How will the Catholic Church in Southern Africa best respond to the challenges of the times? At their January plenary the bishops have been considering this question as they deliberate on the much awaited new pastoral plan entitled 'Serving God, Humanity and Creation'.
The Church was a consistent and critical voice against the apartheid establishment. However, it has now come to acknowledge that it has not adequately responded to the signs of the the times in the post-apartheid era.
The draft new pastoral plan, the bishops decided, will be returned to priests, religious and laity for comment. If the draft is accepted and approved, the Catholic Church could once again become an important and influential voice in the area of social justice, family and environmental matters in Southern Africa.
The proposed pastoral plan would also, hopefully, return the Church to the coalface and involvement in issues as it was and has been for the past 200 years in Southern Africa.
The advent of democracy, it seems, caught the Church off-guard. The pastoral plan, Community Serving Humanity, was still the Church's vision even though society had changed dramatically from the time that it was implemented in the mid-1980's.
Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, offering his reflections said: “As the past 200 years unfolded, the context for living our call and mission has evolved in ever faster and more demanding, complex ways – especially in South Africa but not only here. Life is experienced, indeed influenced by an evolving and dynamic socio-political-cultural context in which we as Church need to constantly discern the call of 'the signs of the times' and the ways we sense God wants us to respond to that evolving context.”
Dowling went on to say that the “way we articulate the mission of evangelisation is the way we as Church conceptualise and live our particular response to that evolving context in our three countries [South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland], so that we can enable the promise of Jesus to be fulfilled for our people: 'I have come that you may have life and life to the full'.”
The proposed new pastoral plan suggests a three dimensional focus. The last part of the plan suggests that the bishops would like to see Pope Francis's second encyclical, Laudato Si', cascade from the conference to dioceses, parishes and into small christian community.
The pastoral plan is a self reflective document asking the Church's leadership and the laity to “go inside of ourselves so we can reach out to others”. Once completed, the plan hopes to give contemporary guidance to the faithful on how to tackle prickly social and moral issues including racism, culture, parish life and marriage and family life.
The conference's various departments and agencies dealing with the issues articulated in the proposed plan were present with the bishops as they shared and studied the draft. Collaborators of the conference are expected to lead discussions and help formulate how the Church in the region addresses the issues the plan highlights. Wide consultation, the conference believes, has the potential to unlock united action from the whole Church in the region.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, speaking at the session at St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria, said that the plan intended to promote religious vocations; to discuss doctrinal, apostolic and pastoral formation of the clergy, religious and laity; the promotion of missionary activity through catechetics, liturgy, the lay apostolate, ecumenism, development, justice and reconciliation, social welfare, schools, hospitals, the apostolate of the media and other means of social communication; and any other necessary activity.
Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, SACBC conference president Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town told, Spotlight Africa that “if the pastoral plan is to be successful it has got to be rooted in the most basic structures that we have which are parishes and small christian communities. We have to go back to our priests, deacons, the religious and laity to check with them if we are on the right track”.
The cardinal said the new pastoral plan was a continuation and updating of its predecessor which was written as a direct result of the Church responding to the 1976 student uprisings.
“In short, our new pastoral plan is our dream and commitment to subscribing to and working conscientiously towards making sure everyone in the Church, but also those to whom the Church is sent and commissioned to serve, know and feel that they are welcome; they are needed; they belong and are to participate in all the benefits that the Church has been given to work towards making God’s Kingdom come among us,” Napier said. He went on to say that the new plan builds on the old one “when the Church had to reflect on how the Church, then with 80 percent of the clergy white and 80 percent of the laity black, effectively evangelises. It looked at how the Church in that kind of disparity effectively evangelises”.
Dowling said that the “challenge, or rather invitation to us going forward with our new pastoral plan, in my discernment, is how to enable the internal and outreach dimensions of the Church’s mission to infuse and inform each other so that we avoid seeming to work, as it were, in silos”.
He went on to say that his hope was that “as we move forward into implementing the new vision and programmes of the pastoral plan, we may experience a real sense of mutually enriching each other’s mission and ministry”.
Pictures by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya