Your Eminence, your Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio, your graces, yours excellences, brothers and sisters good morning and welcome to this January 2020 Plenary Session. I welcome in a special way Mgr. Joseph Kizito, the bishop elect of Aliwal Diocese and congratulate him and the diocese for the eventual gift of the chief pastor in the Diocese. Bishop Sylvester is participating in the plenary for the 1st time as ordained bishop, we welcome him also in this new identity. Loek Goemans, our Minute Taker.
We ended last year on a tragic note with the unexpected death of two seminary professors and formators Frs. Owen Wilcock and Fr. Sibusiso Zulu, and we renew our condolences to their families, dioceses and to the seminary staff. We are grateful for the survival of the other two staff members, Frs. Selemela and Smuts and wish them a quick and complete recovery. We have been consoled by many messages of condolences including a message from the office of Pope Francis. It now remains for all us as bishops to think how are we going to replace these dedicated priests for the Seminary? On this note, may I plead that we, as Bishops, just volunteer to offer some of our experienced priests to the seminary to fill this void at the beginning of this 2020 academic year especially in the field of administration and pastoral work.
I renew our condolences to the Oblate Congregation and the Diocese of Klerksdorp for the murder of Fr. Josef Hollanders allegedly for robbery motive last Monday, a man who, as Bishop Phalana explained, had no money to be robbed because “he used every penny he ever owned for his people, he gave away everything he had”. We commend the police for the quick arrest of the suspect who has already appeared in court, and we pray for the repose of the soul of this dedicated missionary who was part of the life of the people that he served and spoke their language fluently.
Last year we bade farewell to Fr. Hugh Lagan SMA who returned back to Ireland. A special mention of his departure is made here because when he came into the country about 8 years ago, he joined Fr. Vincent Brennan SMA who was very instrumental in initiating awareness about sexual abuse of minors by the clergy and religious and drafted policies for dealing with it. I have heard it being said that our conference is among the best positioned in Africa to deal with sexual abuse of minors, and this is due in no small measure to Fr. Vincent and Fr. Hugh. With his expertise Fr. Hugh has also contributed a lot to ongoing formation programmes for priests. We thank him most sincerely for this assistance and we wish him well in his new assignment back at home.
2019 saw us completing the Pastoral Plan of the SACBC, whose process began almost 10 years ago, because as it was being thought out, the operational structure of the SACBC was also being revamped. So the restructuring was crafted simultaneously with the drafting of pastoral plan as well as the revision of the SACBC statutes so that all these three guidelines relate and talk to each other and this was done with wide consultation, and so that is why it took so long. It was hard work, and are glad it is finally done, and will be launched this coming Sunday in Regina Mundi.
All of us in the conference worked on these three guidelines, but I would like to note the former Department of Evangelisation especially Fr Barney McAleer, who led the process, and the special committees that were subsequently set up particularly Bishop Eddie Risi OMI and Fr. Patrick Rakeketsi CSS who guided the final stages of the process.
Our Media Office has already issued a statement summarizing the 8 key focus areas. Broadly explained, the Pastoral Plan has two aspects, first, the facilitation of personal relationship with Christ from which follows the second one, which is being Missionary Disciples of Christ. Put differently it is about an evangelized community that in its turn evangelizes.
Bishop Risi, one part that has been left out in the Pastoral Plan are the Agents, structures and programmes of implementing the Pastoral plan, and I believe that they will be added as appendix. One other area that got lost in the discussion and finalization of the Pastoral Plan was the area of self-sustainability. I guess this is something that we need to take up now in a big way because if this pastoral plan is to be successful, it needs resources in the form of trained and skilled personnel and finances. We need to have a planned way of sustaining ourselves as Church in the SACBC region.
A foundation for this task has already been laid back in 2006 when the then Fr. Michael Wustenberg working in Lumko at that time was mandated by the bishops to do a study of self-sustainability in the SACBC region. The result of that research, as could be expected of Bishop Wustenberg, were very thorough and comprehensive with graphs and charts that showed possibilities and limitations about self-sustenance in the SACBC region. There was also a pastoral letter of the bishops penned by the late Bishop Oswald Hirmer of happy memories with a dramatic title “throw away the crutches”. These initiatives will have to be taken up towards a plan and programmes for the sustainable sustenance of the Church and its activities in the SACBC region.
I just want to spend some time recalling and reflecting on the context of the Pastoral Plan. Why a Pastoral Plan? The immediate context of the Pastoral Plan if I recall well, was the realization by the Bishops that as a Church in this region, we are not making an impact, both on the people we serve and in society. There is no growth in faith and spirituality, the furthest most of our faithful go is confirmation and they remain there. With regard to witnessing for Christ and continuing the work of evangelization, the majority of our Catholics do not see these as their task. They tend to see themselves more as there to be serviced by the Church, to be served sacraments, to be preached to and to be buried. The most they do is to fulfil the obligation of supporting the Church financially, and some of them do so grudgingly because they have no sense about the missionary nature of the Church which requires resources in order to do this missionary work. As somebody once quipped and said that, if you ask some of them, “what have you done this week to spread your faith?’ they might look at you as if you were a Fundamentalist.”
As a result of this attitude, our faith does not influence society, it is as if the Catholic Church does not exist. Laws, trends and phenomena emerge and the Church is simply subsumed by these developments. Even as we engage in charity and development projects, we do not have a distinct perspective that marks us as a Church and adding an evangelizing aspect to what we do.
When you go to Europe and you read theology books, you are constantly reminded about the importance of the laity and how they should be involved and I say to myself this is not a problem for me. 3 times a month in Mthatha, Sunday services are conducted by lay leaders and most of the funerals are done by lay leaders. My problem is the lack of willing and able lay leaders that you find yourself with same people doing many ministerial task and recycling the same people for leadership because the others are not willing to offer themselves. They are only happy to be serviced and content to be in the state of being uniformed.
This Pastoral Plan was born out of this realization that a big portion of our Catholic community have not yet come to a realization that as Pope Francis recently reminded us recently, “We are all baptized and we are all sent”, not just some.
In writing this Pastoral Plan, efforts have been made to consult all the stake holders as it were, and so one hopes that all Catholic formations, the institution, schools, Dioceses, religious congregations within the SACBC will be informed by the theme of this pastoral plan in their local pastoral plans and programs, “Evangelizing Community, serving God, Humanity and all Creation”.
But the bigger context of the Pastoral Plan, other than the immediate one that I have just explained is the changed cultural and social context which no longer provides an advantageous platform for the propagation of faith as it was done in the past. The culture today does not serve the living and the propagation of faith.
Gone are the days when learners cued in straight and neat lines of morning and afternoon school assemblies to sing a Christian song, have Bible read to them and a prayer said. Gone are the days when application forms for work and CVs for employment had a place for Denomination. Gone are the days when shops were closed on Sundays because everybody was expected to be in Church, gone are the days when televisions and radio stations began each day with a Christian message, gone are the days when children were expected to be at the parish on Saturdays for catechism class and in Church on Sundays, today they are expected to be at school. Gone are the days when Parliamentary gatherings and local government structures gave prominence to the opening prayer, the most that is done now is to have one minute silence.
This Pastoral Plan is a recognition that in this context of changed culture we can no longer continue to do Church services the way we used to do it before. In the context of this changed cultural situation we cannot seek to do what has been successful before but only try harder this time, preach more, teach more, have more solemn liturgy, pray more, do more of the activities of the past that were successful. Without wanting to change what the Church and its message is, this Pastoral Plan seeks to change the way of being Church, to change the system of being Church so that it responds effectively to the changed situations of our time. This Pastoral Plan aims at helping us to move from a maintenance Church to a Missionary Church, from a church that services those who come to Church to a Church that goes forth.
Pope Francis in Evangeli Gaudium shares a dream of this Church we are aspiring to be in No. 27 when he says: I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation”.
We know better the Church that we have been and were born into, and so that is why perhaps more than before in our lifetime, there is some wrestling among us as Church members, as to what this emerging Church in response to changing cultural situation should be. The present storm in the tea cup about the co-authorship of a book by Emeritus Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sara is only one indication of this wrestling. We wrestle within ourselves because while we see the need for a different way of being Church, we do not know how exactly that Church we feel called to will turn out to be. We wrestle among ourselves because there are some of us who by nature of their character are adventurous and are prepared to try things, and there are those who are happy to remain with tried and tested ways of the past.
Yet even as we feel anxious because we are asked to let go of what we have known, in faith like Abraham we must “go from your country, your people, your father’s household to the land I will show you” Gen 12:1 and embrace this Pastoral Plan. To paraphrase the words of Pope Francis again in no 33, we are invited “to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘we have always done it this way’. We are invited through this Pastoral Plan to be bold and creative in this of task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in our Conference.”
I should be stopping here, but let me conclude by making few observations in relation to the social and political situation in our region.
I want begin by conveying a word of congratulations to the Department of Education led by Mrs Motshekga, a devout Catholic, for the improved matric results this year. In the context of efforts to put women on equal footing with men, it is also commendable that both in numbers and in the quality of passing girl learners have done better than boys. About anything that is good, there will always be ‘but’, yet we compliment what has gone well even if it is not perfect. So Sr. Hermenegild please convey our congratulations to Mrs. Motshekga.
The other positive observation I would like to make about the present government is its willingness to talk. Between August last year and now, together with other Church leaders, we have had 3 opportunities to meet and talk with the President of the Republic of South Africa. And again within that time, we had a chance to speak to 4 different Ministers, and on two of these occasions we were invited by the Ministers themselves to talk to us. In this week we will talk to the President, and this gives a sense of hope. There will always be buts, but the fact that this government is talking, is a good thing, and it needs to be commended for that.
In talking with the government one begins to appreciate the complexity of the problems. Having spoken with Minister Motsoaledi of Home Affairs for example about migrants and refugees, my views about the problem are more realistic, less one sided sensational than before meeting him. The problem of migrants is more than just the government refusing to document people, or failing to appreciate that South African freedom fighters were hosted by African countries, it requires a comprehensive, civil and Church involvement in dealing with it. There is a need in dealing with migration to work on long term solution that will make people not to leave their countries and immediate solutions that call us to respond to the present needs of migrants in a human and a Christian way, and this is where the Pastoral Plan will prove to be helpful.
One service that we need to appreciate about South African government is the grant to people with various forms of need. Without this grant, millions of people would not be able to survive. Having said that, the way it is administered and the attitude about grants is problematic with regard to a sense of responsibility and the dignity of some people who receive grants. For example, while giving grant to young teenage mothers is something necessary, something needs to be done about teenagers getting children in the first place, because we are becoming a nation of fatherless children and that will, in the future, have negative social results. We cannot solve the problem of teenage pregnancy by only giving grants, we need to get to the bottom of the problem. The government, civil society and the Church must engage with this problem. We need to come up with some programs which will deal with the formation of young people in order to curb this problem.
One wonders also if just giving a free grant to young energetic women is helpful in instilling a sense of responsibility and dignity. In the context of our country being so littered with plastic, pampers and bottles would it not give a bit of dignity to the young mothers to ask them to clean their environment in return for the grant? They are assisted, and they also need to assist in return to clean the environment. But someone can rightly ask, what about the boys who impregnate them?
This would also be true young energetic people who get free housing. Would it not give dignity to them to ask them to at least dig the foundation trenches, so that they can have a true sense of ownership because they have made a contribution to their house? Maybe that would also make them take care of it.
One major discomforting development that I would like to talk about with the President when we meet him on Thursday, are the lingering concerns about the possibility of the presence of forces that want to bring this country down. For me this concern finds expression in the recent contradictory statement about the power outages being due to sabotage. The President said there was sabotage, the Vice President said the President was misled, the Presidential spokesperson said the President was not misled, and so what is the truth?
Linking this sabotage with sabotage of electricity supply is a cause for concern because during the struggle the bombing of power stations was a strategic method of weakening the apartheid government. Are those supposedly against the President using the same strategy? Is electricity production becoming a battle field again for settling political differences?
Combine this with the often repeated statement in the Media that the President will not have a second term, and this is said without a clear credible alternative candidate that has the support of most South Africans. So one is left asking the question, how safe is our democracy, the President need to give us assurance about this.
Part of the problem of these uncertainties is that the rise and fall of a President in this country depends on the political party because the electoral system is based on proportional representation, giving power to the party that wins even if by a slight margin to control the President. Given the context of the negotiated settlement, maybe this system was good when it was first adopted, but given the present dynamics of self-interest that have developed, one needs to ask the question; has time not come to consider changing to constituency representation, where the President is answerable to the people and not the party? I would like to propose this for a discussion during this Plenary and see how conversation about it can be taken forward.
Coming back to the question of grants, while grants are necessary, they must be a temporal measure. No nation can perpetually leave on grants, it is not sustainable and it is not desirable for human dignity. The people will regain their dignity when they are able to participate in the economy instead of being given handouts. People are not to be treated as objects of delivery, but as active agents of the growth of economy. So we must keep the conversation about economy going and engage in discussions about alternative economic systems that will give dignity to everybody.
To get out of South Africa, the recent scandal of the Eswatini King who bought a string of expensive cars for his wives while his people languish in poverty received a lot of media publicity and Bishop Jose was good at informing us about it. Maybe during this Plenary we can hear more about the development there and see what possibilities are there for us as bishops to engage with the situation. I had an impression that Bishop Jose had more space of expressing himself than before.
Bishop Nubuasah, we are glad that in the twilight of your active episcopal life your visa problems have finally been solved. We have missed you here and your contributions because you have often been unable to attend because of visa problem. Unlike Eswatini, there has been no pronounced publicity about things going wrong in Botswana, and so as the saying goes, no news is good news, but we would like to hear from you about the present state of political and social affairs there.
Last year we had IMBISA Plenary meeting, which was also an elective plenary meeting and we congratulate Bishop Lucio Muandula for his re-election as President. The SACBC through the person of Fr. Dumisani Vilakati from Manzini Diocese who is the new Director has once again made its contribution in support of IMBISA. We thank Fr. Vilakati for accepting this task and promise him our support as the conference.
I missed that IMBISA meeting because I was in Morocco for SECAM affairs. I hope that we will have the opportunity here to debrief about the IMBISA Plenary and to raise matters that need to be taken forward. Bishop Jose in his blog has written a helpful summary of the proceedings and discussions of that Plenary.
The SECAM theologians are still in the process of finalizing the Kampala Document which synthesizes the deliberations of the SECAM Plenary meeting that was also held last year in July. I hope that when the IMBISA and SECAM Plenary documents eventually come out, they will form part of the implementation tools of our Pastoral Plan. The SACBC was noted with praise in its attempt to raise awareness about SECAM during the preparation for the golden jubilee, and I encourage that we continue to implement SECAM programmes in our conference. Time permitting during the Plenary I will share with you about the attempts being made under the new President to get SECAM financially viable and to engage with the defaulting conferences in paying their levies.
So once more welcome to everybody and may the Holy Spirit guide our discussions during this plenary.
Bishop S. Sipuka – SACBC President
Pretoria 22 January 2020