The Catholic Church celebrates being present in Southern Africa for 200 years in 2018. At a mass, marking the anniversary, held in Pretoria, the Catholics of Southern Africa were reminded that the missionary Church had now become a largely local Church. Gratitude was expressed for the early pioneers and Catholics were encouraged to be prophetic rather than simply join “in the orgy of Zuma-bashing”.
In a celebratory Mass recognising the presence of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa for 200 years, Catholics have been called to speak and to live with the authority of God in a time of new challenges. “We must speak as ambassadors of God, whether it is convenient or not,” said Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha during the homily. He called on all members of the Church – lay, religious and bishops – to remain committed to the mission of the Church in Southern Africa.
The special Mass, which was held at the Church of the Beatitudes in Pretoria East and presided over by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, saw the faithful gather with the region's bishops in reflecting on the past and praying for the future of the Church.
Acknowledging that 200 years was a long time to reflect on in a single homily, Sipuka said that there had been vast changes even in his own life as a priest. “The demographic change of leadership of the Church has changed drastically. At my own ordination 30 years ago, 85% of the priests involved were European missionaries. Fast forward, and the opposite is true; if not even more.”
This, he said, reflected the wish of Pope Paul VI who, as the first pontiff to visit Africa in 1969, told the local Church that it had received a lot of missionaries, but that the time had come for Africa to produce its own missionaries. This message, Sipuka said, is being repeated to local people today so that we continue to build the Church, continuing from what has been done before. “We must all realise that the rise and fall of the Church is now in our hands.”
Called to be prophets
The bishop said that we were all to speak as prophets and to act with insight. This, he said, means we need to speak “differently from the rest of the people; not just repeating what everyone else is saying. We have a unique message from God.”
“Jesus made an impression on his audiences when he spoke because he spoke with authority… because it came from God.” The bishop said that we must speak from an originality that comes from a personal relationship with God, like Jesus.
Sipuka said that the Church in Southern Africa had sometimes spoken on political and social issues, often releasing statements. While the Church must have a voice, he said, we must be careful not to contribute to simple noise. “As Church we have sometimes spoken and issued statements, and in the light of today’s readings, we must examine how original and informed by the Word [we were] in making those statements, or like the scribes, we are merely repeating what everybody is saying, risking speaking without authority. As we engage with the issues today, we are called to speak with originality and with deeper insight instead of just joining in the orgy of Zuma-bashing.” He went on to say that as prophets “we are called to have deeper insights to understand that our challenges are more than Zuma and to alert people to those challenges that they do not see.”
He said the Church should speak when it's contribution will be solid and uniquely informed by God.
The bishop also reflected on the work of the past 200 years – and the next 200 years – of the laity, the religious communities and the bishops.
Sipuka said that with the seminaries filled to capacity, and with the the vision being crafted with dedicated lay people, the statement of Pope Paul VI is gradually being realised, but there are some barriers to succeeding. Referring to a letter sent to the bishops by Cardinal Filoni from the Vatican, Sipuka said there was concern that priests were being swallowed up by materialism and the luxury of not needing to account for their day's work. The bishop said: “…but it is concerning that a substantial number of priests, who are so expensively educated at the sacrifice of poor people are lazy, materialistic and money lovers.” The challenge as we enter the next 200 years is to inspire priests to be motivated by God and God alone.
The bishop also spoke of the need to protect and promote religious – particularly women religious. At one point, religious were at work in our country's hospitals, schools and orphanages; today these are managed by government. But religious play a prophetic role that no one else can play. We need to defend their role in society, it it still needed very much.
Sipuka also celebrated the role of laity in the past two centuries. Talking from the perspective of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, he said that lay people were critical in keeping the Church going. “Each bishop can vouch that we all have such people in our dioceses. Their contribution to the mission is not forgotten.” The bishop said that these people were willing to give of their time and talent, not just their money. “We hope the newly established Council of the Laity will fulfill its obligation to the Church. It is not only priests and religious, but local people who have also been called. God has raised you to be prophets.”
Sipuka thanked God for the Church in Southern Africa and the missionaries who laid the foundations of what it is today. He also reminded the bishops to be available to the people.
The bishop said that at “the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis spoke against the phenomenon of 'airport' bishops, encouraging bishops to be bishops of their dioceses [rather] than being bishops from their dioceses.” He went on to say that the Pope has also emphasised the need for bishops to offer fatherly support and guidance to their priests.
The bishop concluded saying: “As we take the baton for the next 200 years, we are all asked to be committed to the mission given to us and exercise our prophetic and healing ministry with authority that wells from our deep personal relationship with Christ.”
- Read the full text HERE
- Sipuka answers readers' questions: Listen to the full follow-up interview with Bishop Sipuka.
Pictures: Sheldon Reddiar Photography
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