The apostle of Mbabane: Fr A. Gratl OSM

The remains of Fr A. Gratl OSM were transferred from Mbabane to Mzimpofu yesterday afternoon. He was one of the two first Catholic missionaries who came to Swaziland in 1914. He is known as the "apostle of Mbabane" where he lived and served for 30 years. 

In the morning we received his remains at Mater Dolorosa (Mbabane) where we gathered for the celebration of the Mass. 

Below, my homily.

* * *

I was wondering if we should change the readings. I normally do not do it. I like following the calendar giving by the church. At the same time I did not want to “force” the readings to say whatever I have in mind. Hope I am not.

We are reaching the end of the liturgical year and the text taken from Luke 21 is – somehow – not really encouraging. Jesus talks about: persecution, being handed over and imprisoned, being betrayed by relatives and friends and… as if this would not be enough, being put to death. There is still something else: you will be hated by all on account of my name. One thing is clear: Jesus was not a politician trying to seduce people to follow him.

We are here to remember one of the pioneers of the Catholic Church in Swaziland and the apostle of Mbabane: Fr A. Gratl OSM.

It seems he was not – at least not at the beginning – a strong man. Because of health his final vows were anticipated and after his ordination he had to take time to recover.

He was a good religious and was appointed novice master.

He arrived in Swaziland together with Fr Mayr on 27 January 1914 and died at 72 having served this area (Mbabane) for 30 years. He was the first superior of the group until this mission was moved back under the Superior General (if I understood properly). During those 30 years only once he went back home (in 1928).

When he arrived, Mbabane had 500 people (a hundred of them white) and 6 or 7 Catholics.

Did Fr Gratl experience any of the things mentioned by Jesus in today's Gospel? I have not finished reading the history of the work of the OSM but I have the feeling he did not. He went through other “challenges” as we call them today.

Having arrived in January with Fr Mayr, two more would join them in March, a brother and another priest. A second mission station would be opened in May: St Joseph's at Mzimpofu. 

Then as you know, Fr Maier was killed in October that year bringing the group from 4 to 3.

The first world war made the Vicar Apostolic of Natal (under which Swaziland was) to ask Fr Belleze OSM to help in Dundee (South Africa), bringing the group from 3 to 2: one priest and one brother for two missions (Mater Dolorosa and St Joseph's).

This always remains in my mind and heart. One hundred years' ago: two Catholic missionaries for one country. Only one priest: Fr Gratl OSM. Fr Belleze would only came back in 1919 or 1920.

No roads, no internet, no email, no money, no communication. The nearest Catholic priest was 300 or 400 km away.

Another detail to add to these ones. Fr Gratl was from Austria and therefore considered an enemy by the English. He could work in Swaziland but not cross the border to South Africa. 

Though Fr Gratl never experienced any of the things mentioned today in the Gospel, Jesus' final statement might apply to him: “Your endurance will win you your lives”

Today I would like to suggest that our diocese names Fr A. Gratl OSM "patron of the priests of the diocese" being religious or diocesan. I would encourage the priests to pray for his intercession and whenever they go through a crisis to go and pray at his tomb. He certainly knew and experienced the challenges of our call and pastoral service.

We transfer today the remains of one of the pionneers of the Catholic Church in Swaziland, a missionary, the apostle of Mbabane. 

We should all ourselves… why? Why did he come? Why did he stay when everything seem to be collapsing? Why did he never give up? Why did he fall in love with this country and people? 

Was it just his character? I do not think so. There has to be much more than that. I believe he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, on the One who called him and sent him to proclaim His good news. 

May we, who gathered today to remember him, like him, keep our eyes fixed on Him and continue what he started more than 100 years' ago.

Click HERE to see photos of the celebration

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Bishop of the Diocese of Manzini (Swaziland)

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