Archbishop Stephen Brislin's SACBC Presidential address

Archbishop Stephen Brislin
Archbishop of Cape Town
SACBC President


I would like to welcome you all to the January 2017 Plenary Session which, as usual, is a packed session. Unfortunately two bishops cannot be present. Bishop Michael Wustenberg is receiving medical treatment in Germany, and Bishop Barry Wood is also undergoing medical treatment.

On behalf of all, I offer Bishop Teddy Khumalo our congratulations on his silver jubilee of priesthood which he celebrated recently. We wish you many more years. I would also like to express or deep gratitude to Sr Alison Munro OP who will be leaving the AIDS office in the coming weeks. Sr Alison has done a formidable job in the AIDS Office over the past years and has ensured that many diocesan projects were successful by accessing funding, training and monitoring. She always ran a tight ship in terms of clean administration and financial management and saw to it that the Church’s name was never brought into disrepute. We truly thank you and wish you all God’s blessings in your new leadership role in the Congregation.

Before going into other issues, I will give a brief report-back on some events of the recent past.

Firstly, thank you to all who responded to the Holy Father’s call to pray for abused minors and vulnerable persons, and our suggestion that a Triduum be held in all dioceses. A number of bishops have not yet had a full report back from their priests as to how these days were celebrated in parishes. From those who have had some feed-back, it would seem that in most dioceses as least something happened. I am aware of one diocese where the priests left it up to the bishop to be involved and did nothing in their parishes. Nonetheless, t was a success and I have heard very positive reaction from the faithful. I received a letter from a woman who is in the RCIA programme and who will be received in the Catholic Church this year. She was not abused in a Church context but in her own family. It is a lengthy letter, but I would like to share her sentiments in a brief quote from the letter:
Your Excellency, I read that often the Catholic Church will give survivors of sexual abuse a special blessing, and a few weeks ago, I forwarded a letter to our Most Holy Father, Pope Francis, to give me a special blessing as an incest rape survivor…. Then I got to read the “A Call to Fasting and Prayer for Victims of Sexual Abuse” in Afrikaans and later I found the English version. It was as [if] the document was written for me, in a way, that the Tiduum will be for me...It was such a gracious moment to know and grasp the answering of the Lord to my prayers. This is a new liturgical year, the liturgical year that we will be baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, so it hold special meaning for me. It is a year that the Lord will bestow a special grace upon my family, and we start with this Triduum.
As a victim of rape, I would like to thank the Church for this call to fasting and prayer. I might not have been a victim of the clergy, but the letter spoke to the depth of my soul. I read and I wept. As I know when I will participate this evening in the Triduum, and over the weekend and when we pray, I will be one of the victims, I will be blessed and healed by the prayers. The Catholic Church acknowledges me, no-one has done that before….All we ever really want is an apology. It is so precious that the Church will give that apology and to ask that prayer is given for forgiveness. I cannot comprehend in words what it means to me. The Catholic Church seeks forgiveness for the molestation and the rape that I survived. It humbles my heart…. I can only cry and [say] thank-you”
The Triduum was an important moment, not only of acknowledgement, but also of healing and a reminder for the need of ongoing vigilance for the protection of minors and vulnerable persons. Furthermore, that the Church has a role to play in advocating for their protection in all contexts.

In terms of vulnerable people, I attended the Santa Marta meeting in Rome in October 2016. This is my fourth time to be part of that annual event, convened by Cardinal Nichols of Westminster at the request of the Holy Father. It brings together Church leaders – usually Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences – and high-ranking police officials from various countries, as well as civic organisations, with the aim of countering the trafficking of people and modern day slavery. Unfortunately, the South African Police Services were not able to send a representative this year (a representative attended last year), but we will try and ensure that there will be representation in 2017. It is remarkable to hear the report of what has been achieved in different parts of the world through this co-operation between the Police and the Church. In our neighbouring country of Mozambique an informative study was done by the Church and Cafod into the trafficking of human body parts. A conference will be held in Maputo later this year and we will discuss representation at that meeting when we deal with correspondence.

I was not able to attend the Holy Land Co-Ordination meeting in the Holy Land this year, as our usual source of funding was not able to raise the funds. A couple of days before the meeting the bishops’ conference of England and Wales offered to cover the costs but since I had already indicated that I would not be able to attend I felt it best to stick with that. As you know, the HLC was established by the Vatican and includes mostly presidents of bishops’ conferences or their delegates. Fr Peter John Pearson was able to attend .The statement issued by the HLC will be distributed for your interest.

Another important matter that has occurred since our last meeting is the judgement given by the Supreme Court of Appeal overturning the 2015 High Court decision on the “right to die” for those with terminal cancer. The Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA) as amicus curiae with the Catholic Church (and other organisations) challenged the High Court decision. The SCA stated that it is beyond the competence of judges to make decisions in such cases of morality and has referred the matter to Parliament. This was an important milestone but, of course, it is not the end of the matter as legislation may be proposed in Parliament on euthanasia, and it is very much in the ambit of the Church to make representation of any proposed legislation. I wish to remind you (as I did in August last year) that the TAC wrote a paper on the moral issues of euthanasia and it may be of benefit for us to re-familiarize ourselves with their contribution.

The implementation of Amoris Laetitae is a priority. The document is beautifully written and highlights the God-given nature of marriage and family and it symbolism of the divine covenant. We requested the Canon Law society to develop a Vade Mecum which they have been busy doing. An interim report will be given at this Plenary but they have not completed their work. Chapter Eight, while not been the most important part of the Apostolic Exhortation does, nonetheless require attention. While marriage preparation, support of young married couple, and so on, should be the emphasis in promoting the good of marriage, it is not those issues that are controversial and divisive. In paragraph 300 bishops in their dioceses are invited to give directives on the more “thorny issues” of pastoral care. There is a concern that bishops could give contrary directives within one country or conference area, even that successors could do an about-turn in the policies of their predecessors. There is already a wide difference in directives given in, for example, Germany and Malta, and those of Buenos Aires or Philadelphia. While each bishop has the right to issue his own directives we should develop a consensus among ourselves about the aspects of the directives, to prevent a damaging situation from developing. While we are still waiting for the Canon Law Society to give a final report, it may be beneficial to use the Buenos Airies as a starting point.

Apart from Amoris Laetitia, the encyclical Laudato Si also needs attention, especially as it was the focus at the IMBISA plenary held in Lesotho and we made a commitment to the implementation of the document. Sr Hermenegild will pick up on this point in her report.

We live in interesting times, never quite knowing what to expect next. It is in this context that we are called to fulfil the command of Jesus we heard in the Gospel today, Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. Senator Bobby Kennedy said in an address to students at the University of Cape Town given on June 6th 1966:

There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.

That “to live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse seems to be an often made mistake, but the sentiments of the Senator expressed in 1966 apply to our own times, they are dangerous but also offer great opportunities. We live in interesting times and, if the conference at Davos is to be believed, these times are characterize particularly by uncertainty and mistrust. There is an “anti-establishment” mood sweeping across the world and many interpret the triumph of President Trump and the Brexit vote in that light. There is a large number of people who feel “left out” of political processes and influence, who feel they are not listened to and are, in fact, victims of the decisions of others. The accuracy of such an analysis will only become apparent in the future, nonetheless we can recognise these features in our own countries – a growing uncertainty about the future, mistrust of political leaders, media, those who control the economy and, of course, church leaders. Pope Francis, in the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium referred to such experiences of people when he spoke of the “anonymous forces”. More recently, he has warned against populism and the disastrous effects of populist voting, comparing it to the rise of Hitler. Again, we can recognise the rise of populism in our own countries.

In terms of the socio-political context, the region faced many challenges in 2016 and, by all accounts, 2017 is likely to be an even more challenging year. In South Africa we continue to face deep divisions and much conflict. The student protests are likely to continue, the battle for political power will intensify enormously as preparations are made for succession in the ANC and next year’s general election. Corruption is on the increase. You may be aware of an article written in the Tablet entitled: South Africa ‘The Church sleeps on’, a quotation from Trevor Huddleston written in the apartheid era. It is an article on the churches response to the serious situation in this country (not only the Catholic Church). It says that the protests in South Africa a mirror of a polarised society. This is certainly true. It is an article that we should take seriously as it is the feeling of many that the Church is not sufficiently vocal. In her report of August 2016, Sr Hermenegild made a strong appeal that the bishops speak out about what is happening in South Africa.

Our approach thus far has been to issue statements on what we perceive to be the most serious issues – thus we have issued statements on racism, corruption, Nkandla, the student protests. These have little effect, although they are valuable in the sense that they form the record of where the Church stands. Also, we should not think that no note is taken of them. For example, you may not be aware that our statement on Nkandla was quoted in the recent book of Justice Malala “We have begun our descent”.

Furthermore, we have adopted a policy of engagement, particularly with government – and we have had various meetings some of which I enumerated in my last report. It is useless simply to denounce without entering into dialogue. Again, the success of this is limited. The weakness also is that we have little or no contact with opposition parties, trade unions, or student groups (apart from our own organisations).

We have elected to work with other groups, where possible – such as the SACC or organisations of civic society.

We are adopting a process of healing in terms of the racism programme which has been proposed, as well as working with Heartlines in developing the video production.

The article “the Church sleeps on” needs to be taken seriously because we need to reflect on whether what we are doing is th e correct course or is it a matter of too little too late. People have very high expectations of the Church and there is a tendency to want to go back to the “old days” of the UDF and MDM – the politics of protest. This is made stronger because there is a perception that you will not be listened to unless you protest and especially if you protest violently. But there are vast differences from the past:
  • We are a democracy with a democratically elected government, even if some don’t like the government;
  • We have freedom of speech, movement and association;
  • We have an independent judiciary
  • We have a Constitution that is human-rights based
Many have a exaggerated expectation of the Church in being able to resolve socio-political issues. Also, the question can nb asked “who is the Church?” Is it only up to the leadership, to bishops? Is it correct, or even possible, to try and return to the days of joint protests and denunciation which characterised the response to the illegitimate apartheid regime, specially when we have doubts and fears about some groups who are involved in protest. Just as we are correct to fear being used and co-opted by government, so we are right to fear the same from some groups who are really interested in their own political gain rather than the common good.

The confusion is exacerbated by misinformation which has become a world wide phenomenon more that at any other time. The spin doctors, those who are paid to write misinformation or to establish so-called “independent” news agencies.
This is not a time for timidity or expediency, nor is it a time to seek favour or simply to enjoy our own comfort. We are obligated to respond. What needs constant reflection is how this is best done

So what is the correct approach for the Church in these times. I am convinced that our present approach is correct, even if not sufficient. But we should also remember that the proper ambit for the Church is to call people to repentance – John The Baptist and Jesus called people to repent. The Church’s role is not political or social or economic – it is call people to conversion and to love of God and neighbour. We often talk about institutional violence, discrimination and racism. But institutions, structures, organsations are not going to be called to judgement – people are going to be called to account and judgement. It is thus right that we call for conversion. If we recognize that corruption, racism, greed are part and parcel of our society, who are they who are corrupt , racist and greedy. They are people who fill the pews in Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples on a weekly basis.

In 1972 the bishops of the time issued a statement – in fact, I think it was a bit more than a statement - called a “call to conscience” directed mostly at the beneficiaries of the unjust system of the time. I remember it well because it really hit home. While it was unpopular with many people, it nonetheless caused to people to think on their lives. Is it not time now for us again to call people to their consciences. To call our politicians, business people, police, civil servants, army, ordinary citizens to reflect on their lives and practices in the light of faith, and to change their lives. Of course we do that in Sunday sermons and so on. But perhaps a comprehensive statement from the bishops, or a programme, is not necessary, where we don’t mince our words. Primarily we should do this for our own, but if possibilities open up for co-operation with other faiths that would be a bonus. My point is, that we should not forget that the primary role is to call for conversion, as St Paul changed his life so our people can change their lives. It is not going to be sensational, demonstrative, but works at a different level in trust of the faith that exists in the hearts of people and the power of God.

Finally, I would like to bring to your attention that June 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Establishment of the Vicariate Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope and the appointment of the first Vicar Apostolic Bishop Bede Slater OSB. This is an anniversary of the Church of Southern Africa and not just Cape Town, and I hope that we will have the opportunity during this plenary to discuss how this can be celebrated in a fitting way, to strengthen the faith of the Church in Southern Africa and to give thanks to God that this young Church still continues to proclaim the Good News. If you are interested I will distribute a paper by Martin Keenan on the subject and his attempt to establish the correct date of the erection of the Vicariate.

In conclusion, I wish to express gratitude to the bishops and secretaries of the different departments who do a formidable amount of work in difficult circumstances. Similarly I would like to that Sr Hermenegild and Fr Patrick for the dedication and commitment, as well as all the staff of Khanya House, and to all of you your participation and support.