'Our quality of witnessing for Christ' (Bp Sipuka) SACBC Plenary session

For the first time in history, 
the SACBC (Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference) plenary session i
s being celebrated in Gaborone (Botswana).
The opening Mass was presided by Bp Seane (Bishop of Gaborone).
The homily, by Bp Sipuka (Bishop of Mthatha)

"We thank God for this opportunity to hold our Bishops’ Plenary in Botswana, a country that forms part of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, the other two, being South Africa and Swaziland. 

We thank our two brother bishops, Frank and Valentine and those who work with them, for the preparations that promise both a comfortable stay and a fruitful meeting. It is a breath of fresh air to hold a conference in an African country that boasts of peace, good management, stability and economic progress, something that remains only an ideal than a reality in many countries of the continent. With all the challenges it still has, Botswana offers a glimmer of hope for what this continent can become. We pray for its leaders to stay put in their pursuit of good governance and prosperity of the people they serve.    

This opening of our plenary coincides with the feast of St. Lawrence the Deacon who was killed for the faith in 258, so he is one of the early martyrs of the Church. A few decades ago, martyrdom of Christians in the modern period was seen as something from a bygone, uncivilized era when believers were mercilessly thrown to the lions, making us to think of martyrdom as an interesting peace of ancient history. Yet today persecution and murder of Christians, though they do not make daily headlines, are a regular occurrence in many parts of the world including Africa. Lions and burning in the stake have been replaced by firing squads, beheadings, gruesome murders, rapes, destruction of property and denial of human rights. Chilling accounts and pictures of how Christians are killed for being Christians are there for all to read and view in the internet and in the newspapers that care to report about persecution of Christians.

We are lucky in this part of the world, where we still enjoy freedom of belief and worship. But being part of the universal Church, it must concern us that in some parts of the world our brothers and sisters sharing the same faith with us are persecuted and killed. We can show our concern first of all by praying for them so that like us they may be free of those situations where they cannot believe and worship in freedom. As we have no guarantee that their persecution may end any time soon, we should also pray that they will have the grace to carry the suffering and the pain that comes with their persecution without losing hope and faith in the ONE for whom they are suffering. A legend has it that when Lawrence was being roasted alive on the hot griddle he told his executioners to turn him over because the side he was lying on was well done. Let us pray that in their suffering which is real, our Christian brothers and sisters who are persecuted and killed may in some mysterious, retain their strength and joy in suffering for the Lord. In addition to prayer, we must also use available platforms of our governments, our departments of peace and justice and our status as global Catholic Church to name these killings and murder for what they are and to hold those responsible to accountability.   

One other thing that we could do is to open ourselves to be inspired by these modern martyrs to bear with patience and courage the difficulties and rejections that come our way as a result of trying to be faithful to Christ. Following the Synod on the family, we have just received an exhortation from Pope Francis offering a guide on dealing with pastoral challenges of families today and in chapter 2 the Pope discusses those challenges, which boil down to egoism, where the determining criterion of engaging or not engaging in anything is me, where everything including people are seen as useful to the extent that they fulfill my needs and whims. 

And this narcissistic disposition leads to abuse of people, unfaithfulness, addiction to drugs, addiction to social media, excessive materialism and consumerism, dereliction of duty, and irresponsibility. Other challenges come from society, which ridicule Christian values and teachings, that if you continue to hold on Christian values and teachings, you are made to feel as if you are immature, retarded and irrelevant. 

So although we are not murdered, like our brothers and sisters who are persecuted and murdered for being Christians, to resist the inclinations of the ego, or the original sin is like dying, because we are going against what easily comes to us, we go against what come natural to us, that is to focus on ourselves. Adapting ethical demands to our personal comfort and weaknesses is easier than to align our attitudes and behavior to the values of the Gospel. As the Gospel states, it takes dying to our own wishes and wants that we can attain to a life of communion with others and with God. 

Similarly to go against the expectation of the society, to go against what everybody does and says is like dying because it means being different, or being the odd one, and at times this may lead to isolation and rejection. This is especially true for young people who are pressurized to conform to the habits and practices of prevalent culture. Not to conform to prevailing culture may lead to suffering, for example when you are victimized for refusing to be part of corruption or when you find yourself with an extra child to take care of because you went against the advice to abort. 

Thank God it is not our lot yet to suffer blood martyrdom like St. Lawrence and our Christian brothers and sisters who are persecuted and killed for their faith. Yet the courage to take a stand based on the Gospel brings certain suffering with it that is similar to martyrdom, and so you could say that when we faithfully witness for Christ first against our own selfish and sinful inclinations and against the pressures of the society we too suffer what is called “white martyrdom” in contrast to the red martyrdom of being killed. It is said that when St. Lawrence courageously died, many people converted to the faith. Similarly the Church gives us the feast of St. Lawrence in order to encourage us to embrace our white martyrdom with courage. 

Suffering martyrdom for Christ be, it red or white martyrdom is not something that can be instructed, or heard from a sermon. It can only arise out of a love relationship with Christ. We can encourage people to witness for Christ, but if it does not come from within them, we can encourage them until cows come home but it will never happen. 

To embrace the values of Christ to the point of enduring sufferings requires that we love him first. To follow Christ does not mean to suffer, but it means loving Christ and if loving Christ includes suffering, then that suffering is also loved because of the love of Christ. In other words, the love we have for Christ, gives meaning to the suffering. That is how the martyrs survived their martyrdom, and that is how Christ survived the cross. He loved God, and that love gave meaning and victory to the cross. If we have not been good witnesses for Christ, if we have not been martyrs for Christ, the first question we need to ask ourselves is whether Christ is just an idea or a concept, or we truly have a meaningful love relationship with him and work on that question first.  

So the feast of St. Lawrence reminds us that martyrdom continues even today. It reminds that we should pray for those who are persecuted and that we should take example from them to bear our own white martyrdom with courage, motivated by our love relationship with Christ. 

 One last point about today’s feast, which also finds an echo in the first reading, is that our martyrdom must find expression in our concern for the poor. As noted already, when St. Lawrence was asked by the Emperor to hand over to him the treasures of the Church he brought all the poor and destitute who were precious to him. The context of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians in today’s first reading is the collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem, and he is asking them to give bountifully and cheerfully. This year of Mercy includes practical considerations for the poor in the form of corporal works of mercy. The works of mercy requires not platitude, but concrete actions of caring.

Just as the witness for Christ is consequential to personal love relationship with Christ, so is concern for the poor consequential to personal experience of being with the poor. Unless we avail ourselves to the experience of the poor, the plight of the poor will not hit us. We will speak about it at a dispassionate detached level, and if we do give something, we will do sparingly and not bountifully as St. Paul says we should in today’s first reading. On the other, hand if we take trouble to walk with the poor, we will know from experience what it means to be poor, and that experience will jolt us to want to something. After firsthand experience of abject poverty, we cannot afford to say “there is nothing I can do”. Thus the precondition to care and work with poor is to be with them.

Pope Francis, while he reflects and writes about the poor, he occasionally plunges himself into their world by visiting them. If we seek to care about the poor, we will do well to avail ourselves to the experience of the poor. We will do well to physically go to the periphery of the society, where the poorest of the poor are, and this experience will nudge to do something. Just as we cannot successfully witness for Christ if we have no personal experience of Him, so are we not able to sufficiently care about the poor, if we do not share their experience.          

As we begin our plenary, we are presented with a feast that reminds about martyrdom. Maybe we are asked during this plenary to discern ways of supporting those suffering martyrdom today. Or maybe we are asked to examine our quality of witnessing for Christ and to see what areas need courageous witnessing both in our personal lives and in our regional conference. Opening our plenary with the celebration of a saint who concerned himself with the poor, maybe we are asked to examine and to evaluate how well have we implemented concrete acts of caring towards the poor during this year of mercy. 

In anticipation of the jubilees that will be celebrated in this country, as we rejoice in the successes of our predecessors, maybe we are reminded that we can take things forward only if we are prepared to sacrifice and suffer martyrdom. Without a meaningful relationship with Christ, all these things will only be a burden to endure, whereas if it is the love of Christ that urges us on, nothing will be impossible for us."

Opening of SACBC Plenary: August 2016 Gaborone
Feast of St. Lawrence 10/08/16
Bishop S. Sipuka

Photos from Bp Dziuba on Facebook