By: Bishop S. Sipuka, President of SACBC
Among all Christian vocations which are equally important, episcopal vocation is a unique one. Unlike marriage and priesthood vocations where you participate in embracing them and follow a programme in preparation for them, episcopacy comes as a surprise and when you do not expect it. But then you are welcomed by other bishops who nurse you through this unexpected vocation and you begin to see that it is liveable and doable.
Together you navigate the joys and pains of episcopacy and together you discern the best way of leading the Church in complex situations. It is, I think this walking together as we try together to make things work that makes the bond stronger so that when one of us goes unexpectedly as Archbishop Abel has done, the sense of loss is intense.
As we live and work together we begin to notice and appreciate the gift that each one of us brings to the Conference and Archbishop Abel had many such gifts that made for a supportive brotherhood and added value in the mission of the Church.
As we all know, Archbishop Abel presented a reserved personality that belied warmness and playfulness. Although sometimes, if you are lucky the only response you get from him is a nod and if he responds to your long chat by saying ja, you want to celebrate, he had moments of joviality and could be tickled when you tease or flatter him and lough to tears. He was conscious of being a township boy and enjoyed township slang. His famous slang was “ne wajiya man”, which means you “lie”. I made a proposal to Archbishop Mpako that we should end this memorial service by playing a piece of Jazz, because Archbishop Abel enjoyed Jazz.
It is not only for this hidden pleasantness of his personality that we shall miss Archbishop Abel but also for his example of total dedication to which a bishop is specifically called. His disposition was always that of yes whenever a call is made upon him, not because he felt that he knows it all or he is omnipotent.
He accepted and responded to calls because as he liked to say, he was son of the Church and after accepting he would give it his all, dying to his personal likes and comfort for the sake of the mission and the task he is called to. The mission of the Church was more important to him than his ambition and emotional needs. His disposition was that of Yes, similar to Mary, even when it was difficult for him to say yes.
In an age where the attitude of entitlement than duty is given priority, where personal desires and attachment are prioritized over sacrificial service, where individualism prevails over pursuit of the common good, where mediocrity rather than excellence is cherished and rewarded, where slogans are shouted rather than walking the talk and where retaining your life at all costs rather spending it is the order of the day, the departure of Archbishop Abel is a great loss.
In this situation, we have lost somebody who modelled with his life the opposite of what we see and inspired with his words commitment and dedication.
In regarding himself as the son of the Church, Archbishop Abel did not identify himself with the complacent and triumphalistic Church but with the Church as it is called to serve. He did not find satisfaction in being the Archbishop of a powerful Catholic Church but as it is called to serve.
He agonized about complex problems and came to decision after having considered all angles. This is especially true when the matter was about people. In the face of a dilemma, some of his occasional expressions were “what can you do, what can we do, what can be done, how do you begin this conversation”.
He did all this because he understood that the mission of the Church is to save and not to destroy, to persuade and lead to conversion, to reconcile and to lead to inclusion of everyone. And so in dealing with complex situations, he approached them with compassion similar to that of Jesus with its meaning of feeling with, of being moved from the bowels. He agonised about challenging situation of people, he got disturbed, he was an agonising Archbishop because he cared.
His insightful and clearly articulated statements, both in writing and in speech, while he was chairperson of justice, were informed by this sense of care which sometimes led him to be scathing in his utterances against injustice. In the face of injustice, I have heard him say in disbelief “but how can you do that?” He was pained and flabbergasted by injustice and helped the Conference to take clear stand against injustice.
As is known, Archbishop Abel was destined to take over the baton from the Cardinal as the Archbishop of Durban. The Cardinal has run a long marathon after taking over from Archbishop Hurley and led the Archdiocese to admirable levels of faith and service to the poor. With his imminent departure having been declared with the appointment of Archbishop Abel, there were new expectations and hopes on how in his turn, Archbishop Abel will take the Archdiocese further. With his unexpected departure, we will forever wonder how the Archdiocese would have turned out under his leadership, and for this reason we are distraught about his unexpected departure.
Yet distraught as we are and distraught as we should be, we must remember that in the eyes of God, Archbishop Abel has fulfilled his tasks because in God, time is neither here nor there. As one of the famous sayings states, “in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years”.
Let us focus on the life that Archbishop Abel has put in the years that he has lived and be grateful for that. Let us learn to live in the now and appreciate each other for it is not in our control on how long we shall have each other.
Distraught as we are and distraught as we should be, let us remember that “kunje kulo lonke”, it is like this all over. Over two million people worldwide have died from Covid. While it would be heretical to say that it is the will of God for Archbishop Abel to die of Covid-19 it is not outside of God’s salvific plan that this tragedy has happened.
Perhaps through Archbishop Abel, other Bishops, Priests and religious who have died from Covid and some of us here who sooner or later may die of Covid we are invited into a deeper existential solidarity with the rest of our brothers and sisters who are dying and have died from Covid.
Just as it was not known how God would turn the cruel death of his son into something victorious, in faith we believe, though we do not know how, that out of this tragedy in the bigger plan of God something victorious will emerge.
Thank you Lord for the life Archbishop Abel, for the brotherhood with him, for the work we have tried to do with him and for whatever salvific effect you will bring about by his embracing of the cross of Covid. In making a spontaneous prayer, Archbishop Abel always began by saying “God our Father”, may he now experience the fullness of your love as his father. May his soul and souls of all the faithfully departed rest in peace.