PLENARY SESSION OF THE SOUTHERN AFRICAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS' CONFERENCE
Firstly, I would like to congratulate Bishop Kevin's Dowling's on his 25th episcopal anniversary which he will be celebrating shortly. Hopefully many of us will be able to attend the celebration. We wish you all God's blessings for the future.
I would also like to thank Archbishop Jabulani Nxumalo who has served his second term as first Vice-President of the Conference and will be stepping down after this plenary. We thank you for all you have done over the past 6 years.
2015 was an eventful year. For us, as the Church of Southern Africa, the highlight was the Beatification of Benedict Daswa. It became a “1994 moment” and a “2010 moment”. The life and death of Daswa captured the public imagination far beyond the doors of Catholicism. The coverage given by the media was superb and could hardly have been better. The presence of the Deputy President, government ministers and traditional leaders was a particularly unifying aspect. The organisation – in such a remote area – was excellent. On behalf of the Conference I would like to congratulate Bishop Joao Rodrigues and his collaborators on this achievement which has given new energy to the Church and to many others. Catholics throughout the country rallied and those present at the event came form all corners of our countries. While the Diocese of Tzaneen bore the brunt of the costs, Catholics from many dioceses – if not all – responded to the call to make a contribution.
Another highlight of last year was the Synod on the family. I believe it was a ground-breaking event and from which many good things will transpire. It became apparent at the synod, as well as other addresses of the Pope, that the Holy Father wishes bishops' conferences and the local Church to have greater responsibility for pastoral decisions. Modifications have already been made in terms of the annulment of marriages. For example in certain instances the local bishop will be able to make the decision on the validity of a marriage using a process that will be considerably quicker. If greater pastoral latitude is given to bishops' conferences, this will place a greater responsibility on us. Fortunately, we do have a well-run and functioning Conference. But it is a reminder that we all must commit ourselves to keeping the Conference functioning and to meet the pastoral and leadership challenges that will face us in the coming years. We should not forget that we are not only ordained bishops for our dioceses but also to lead the Church in Southern Africa.
The announcement by Pope Francis of the Holy Year of Mercy was also a highlight. Mercy is the essence of Jesus' ministry and conversion was brought about by the experience of God's mercy and forgiveness. We are being called back to the Gospel and the question arises whether our parishes/christian communities reflect Christ's mercy in terms of welcome, acceptance, caring for the afflicted – many accuse us that other churches care far more for those who are bereaved, sick or in trouble than we do. It is also an opportunity to moving towards a greater evangelical outreach, moving away from simply maintaining what we have. The call to return to the basics of the Gospel is a call to be the church that Christ wishes us to be. We obviously have programmes and events in our dioceses, but it would also be worthwhile to see what could be done as a Conference.
Despite these positive and encouraging events 2015 was a tough year for the country, and the end of the year left us with deep concerns. To name a few: increasingly ugly incidents of racism both overt and covert, the Eskom load shedding, the disruptions of parliament, the summoning of the police into the sanctuary of parliament itself, the student unrest, various protests in the general population (according to statistics there were 14740 service delivery protests in the year 2014-2015), the sacking of the minister of finance, perceptions of jobs for friends and of patronage, corruption in the public and private domain, the threats against the chapter nine institutions – all these and others have led to a climate of insecurity. 2016 will probably be a year of even more turmoil leading up to the local elections. Many, including some in the government, are calling on the church to be more vocal and involved. I think that the following areas are of major importance:
1) We need to continue the dialogue around racism by ensuring that we are aware of what is happening and creating awareness in parishes. To this end the reflections requested of Justice and Peace and the Jesuit Institute are of prime importance. We should also be taking a lead in challenging racism in all its forms and by contributing to the debate.
2) To develop ways of engaging with government. I have said this many times and there have been some progress with the ministries of home affairs, international relations and co-operation, social development and higher education. But it would be particularly helpful to engage government regarding policy as there appears to be a vacuum. The widely-acclaimed National Development Plan has been adopted but little or no progress has been made in its implementation. It is also contested within government.
3) While seeking greater dialogue with government, to scrupulously avoid becoming part of the patronage system, ensuring that any assistance we receive from government, for example social development of health, is achieved through the proper channels and with transparency. We need to be vigilant against any form of co-option or using the church for propaganda purposes.
4) To ensure an ecumenical and inter-faith voice in dealing with issues affecting citizens – I am unsure of the present status of the Faith Leaders forum. I have never been able to attend a meeting but have been represented by Bishop Sipuka and Archbishop Nxumalo. My impression is that a cohesive approach is yet to be developed.
I attended The SACC day of prayer for reconciliation on the 16th December with Fr Patrick Rakeketsi attended this. The preparatory document set the scene, ensuring that a “cheap reconciliation” was avoided, but rather reconciliation through meeting the demands of justice. It was fairly well represented by Church leaders and although not conducted in a “Catholic” way, it gave me hope that the SACC could be a forum for a united Christian voice; again, we need to play our part in this because a unified voice is desperately needed.
5) During the course of this year we will have local elections. It comes at a time when doubts have been raised regarding some appointments, including that of the IEC chairperson rightly or wrongly. Following the unfortunate events during the time of Pansy Tlakula, Vuma Mashinini has been appointed IEC chairperson. Some claim that he is a “crony” of President Zuma. The court finding of the by-elections of Tlokwe has also, to some extent, damaged the credibility of the IEC. Whatever the truth of these allegations, I hope that we will be able to muster a strong ecumenical and/or IMBISA monitoring team for the elections. If accusations and doubts are raised about the fairness of the elections it will have serious consequences for the country. Thus, independent monitors are essential.
6) We also need to take seriously occasions such as the coming Police day to have contact with the Police Services – not only are the police under enormous stress but there is a real danger of increased brutality by the police as protests and upheavals continue. Our interaction could be a moderating influence.
7) In the confusing political situation at this time, we need to keep balance. There is no question about the advances we have made since democracy. It is absurd to suggest there has been no change or that things were better under apartheid. We do have serious challenges ahead, but they are not insurmountable and are unsurprising considering we are a young democracy. The church needs to know its place and role, and that is to be side by side of the poor and neglected to ensure they are not forgotten and that their lives can change to attain full human dignity.
Just a couple more points: I was able to visit Swaziland last year on a solidarity visit organised by the DHPI. Fr Peter John Pearson was part of the group and conducted workshops with the priests of the Diocese of Manzini. Bishop Jose and I met with the Prime Minister, Cabinet, opposition members and leaders of civil organisations. It was an informative visit and an eye opener. Archbishop Nxumalo led a solidarity delegation to Lesotho and met with the King, politicians, detained soldiers and their families. By all accounts it was successful and much appreciated by the local church. These visits are very important.
I once again attended the Holy Land Co-Ordination. The focus was on three areas. Firstly, we visited Gaza where we had a sense of an improvement in the situation. Last time we visited it was just a few of months after the war, the bombardment of 52 days. This year we witnessed people trying to get their lives together, renovations and building was going on and there was more activity. However, it remains a prison with Israel controlling the only open border. What can and cannot go in is at the whim of Israel. Secondly, we visited the Cremisan valley. You will remember we sent a letter of solidarity to the Patriarch in this regard. The Israeli courts had initially ruled that the separation wall could not divide Catholic land nor go through the centuries old land of 58 Christian families. On appeal, that decision was overturned and construction of the wall has begun. Land has been expropriated and ancient olive groves have been uprooted. The second court decision as made just after the Vatican signed the memorandum of understanding with Palestine and many suggest that the court decision was made in the light of that. The Palestinian families have appealed the appeal and work should have stopped on the construction of the wall – nonetheless it is going ahead. The mood is one of depression and anger, especially among young people. Soon after we arrived in the area the Israeli army appeared and ordered us off, threatening tear gas – it was a throwback to apartheid times. In dialogue with soldiers I asked one whether this was not Palestinian land to which he responded that he did not know. The occupation of Palestine remains the biggest barrier to peace.
Thirdly, we visited refugees in Jordan, primarily those from Iraq. Refugees now form one third of the population of Jordan. The King has said that al refugees are welcome, but it is obviously placing great strain on the economy. Syrian refugees are receiving considerable help from western countries and the Iraqi very little, if anything at all – few countries are willing to accept Iraqis now. Obviously the number of Syrian refugees is far greater than those of Iraq. The Iraqi refugees are Christian and the vast majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim. Western countries do not wish to be seen as favouring Christians. However, the difference is that Syrians potentially can return to Syria when the violence ceases, but the Iraqi Christians will never be able to return, simply because they are Christian. It is a humanitarian crisis that continues to worsen.
In a country and world that is so unstable and insecure, I will close by praying the collect of this week:
Attend to the pleas of your people with heavenly care, O Lord, we pray
that they may see what must be done
and gain strength to do what they have seen.
Through Christ our Lord.
+Stephen Brislin 14th January 2016