Archbishop Wells: Mercy and indifference to the cry of those who are suffering are mutually exclusive

Archbishop Peter Wells
Apostolic Nuncio to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland

Address to the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference Plenary Session

Your Eminence, my Brother Bishops, Sr Hermenegild and Fr. Patrick,

It is a great pleasure to be here today and to have this opportunity to address you. I have been here in South Africa for less than a year, but I already feel a strong bond of fellowship with each one of you. My wish is that this can continue to grow and that as the Bishops’ Conference you will feel the concern and  the support of the Nunciature both personally and for all the activities you are engaged in at the service of the Church.

I would like to begin by saying something about the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy which has recently ended. In particular, I wish to draw your attention to the Apostolic Letter Misericordia et Misera (MM) which the Holy Father issued at the conclusion of the Jubilee. I feel called to do this because this document is primarily written with the intention of engaging the universal Church in a programme of action to carry out an intensive pastoral mission of mercy. In the words of Pope Francis: “The Jubilee now ends and the Holy Door is closed. But the door of mercy of our heart continues to remain wide open” (MM, 16).

To begin with we are called to celebrate mercy. And nowhere is this more appropriate than in the Eucharistic celebration where, “mercy constantly appears in the dialogue between the assembly at prayer and the heart of the Father, who rejoices to bestow his merciful love” (MM, 5). In the Penitential Rite we plead: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”, and we have heard so many times on Sunday morning: “For you so loved the world that in your mercy you sent us the Redeemer, to live like us in all things but sin.” (1) In the Second Eucharistic Prayer the priest asks on behalf of the congregation: “Have mercy on us all”. Again, before the sign of peace he prays: “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.”

The Word of God which is read during the Eucharistic liturgy is in its essence a proclamation of God’s saving power made manifest in salvation history. In this context, the importance of the homily must be stressed, “so that the hearts of believers may thrill before the grandeur of mercy” (MM, 6). But this can only be effective to the extent that it is based on the priest’s personal encounter with divine mercy. In the words of Pope Francis: “A priest’s preaching will be fruitful to the extent that he himself has experienced the merciful goodness of the Lord. Communicating the certainty that God loves us is not an exercise in rhetoric, but a condition for the credibility of one’s priesthood” (MM, 6).   

In the whole of sacramental life whatever grace is received flows from the merciful love of the Father made available in Christ Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is so evident in the sacrament of Reconciliation when we say: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace”. On the part of the penitent, the experience is one of feeling the embrace of the Father which is so wonderfully evoked in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As ministers of this sacrament we must be: “welcoming to all, witnesses of fatherly tenderness whatever the gravity of the sin involved, attentive in helping penitents to reflect on the wrong they have done, clear in presenting moral principles, willing to walk patiently beside the faithful on their penitential journey, far-sighted in discerning individual cases and generous in dispensing God’s forgiveness” (MM, 10).  The Holy Father affirms that the Sacrament of Reconciliation must regain its central place in the Christian life (MM, 11), so that everyone who desires it may have the opportunity of “experiencing the liberating power of forgiveness” (MM, 11). In administering this sacrament the priest’s words and actions should touch the heart of the penitents enabling them to discover the “closeness and tenderness of the Father who forgives” (MM, 11). Justice and mercy must form an inseparable bond.

Archbishop Peter Wells (Apostolic Nuncio) (left)
Archbishop Stephen Brislin (Archbishop of Cape Town) (right)
Consolation is another face of mercy. We need to be close to the broken-hearted, to all those who have experienced various forms of sadness and affliction, violence and abandonment, and particularly at the time of  death, the greatest of all sufferings. In certain situations, no words may be appropriate and it may be that our consoling presence can only be expressed in silence, like the loving stabat of our Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. A particular word is addressed to the need to care for families in their daily struggles and  many crises. Through its concern and support, its welcoming and accompanying, the whole Christian community is called to uphold the great positive value of the family (cf. MM, 14). 

In all of this the priest must show a special sensitivity to the uniqueness of each person with his or her own personal history. 
“This demands, especially of priests, a careful, profound and far-sighted spiritual discernment, so that everyone, none excluded, no matter the situation a person is living in, can feel accepted by God, participate actively in the life of the community and be part of that People of God which journeys tirelessly towards the fullness of his kingdom of justice, love, forgiveness and mercy” (MM,14). 
I am reminded of something our Holy Father said in his homily given on Palm Sunday last year: 
“To be totally in solidarity with us, [Jesus] … experiences on the Cross the mysterious abandonment of the Father... Here at the height of his annihilation, [He] reveals the true face of God, which is mercy. He forgives those who are crucifying him, he opens the gates of paradise to the repentant thief and he touches the heart of the centurion. If the mystery of evil is unfathomable, then the reality of Love poured out through him is infinite, reaching even to the tomb and to hell. He takes upon himself all our pain that he may redeem it, bringing light to darkness, life to death, love to hatred.”
The concrete face of God who is love is shown through the works of mercy to be undertaken in favour or all those who are suffering in body or spirit: the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the unemployed, those in prison who are forced to endure inhumane living conditions, the refugees, the illiterate. We give witness to Christian mercy when we restore the dignity of individuals which has been taken from them by the various forms of injustice stemming from a “culture of extreme individualism” (MM, 18). What’s needed in reply is a “culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of encounter with others, a culture in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters” (MM, 19). Mercy and indifference to the cry of those who are suffering are mutually exclusive.

As a tangible lasting sign of the Extraordinary Holy Year, the Holy Father suggests that on the Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, the entire Church celebrate the World Day of the Poor.

When we talk about those who are suffering, I am happy to note that the SACBC has proclaimed the feast day of St Josephine Bakhita on February 8 as a day of prayer and reflection on the continuing scourge of the abuse of women and children, particularly with regard to human trafficking. I think it is timely that we refer to this topic. In a recent address to a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations stated:
“The world today continues to be confronted with various old and new forms of violence directed against women and girls, in particular the use of rape as a weapon of war during conflicts, the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation, forced abortion, forced conversion and forced marriage. Instead of being eradicated, some of these acts of violence have re-emerged in even more cruel forms, causing death or serious and long-lasting physical, psychological and social effects, other than being some of the most horrendous violations of human rights.”
In its November 2016 Briefing Paper the SACBC Parliamentary Liaison Office voiced concern about the rate of teenage pregnancy, noting that there are close to 100,000 pregnant students in South Africa. The Human Sciences Research Council and the World Bank estimate that 18 percent of all students in South Africa either get pregnant or make someone pregnant each year. In this regard I think it important to point out that the statistics I am using are those readily available here in South Africa, however, we also acknowledge that similar problems exist in Swaziland and Botswana.  These statistics, in fact,  need to be placed in the context of a larger problem concerning the treatment of women and girls in our society. Among the issues which need to be highlighted are: the culture of rape; the sexual abuse of girls at school by teachers, as well as sexual abuse at home. Alcohol and substance abuse also play their part. There are worrying incidences of young girls being drugged at social functions and being sexually assaulted. Teenage girls with low self-esteem and lacking respect for their bodies are more likely to succumb to peer pressure and become sexually active at a young age. The Briefing Paper notes that the wider social context also plays a role in fostering this abuse of women and girls. There is the, “breakdown of the extended family; the high number of non-marital births; female-headed households and the paucity of positive role models.”

As we know the problem does not just regard women and children. The men, and particularly fathers, are also involved. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that South Africa is suffering a crisis of the “absent father”. Research conducted in the past five years by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the South African Race Relations Institute (SARRI) found that 60 percent of SA children have absent fathers, and more than 40 percent of South African mothers are single parents. There is an extensive body of international research data which shows that children who grow up in single parent families are exposed to a much higher than normal risk of succumbing to drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, suicide, low academic achievement, time spent in prison, divorce, unemployment, and a host of other negative life-experiences (2).

Can anything be done about this? On a positive note, I am happy to see that in a number of dioceses efforts are being made to encourage men’s forums, groups and sodalities with the specific aim of challenging Catholic men to fully respond to their responsibilities as husbands and particularly as fathers. If I may, I would like to quote from the Constitution of the Men’s Forum of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg listing the challenges that Catholic men need to address: 
  • Erosion of African value of extended family norms and ubuntu against the nuclear family;
  • Loss of sense of community, affirmation of individualism and self-centeredness;
  • Dereliction and neglect of parental responsibilities, lack of discipline in the family and society;
  • Sacrificing of ethics, rampant self-enrichment, graft and corruption;
  • Lack of discipline and commitment, unacceptable school failure rate, high dropout rate at school and drug abuse by learners and educators;
  • Inability to defer gratification, permissive sexuality, immoral contraceptive methods and abortion;
  • Young parenthood that leads to undue dependence on the state.
  • Undermining of monogamy and its denigration, cohabitation and absence of commitment to matrimonial vows;
  • Dereliction of parental responsibility and guidance to children, which leads to break up of families and street children;
  • Rampant media which promotes licentiousness and pornography.

When we look specifically at Catholic fathers, what is required most of all is a commitment to being available to their children both in terms of quality time spent with them, as well as fostering an atmosphere of warm affection and fruitful dialogue, especially when children are going through the difficult challenge of adolescence.  We all are aware of the stereotype of the strict, demanding father who requires absolute submission from his children to his authority. But times have changed, and today’s children need a different parenting style. Here too I am happy to see that in some dioceses initiatives have been taken to offer workshops on parenting given by professional experts and well-informed parents who can share positive experiences, answer questions and give useful advice. This work is not only helping parents, but in the long run it will also provide their children with positive models when in turn they become parents. I would encourage all the dioceses to foster initiatives at the parish level to assist fathers in being positive role-models for their children, and in the challenging task of forming them in the Catholic faith. 

If we wish to propose a role-model for husbands and fathers we will find none greater than St Joseph, the protector of the Holy Family. Allow me to quote from a homily given by Pope Paul VI in 1969 on the feast of St Joseph:
“[Joseph was] a poor, honest, hardworking,  perhaps even timorous man, but one with unfathomable interior life, from which very singular directions and consolations came, bringing him also the logic and strength that belong to simple and clear souls, and giving him the power of making great decisions, such as that decision to put his liberty at once at the disposition of the divine designs, to make over to them also his legitimate human calling, his conjugal happiness, to accept the conditions, the responsibility and the burden of a family, but, through an incomparable virginal love, to renounce that natural conjugal love that is the foundation and the nourishment of the family; in this way he offered the whole of his existence in a total sacrifice to the imponderable demands raised by the astonishing coming of the Messiah, to whom he was to give the everlastingly blessed name of Jesus (Mt. 1:21)”
In carrying this out we need to look at the wider dimension of all that is necessary to foster mature Catholic families. This begins with examining how to make our marriage preparation courses more effective, taking into account the challenges that families are facing in an environment which is evermore materialistic and hedonistic; where religion is being challenged in the public square by a mentality which is increasingly secularist and often hostile to organized religion. We are also being faced with newly emerging situations of single parent families, families with homosexual children, families headed by children. The number of couples that are splitting up even after a very short period of marriage is alarming. We need to examine carefully how our young people are being prepared for this sacrament.  Do they have the tools and support they need?  Do they understand the gravity of the commitment they make? This is a worldwide question, not just an African question.  And when things go badly wrong, it is our duty to  ensure that our annulment processes carefully examine the validity of marriage promptly and efficiently. 

There is good reason to believe that in order to overcome difficulties, to deal with crises, to flourish as Catholic families, a programme of family spirituality is needed. I know that many parishes have a family-life desk, but I think that there is ample space for more to be done in this area. 

We are speaking about the family, and so allow me to say something about my concern for our young people, a concern which I am sure we all share. I am saying this in the context of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which will take place in October 2018, dealing with the topic: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” In his letter to young people announcing the theme of the Synod, Pope Francis writes: 
“The Church also wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism. Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls.”
In the time leading up the Synod I would encourage you to take this opportunity to mobilise the appropriate resources in your dioceses in promoting what I would call “a preferential option for our young people”. I say this not only because to engage with our youth is a good thing in itself, but also because, as we are all aware, without our young people, the very future of the Church is in jeopardy. I do not think that this is an impossible task. Yes, we know it is challenging to work with today’s youth. Their world is hugely different from the one we grew up in. But deep down they are searching for meaning in their lives, for authentic relationships, for a spirituality that allows them to be fully alive. We need to be convinced that only the Gospel, only a personal relationship with the Risen Christ can meet these needs. But it is not enough to be convinced. We must be dynamic and creative in finding ways to meet our young people where they are. I would encourage you to take a critical look at whatever organisations, commissions, departments concerned with youth that exist at the diocesan level to see to what degree they are really engaging with our young people; to ask ourselves how they can become more dynamic, creative, and effective in reaching out to our young people. One possibility to explore is an initiative which could be termed: “youth evangelising youth”. We know how important the peer group is for young people. For example, it is one thing for an adult to preach to a teenager about the value of chastity in pre-marital relationships; it is quite another for teenagers to listen to someone their own age giving a personal witness about how they have made a choice to remain chaste until they are married. 

But my hope is that if we put our minds to it, the Holy Spirit will suggest ways and means to respond to this challenge. In doing so, we can be sure that we are responding to a concern which is uppermost in the mind and the heart of the Holy Father. 

Today we have spoken about challenges which at times may seem to overwhelm us. It should not surprise us if often we find it difficult to see our way forward. It’s in these moments that we can draw upon the great Christian virtue of hope. Allow me to conclude with something the Holy Father recently said about hope in the General Audience of December 21st.  I quote:
“for a Christian, to hope means the certainty of being on a journey with Christ toward the Father who awaits us. Hope is never still; hope is always journeying, and it makes us journey. This hope, which the Child of Bethlehem gives us, offers a destination, a sure, ongoing goal, salvation of mankind, blessedness to those who trust in a merciful God. Saint Paul summarizes all this with the expression: “in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24). In other words, walking in this world, with hope, we are saved. Here we can ask ourselves the question, each one of us: am I walking with hope or is my interior life static, closed? Is my heart a locked drawer or a drawer open to the hope which enables me to walk — not alone — with Jesus?”
Thank you again, my Brother Bishops for this possibility to address you. My wish is that these days of the Plenary may be blessed by our Heavenly Father so that you are strengthened and renewed in your own spiritual life and in your service to the Church. May Our Lady, Mother of the Church be with you always.

Archbishop Peter Wells
Apostolic Nuncio

(1) Preface for Sundays in Ordinary Time VII
(2) See:  Fatherless-children-likely-grow-angry-turn-drugs.html

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