A deafening silence: what I need the bishops to say

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During a time of political and social turmoil silence can speak louder than words. One priest asks why the country’s bishops have yet to raise their voices. 

I had a profound experience in the Holy Land while travelling with a group of South African Catholic priests on pilgrimage; our timing was not great as it was at the beginning of the Second Intifada. Bethlehem was under attack; snipers were everywhere and the usual bustling chaotic city was in lockdown. The city was not safe, but even in the turmoil an old, leather-faced shepherd had to continue his work; he led his sheep down the deserted main road.  led us down a deserted main road. He was ahead of the sheep, constantly talking and singing and letting them know he was there to guide them. And the sheep, who despite the lockdown needed to eat, were being led to pasture. They followed. Secure.

Fast forward a few years and South Africa does not feel unlike Bethlehem did, with one exception: silence from our shepherds. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the silence of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) – our ordained leaders. The country is in peril, but the Church is wholly quiet and its sheep are feeling lost.

A silent Church is a dead church and the situation warrants leadership from the bishops as a whole. There are some that are working hard. I laud Bishop Gabuza of Kimberley for his forthright interactions through the SACBC Justice and Peace department, but having worked with the SACBC for seven years myself, I know that the weight of the Justice and Peace department is not the same as a statement issued by the President of the Conference.

Why am I so uncomfortable? Simply put, the silence of the shepherds is deafening. Into the morass and chaos of the daily increasing issues of state capture and a fragmenting and factional ruling party, I feel that it is the Bishops as leaders and moral compass who should have their voice heard. Yet, there is silence. Silence on the Conference website, on the CPLO website, and on the Justice and Peace link on the website. Nothing to give guidance, confidence or insight to South Africans.

The danger of such a silence is that it is seen either as disengagement or as disinterest. Or even worse – as condoning the situation. Disengagement is possible – bishops are people too and the volume, intensity and content of the issues around state capture and looting and worrisome foreign influence is such that we all feel overwhelmed. Or at least I do. As do my parishioners. As for the disinterest, that is less likely. The bishops are good men. They seek the only the best for the sheep that they shepherd. I’m worried that the group of shepherds is too silent.

What would leadership from our bishops mean?

It wouldn’t change the facts that we are all feeling the pinch. In my community – middle class – we are looking at up to a 30% drop in trade. This is all manufactured by the political situation. This drop means 30% less money, 30% less employment and 30% more requests for assistance. People are suffering.

Our parish soup kitchen has seen a marked increase of people on the street. Factoring out the usual seasonal increase – Tshwane has the best climate in South Africa – we are seeing more people choosing to live on the streets so that they can remit every cent home to keep their families alive. More people on the street means more families in peril and a greater need for support and guidance.

Looking at the situation from another angle, my parish will this year also loose eight families to emigration – all who have come to the end of their tether, having reached a state of near hopelessness. Hope resides outside of South Africa – for some this means staying on the continent; just not here. Our young people are not looking for jobs in South Africa; they’re not even trying. Graduates are off to China and Thailand and Canada. I doubt they’ll be back. Our young optimistic youth is already jaded.

And it’s not even simply a question of economics; this is a far deeper moral issue. We can see the issues of state capture played large and daily in Saxonwold and Nkandla, but what of the far wider capture of tenders in metros and municipalities? What about the crisis of skill that is leaving our towns without water? The crisis ranges from the SADTU disaster in schooling to my domestic with bronchitis being sent home from a clinic without treatment of medication because there was none to give. Are the bishops calling the country to discipline? Are the bishops steering their flock?

I’d like our bishops and other religious and community leaders to call us to hope. To call South Africans to community and to call us out of our territorial, factional narrow-mindedness into a land of hope and promise. South Africans need a direction other than down.

Lead us into that Land again, for we are suffering in our exile. SA.

 

Image Credit: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.
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