In relation to sexual abuse of minors by clergy, some cases have not been finalized because the parents do not want to expose the priest by allowing the case to follow the normal procedure. They prefer to settle the matter privately, or culturally. It is these two attitudes that must be tackled in fighting clericalism; abuse of clerical power and unhealthy deference by lay people.

In reaction to the abuse of clerical power there may be a temptation to do away with distinction between common and ordained priesthood.  In my view this would not be a solution, because ordained priesthood is really the pillar of the sacramental dispensation, which is the hallmark of the Catholic identity. We are a sacramental Church, in which we believe that Christ personally effects salvation through an ontological relationship with priests and not just a functional one.

And so while in the light of sexual abuse and other abuses, the call for the elimination of the distinct character of priests is understandable, considered broadly, it also suggests elimination of the sacramental system. We cannot afford to abolish the sacramental system because so far it best gives concrete expression to the incarnation. Through the sacraments, the incarnate Christ concretely continues his mission in person among us. It is a principle that other churches previously opposed to it are beginning to appreciate, and now they even have bishops for example. In getting rid of clericalism, we must avoid throwing away the baby with the bathwater by eliminating the sacramental system. We need to recall the maxim “Abusus non tollit usum”, (misuse of something is no argument against its proper use.)

In our formation of both priests and the laity, we need to ensure a proper understanding and practice of priestly power, namely that it is meant for service and not for self-serving and that those abusing children are not meant for priesthood.

Archbishop Buti famously proposed that priests and religious found to have sexually abused children should be automatically excommunicated. Another way of putting it would be that sexual abuse of minors automatically renders ordination invalid, because if one abuses children, he is obviously defective material for the sacrament of priesthood. He cannot be acting in persona Christi when he abuses children that Jesus instructed us to allow them to come to him. So for a child abuser, it will not be a question of him being laicized, but a declaration that he never were priests in the first place, but sick men who were mistakenly ordained, and therefore incapable of sacramentally representing Christ.

While no effort must be spared to deal and remove pedophiles from priesthood, we must spare a thought for those priests who are falsely accused. We can be so engrossed in protecting victims of sexual abuse to the point of neglecting falsely accused priests. They too need our compassion.

The other sex concern plaguing the Church is the rape of Sisters by priests. This phenomenon of sexual misdemeanor has not significantly surfaced in our Conference region, but in other parts of the world it has. We have begun discussing it with the Leadership Conference of Consecrated Life. The direction proposed is to discuss it alongside the phenomenon of friendship between priests and nuns that sometimes extends to mutual sexual intimacy with no problem of conscience about being sexually active.

Then there is the issue of priests with children, which unlike the rape of Sisters is something that often surface in our Conference. Closely related to the issue of priests with children is the situation where a sexual relationship between a priest and a nun leads to pregnancy, and only the nun has to bear the consequences by having to quit religious life while the priest continues with his life and work as a priest. There is also a lot of talk about active homosexual and lesbian relationships occurring among priests and nuns respectively. You may have come across the book of Martel titled “In the closet” making disturbing allegations about homosexual activity in the Church. During this Plenary we will spend some time discussing these matters.

With regard to eSwatini and Botswana, the other two countries that form part of this Conference, I want to begin by appreciating the two missionary Bishops leading the Church in these countries. Apart from the loneliness they must be feeling, there must also be a sense of helplessness in their prophetic vocation because they can easily be shown the door and be deported if they become too prophetic. Yet there are so many situations that require their prophetic voice.

The latest criticism in the media focused on the airbus of King Mswati III bought of course, by state resources when there is such a critical shortage in the provision of services of health and education. We have learnt that in the past 3 years the civil servants in eSwatini have had no cost of living adjustment to their salaries, yet so much money is spent on the King.   Yet in spite of this inability to explicitly name these injustices, the Church continues to do what it can to be involved in the lives of people providing access to health education.

Botswana continues to be reported as stable, even though by some accounts the recent conflict between the former and the sitting Presidents suggests that, only now is the country beginning to have freedom of expression and improved openness to the outside world. Whether that openness is a good thing that remains to be seen, but we hope that it will lead to things being easier for Bishop Frank, being able to travel to and from Botswana with ease. We thank you Bishops of the other two countries of the SACBC for the extra burden you carry.  You have our support and appreciation and we pray that your successors will be found among the local priests of those two countries.

I came here from Kampala Uganda where I participated in the Golden Jubilee celebration of SECAM combined with the Triennial Plenary under the theme “Church, Family of God in Africa, Celebrate Your Jubilee, Proclaim Jesus Christ Your Saviour”. The celebration was concluded last Sunday with a message entitled “That they may know Christ and have life in abundance” (Jn 17:3; 10:10). There is still a larger document that is being finalized entitled Kampala Document, which will be published in December 2019. The value of the meeting for me was the continental platform it provided for the African Episcopate for sharing about the pastoral joys and challenges in the continent. There were five representative from the Conference and while it is still fresh in the minds they could share their impression about it.  

The SECAM that we have just celebrated will be followed by the IMBISA meeting in Mozambique in November 2019 which we shall all be participating in November. Bishop Pius Dlungwane, our representative to IMBISA will brief us more about the details of this meeting in terms of the dates and the theme. This Conference has done well in supporting IMBISA both in terms of personnel and finances. Bishop Nubuasah is one time President, Fr. Menatsi is one Director, and now Fr Vilakati from Manzini is leading biblical ministry and Bishop Jose assisting with communication. With all the challenges that are there, I still urge that we continue to support IMBISA and SECAM because these two bodies gives visibility and expression of the Church at regional and continental level.

I paid a short visit to the New Khanya House to familiarise myself with the place and to meet the staff. I wish to thank the staff under the leadership of the Secretary General for the work they have done in setting up the place and landscaping it, it really looks beautiful as the headquarters of the conference. I also met the staff and got to know who is who and who is doing what. Some of them have their contracts coming to end soon, and we must think of replacements. As we know, it is always difficult to replace people to head departments as coordinating secretaries. We need to prepare priests and religious by skilling them and educating them so that we have a pool of skilled people to choose from.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Dabula, the seminary finally managed to get most of the staff members fulfilling the requirement of having pontifical degrees. I do not know if I should also commend him for helping us to spend a lot of money in St. John Vianney. But now that we have a substantial number of trained personnel in the seminary, we should also look at training people for leadership for the various departments of our Conference. We do not want to have a situation where we just take any willing person. We need capable and efficient people, and in order to have such, we need to be intentional about training them. So once more I welcome you all, and may the multitudinous and tricky piglets not blind us from identifying and dealing with mother pig.

By Bishops Sithembele Sipuka – President of Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

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