The Word that is mercy and hope (Archbishop Peter Wells)

Last 11th August 2016, during our SACBC plenary session, we were addressed for the first time by the new Apostolic Nuncio to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and
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Thank you Archbishop Brislin, as President of the Conference, for your kind words of introduction. Your Eminence and my dear brother Bishops, Sr Hermenegild and Fr. Patrick.

First of all, I want to thank you all for the warm and brotherly welcome you have given me since my arrival. I could not be more grateful.

Also I would like to take this opportunity to thank Monsignor Kevin Randall for the wonderful work he did during a long period as Chargé. I am personally very grateful, and I know you all are as well.

As you know, we are celebrating the year of Mercy, and I would like to base what I have to say on the episode related in the Gospel of Luke of the healing of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), which I believe to be one of the most concrete acts of mercy witnessed in the Gospels.

The first point found in this passage which I want to make concerns compassion. Luke tells us that: “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” (v.13) It’s the only time in Luke that no one asks Christ to do something; he does it on his own. Love always takes the initiative and that means not just feeling but acting. If you look at the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, they are all concrete actions which require both heart and will to be moved. Jesus says: Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7,21). In the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis calls mercy, the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us”.

And yet, there are many times we feel sorry for someone but we do not do anything, e.g.: the homeless man living on the steps of the Cathedral; an elderly retired priest who would appreciate a visit; a fellow bishop struggling with limited resources. Maybe if we are asked, we do something; but love does not wait to be asked. In fact, how often are we secretly thankful not to be asked! And this is not just with the poor and needy, but even with our own community. We do not want to get involved. Getting involved means commitment and that requires giving of our time, our energy, interrupting a pre-planned program. The more we feel that we are in positions of leadership the greater the danger of excusing ourselves from reaching out to our neighbor because we are busy with important” matters. Yet, it is clear that Christ tells us not to wait to be asked, act now; just as the good Samaritan” did. For example, remember what Pope Francis said at the beginning of his Pontificate… to get out from behind our desks. I cannot expect those who work with me to get out and do pastoral work if I am not doing it myself.

For Bishops, this is most strikingly present in their ministry. It is here that I want to speak of a particular aspect that I believe to be constitutive of the Charism of the Episcopacy, the Ministry of Unity”. It is really the only reason we have a Nunciature. It is a sign of unity, helping to foster unity with the See of Peter and among the bishops. This is expressed concretely in two ways: in unity of vision” and unity in mission”, particularly in facing a whole range of crises in Southern Africa – political, economic, social, but especially moral and spiritual. Unity in mission is required for implementing the far-reaching restructuring process which you have undertaken, emphasizing that the Conference exists to serve the member dioceses, and not to be a super-diocese”. Unity is also expressed concretely in sharing resources, particularly through the solidarity fund with each diocese contributing 1% of its ordinary income. Among the important issues which require consensus among the bishops are:
  • carrying out Pope Francis’ program of renewal and reform from the top down to the local community, and back to the top;
  • strengthening marriage and the family; urgency in re-thinking marriage preparation so that marriage is understood as a vocation from God; strengthening family life by use of the Family Movements when and where this is possible;
  • promoting and nurturing vocations to the priesthood and religious life as a joint venture at both diocesan and conference levels, including mutual assistance in regards to costs.

The episode of the healing of the Widow’s son also gives us some pointers on how Jesus acts with regard to social oppression. In the time of Jesus, a widow whose only son had died was in an extremely vulnerable position. In effect she was destitute with no means of support. Jesus would not allow the cultural and social oppression to have the last word. In the Letter of St. James we read: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1, 27). Today there are many expressions of social oppression. Even after 22 years of democracy in South Africa the poor remain largely excluded from the benefits of social and economic development. Recently we have also witnessed rising levels of racial tension and xenophobia throughout Southern Africa. Here I would encourage you as bishops to take the lead in the work for reconciliation and peace. There is a mindset of violence which needs to be changed beginning with children growing up in families and attending school.

Jewish custom regards the coffin that is used to transport the corpse as being ritually unclean and so the fact that Jesus touched it would have caused consternation, so much so that the procession stops. Jesus came into this world to meet us in our situation of suffering, sin and death. He is not concerned about being contaminated by the unclean aspects of our lives. He heals the leper by reaching out his hand and touching him (Lk 5:12-15). His healing is spiritual and not just bodily. It is the grace of redemption already at work. Mark reports Jesus as saying "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (2,17). All of us are invited to allow Christ to enter our darker sides and purify us. As disciples and ministers, Christ is also saying to us: “Don’t be afraid to enter, to touch, to show compassion for the lives of the unclean”. For it is only through love, compassion and the courage to break through social prejudice that they can be cleaned.

One of the key notes of the Holy Father’s recent Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia is its pastoral concern for families that particularly require being looked upon with mercy and compassion. Quoting from the Relatio Synodi 2014 Pope Francis writes:

“…the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm”.

He follows this up with the comment: Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital.” (291) Among other issues, Chapter 8 deals with the case of those who are civilly divorced and re-married. The question of whether such individuals should be allowed to receive the Eucharist has been the focus of much debate. We have to admit that the Exhortation does not make a definitive statement in this regard. In paragraph 305 we read:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

The accompanying footnote 351 adds: ‘In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments…I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”’

It is no secret that many bishops have expressed the desire to have some clearer guidance on how exactly this teaching is to be implemented in pastoral practice at the grassroots level. Individual bishops in some places have taken the initiative by attempting to clarify the pastoral implications of the Exhortation with regard to their own diocese. My own suggestion is that the bishops of this Conference set up a Commission with the aim of establishing a set of unified standards regarding pastoral practices to be followed in dealing with this particular issue. In this regard I think it is helpful to look at what Pope Francis has written concerning the possibility for bishops to decide how to implement what is said in the Exhortation taking account of the local social and cultural context:

I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’”. (n.3)

A Commission could also be created to deal with the pastoral and juridical implications of the Motu Proprio Mitis et Misericors Iesus regarding canonical norms related to the nullity of marriages. I would also encourage you to continue to consult theologians and canon lawyers in your discussions as well as make use of the particular committees that already exist alongside of the Theological Advisory Committee.

Finally, my brother Bishops, I would like to say something about your role as prophets. As bishops we are indeed called to be Priests, Prophets and Kings”. We do rather well on the priestly and kingly bits, but sometimes we are a bit remiss on the prophetic part. Christ’s treatment of the Widow of Nain reminds us of our prophetic role. Indeed, Jesus was prophetic in this event reminding the Jewish community and all of us of our role to protect and cherish the destitute and the vulnerable. Wherever and whoever they may be Jesus would not allow the cultural and social system of oppression to be the last word. As men configured in a special way to Him, neither can we. We can allow only one last word and that is the Word of God. The Word that is mercy and hope. The Word that saves.  


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Bishop of the Diocese of Manzini (Swaziland)

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