Catholic Church holds Symposium of Ecumenism and Inter-Religious dialogue for transformation.

From Monday to Thursday 2-5th September 2019, fifty Catholic delegates from all over South Africa and Botswana met at Lumko Institute and Retreat Centre in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, to renew their commitments to Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue which were initiated by Vatican II Council. This coincided with a new spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the exact opposite of the objectives of the Symposium.

The first symposium session was opened by Bishop Jan De Groef M.Afr, the chairperson of SACBC Department of Ecumenism, asking the participants to express their expectations and fears. The majority of participants expressed that they would like to be enabled to strengthen their skills at unity building in their dioceses and overcome antagonism and prejudices, relativism and syncretism.

During his address to the Symposium, Archbishop Peter Wells, the Apostolic Nuncio to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia, reminded the Symposium that Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue are mandated by Christ himself. He mentioned that the main mission Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue is to encourage different religions to learn from each other and go against the prevalent culture of staying in a circle of likeminded people, and it is to unite with people of other faiths against nihilism and any kind of injustice.

Archbishop Peter Wells also emphasised that religion should not be a political tool or an oppression as in in theocracy. It must not be confined to privacy but should express itself in the public sphere; educating young people in respect, responsibility and non-violence. He said this is possible only with the help of the Holy Spirit. He further said dialogue should be practised between Catholics ad intra and ad extra, that is with other people.

Archbishop Wells said the Church network of Nuncios and Caritas, the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue in collaboration with the World Council of Churches are already engaging the governments on their politics and economics. Many teaching documents are being produced and they must be brought to the grass root level without silo mentality.

Referring to past ecumenical initiatives Archbishop Peter Wells said Cardinal Bea, Pope John XXIII and Vatican II Council reaffirmed like St Paul that Judaism is the root and the trunk where the Church is grafted on. Therefore dialogue with the Jews is part of ecumenism and not inter-religious dialogue. He reiterated that Jewish Christian dialogue produces many documents and benefits both sides. “Judaism needs our universality, we need their roots. Jews are our elder brothers as Pope John Paul II said when he helped to confess trans-confessional sins for the third millennium jubilee”, he emphasised. He further added that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have continued tirelessly to deepen this dialogue.

As the Symposium advanced, four members of the Church Unity Commission, who were the guests of honour sat as a panel: a key world ecumenist player Dr Ishmael Noko a Lutheran, Pastor Gustave a Dutch Reformed, Bishop Meyer an Anglican and CUC Secretary General Sikawu Makubalo a Methodist Pastor. Each one of them gave a testimony of his ecumenical pilgrimage through friendship, family ties, shared mission, liturgy, encounters, Bible sharing and the struggle against apartheid.

In highlighting some of the promoted ecumenical initiative elements the panel said in an ecumenical pastoral paradigm shift, Vatican II Council admitted ecumenical observers to strengthen ecumenism. From 1992 to 1999 the Catholic Church met the Lutheran Church in theological discussions to finally sign the Joint Declaration on Doctrine of Justification. Dr Noko said this was a major achievement after 500 years of separation and misunderstanding on justification by faith.

Since the signing of the declaration Dr Noko further said the three other Churches have also signed. The four CUC Churches have agreed on full communion; accepting the ordination of each other, though the supervision of the apostolic succession is still under contention in CUC, whether they should use Bishop or an elder as an official tittle.

According to Dr Noko for the initiatives of ecumenism and dialogue to succeed there is a need for dialogue to proceed from commonalities and deconstruct prejudices. He said agreements are quiet easier at top level but they have to be brought down to the local level. He also said that ministers’ fraternal at local level is one of the best tools for promoting common ground. He highlighted that the Creed is shared by most mainstream Churches, while the Eucharist still needs a lot of nuances and tact in ecumenism. He expressed that the Confirmation stage should be an occasion where there is also a learning about the ways of other Churches, while initial formation and social networks can be used to promote ecumenism. He ended by saying there is a common perception that other Churches see the Catholic Church as the best asset for ecumenism, while the prayer of Christ for unity is the origin of ecumenism.

During his input Bishop Victor Phalana, the former SACBC Chairperson for Ecumenism and Inter-Religous Dialogue showed how the church unity initiative needs very careful preparation to succeed. He read to the symposium some of the established guidelines towards promoting smooth dialogue. With the help of the Pontifical Council for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue, Bishop Victor said the SACBC has printed a booklet of guidelines about ecumenism and another on interfaith dialogue which can be availed to the parishes at a later. During his homily the Bishop also appealed to the symposium members that all faiths should stand together to tackle the problem of xenophobia and gender-based violence.

Dr Robbie Young later led a reflection on Inter-Religious dialogue and presented the proposed approach that can be adopted to make the process successful.  He said Inter-Religious dialogue is more about relationship than truth. He said in this process there is a need to adopt a self-emptying model, which is the good model approach. He called it ‘kenosis of Jesus’ that is from the condition of God he became a slave to the point of dying on the cross and to be annihilated in order to resurrect and save us. The model would avoid violence and agree to disagree if necessary. He said this is the Buddhist style of approach to dialogue.

A panel of five other religious leaders shared the following with the symposium: Gen Kelsang Mila, a Buddhist nun, gave an explanation on how to clear the mind from the impure thoughts. She said a Buddhist does not try to convert another person. In addition, Suren Naicker, a Hindu lecturer at UNISA, said to foster respect we should look for the clear water in the other not the mud. He expressed that he suffered from the arrogance of some fundamentalist Christians and feels proximity with the Sufis and the Buddhists.

Nusrah Cassiem, a Sufi imam, shared his story of being taught intolerance at Mecca and how he escaped it with the help of his father and Shaykh Fadhlalla, a holy man who wrote many books of spirituality. He said thankfulness to God is key of success. Nusrah led the symposium members with the exercise on how to tap into their inner resistance to embrace and assess their capacity to let go some of obstacles in order to promote dialogue. Mr Mlingane Poswayo of the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs in South Africa shared about his fasting experience as a prayer to stop xenophobia. Ayhan Cetin Director of Turquoise Harmony Institute presented numerous interfaith activities they have embarked on to promote dialogue and unity. Fr Kees Thonissen, a Franciscan, said to dialogue is to trust, value, discern and act. He said there is a need for both bottom up and top down approaches in the process of Inter-Religious Dialogue.

Sr Letta Mosue shared about her experience of traditional healing. She said she had to leave a group of traditional healers where the Bible and Jesus’ name are banned. Mrs Manoko Ratala, from an Independent Church background shared about a certain amount of repression linked with colonialism. She sees the social ills of South Africa with the lens of colonialism. She said five centuries of colonialism cannot be healed in just 25 years of democracy.

Mrs Manoka further said traditional healers are repressed by anti-witchcraft laws. Honest traditional healers should not be punished because of some rogue healers. Miss Rotundu who grew up in a Catholic background shared that she wanted to become a Catholic priest, but because it was not allowed in the Catholic Church she opted to explore other complex ancient cosmologies of Africa, such as Kabala and Hinduism to find holistic healing. She tapped into traditional ways of healing through harmony and care for nature, and said trance and dream can be channels for universal human spirit of Ubuntu, though she does not deny the existence of evil spirits.

Fr Zakheleni Mkhwanazi reflected on secular culture without God. He said God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is the foundation for strong humanism to the risk of Promethean hubris of Genesis command to dominate nature. Jesus said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. St Augustine inaugurated modern psychology, while St Thomas Aquinas developed the notion of human second cause allowed by God the first cause. From there stems the distinction between Church and State, the development of science and technology.

Fr Mkwanazi further said the European wars of religion gave a violent connotation to faiths. The enlightenment with the “I think therefore I am” of René Descartes facilitated a bit more the temptation to cut God off from human thought. Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and consorts conceptualized the “death of God”. God was buried in the Church!  Therefore today the Constitution of South Africa is secular and promotes human rights and freedom but is misunderstood as irresponsibility.

He further said, in a secular state obedience is seen as a weakness and institutions lose any authority they may have had. Religion is pitted against spirituality. There is a spiritual vacuum and depression, no faith in God nor relationship with him but only with idols: power, sex and money. Witchcraft is omnipresent in TV series. Cold social media replaces the warmth of community care. The family and society break down to the point that religious terrorism is seen as a better alternative.

Fr Mkwanwazi added that we are challenged to be more creative in our liturgies and outdo the media. We have to deepen Christian teaching to beat the extremely sophisticated secular temptations of media brain washing. As Christians, he said we have to be holy and engage all peripheries of society. We have to relive the birth of the Church when the Christian life style was clearly better than the one of the surrounding culture. We have to re-enchant our imagination by better representing the spiritual world. People want power and solutions. We should witness to relevant community life in the Holy Spirit that people can join.

At the end of the Symposium it was agreed that the implementation of the symposium will be facilitated by the creation of a WhatsApp group, the use of a report and of the guidelines. It should be adapted to the diocesan conditions and experiences in coordination with the Bishop, Dean and Parish Priest. The SACBC Department for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue can help through its members.

The members also agreed that the session was intense and short and will need time to develop and bear fruit. Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue are not an option but a condition for survival and enrichment. Friendship is a key for knowing that commonalities are bigger than differences although we are not at the same level of understanding. Churches have to unite further in building on the Lutheran-Catholic reconciliation, retrieve their Jewish roots and embrace other religious wisdoms including African Independent Churches and African traditional healers so as to overcome together the global threat of secular nihilism and found a civilization of love, precursor of God’s reign.

Crafted from the original report by Fr Paul Tatu CSS (SACBC Communication and Media Office)

For more information kind contact: Padraig Smyth (SACBC Department of Ecumenism, Inter-Religious Dialogue and Secular Culture) – +27 760 60 6825 OR Fr Christophe L. Boyer – +27 76 045 5966



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