IMBISA's statement on Family in Southern Africa

Together with a "business session" dealing with internal matters of IMBISA, each plenary session deals with a special theme. This year, providentially, was "family in Southern Africa". We did not know Pope Francis was going to call an extraordinary synod on that theme ("Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization"). This is the statement published at the end of the meeting.

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Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops in Southern Africa (IMBISA)Addresses the Subject of FAMILY in Southern Africa Today

We, the bishops of the Inter-regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA), gathered in Gaborone, Botswana, for our 10th plenary session from the 11 to the 15th of November 2013 and considered the theme of family in Africa.

The Church considers the Family as the cradle of all institutions, be they civil, political and religious, including the Church itself. Indeed, the Family has thus been appropriately referred to as the “domestic church,” and Blessed John Paul II described it as “the civilization of love,” the sacrament of marriage being the earthly manifestation of Christ’s union to his bride, the Church.

The importance given to the Family is underlined by the fact that both the United Nations and the Church will, in their different ways, give special focus to the Family in 2014, the United Nations celebrating world-wide the twentieth anniversary of the Year of the Family and the Church holding an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican, Rome, the first of Pope Francis I’s pontificate under the theme: Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

It is on account of the family’s centrality in human institutions that we, the bishops of the IMBISA region, have over the past two decades given special focus to the family in Southern Africa. At the end of our 4th Triennial Plenary Assembly held in Windhoek, Namibia in 1995 on the subject, Church and Family in Southern Africa, we resolved that IMBISA should “continue to promote study on the family apostolate.” “Priority,” we said, “should be given to the family apostolate in an attempt to determine adequate pastoral methods which address the challenges of our social reality in Southern Africa.”

Such contact with the social reality of family in Southern Africa today was therefore a necessary first stage for our deliberations at the Gaborone plenary assembly. Over 8 months preceding the Assembly, families in the region were consulted regarding the state of the family institution and the family apostolate in their various countries today and on what they believed should be done to improve the situation. We considered it absolutely important that for us to adequately address issues affecting the families of Southern Africa today as shepherds of the faithful, we should before anything else hear directly from the families themselves.

We are therefore pleased and grateful that families in the region did speak openly and frankly about the situations they face and experience. Results from the survey showed that there were positives, which we celebrate and endeavor to strengthen, and challenges, which we committed ourselves to address with the help of the families themselves. 

In our discussions we noted with appreciation and a sense of hope the practices and pastoral infrastructures and programs that contribute positively to family ministry. The positives noted included improvement in families praying and attending church together, the improved role that women play in the welfare of the family (including earning income for the family), family members supporting each other, the increased accessibility of the Church to families, small Christian communities - which are made up of families - giving support to families socially and spiritually, availability of a variety of  family support services within the church and in workplaces, the support provided to the nucleus family by the extended family where this still exists and the support provided by Catholic institutions such as schools and hospitals. 

The challenges to the family and the family apostolate identified in the survey included increasing poverty exacerbated by the worsening unemployment situation in the region and inadequate remuneration for many who are employed, emergency of new types of family including families headed by grandparents, single parents, two parents who are both fathers or mothers to the children through adoption arrangements and children themselves as heads of families, increasing insecurity of families in the face of chronic illnesses that include HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, crime, the onslaught on healthy family communications by social media, the increasing vulnerability of the elderly, women and children, separation of families as members of families leave home or country to look for better job prospects and the spiritual conflict that the faithful experience between the teachings of the church and what many consider as exigencies that include the use of contraceptives, the perceived inescapability of divorce and stubbornly persistent traditional cultural practices that are at variance with the social teachings of the Church.

Hearing directly from the families themselves about their situation gave us, the bishops, useful insight and also confirmation of our own experience of the many families we work with in our different dioceses. We deliberated at length and sought guidance from theological reflection on these issues, reviewing instances in the Bible and in the social traditions and teachings of the church where men and women had comparable experiences in their families and how they addressed them. We reflected with concern the following phenomena, among others, of family in Southern Africa today:

  • Important family moments such as families eating, praying and eating together are not as frequent as they should be  
  • Important cultural practices such as the payment of lobola and weddings are losing their true significance and are being supplanted by greed and expensive glamour which young people wishing to get married can ill afford
  • Diminishing role of family in catechizing family members particularly the young
  • Men playing limited roles in church movements
  • Cohabitation of couples without formally getting married caused in many instances by fear to commit oneself to a relationship for life
  • Disruption of family life through excessive exposure and in some cases addiction to television and the ever-proliferating menu of social media, members of families living like non-communicating silos in the home
  • Increased secularization and de-solemnization of marriage through legislation, policies, practices and language all that do not confirm marriage as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s union to his bride, the Church

To address these and other challenges facing the family in Southern Africa today, we, the bishops, agreed on  a three-year Family Action Plan (2014 – 2016) through which the Church and families will together work to:

1. Strengthen the family desk/family ministry in each of the IMBISA region dioceses to enable it address social and spiritual issues pertaining to family more comprehensively and more effectively
2. Involve the laity and the movements that address their social and spiritual welfare more in helping the Church keep its pulse on the changing patterns of family and in addressing the emerging needs of this changing family
3. Engage governments and public authorities in the various countries of the region to advocate for the promulgation of pro-family legislation, policies and practices, for the creation of jobs to alleviate poverty and for the provision of services and safety nets to address health and the increasing vulnerabilities of families
We entrust all families of our region to the loving solicitude and prayers of the Nazareth family and our Lady of peace to intercede for the countries of our region. 

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior

Bishops of the IMBISA Region attending the 10th Triennial Plenary Assembly of IMBISA in Gaborone, Botswana, 14 November, 2013

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