Representatives from the Muslim, Bahai, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and various Christian communities spent time with the Catholic bishops of Southern Africa in Pretoria where they reflected on the Church's role in society over the past 200 years and discussed ways of working together in the future. Bishop Victor Phalana of Klerksdorp, who heads up the Department for Ecumenism for the bishops' conference, told Spotlight that this encounter was the highlight of the plenary for him. “We have had wonderful discussions”, he said.
On the penultimate day of the bishops' plenary meeting faith leaders were welcomed to St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria. Fr Paul Tatu, communications officer for the conference, said that the Department for Ecumenism organises a meeting between the bishops and other faith leaders regularly at the January gathering.
Tatu said that the meeting between the bishops and other faith leaders enabled them to discuss common concerns, shared issues, and ways of cooperating with each other. He said that they also had a time of prayer together.
Phalana said that the meeting was especially important as the bishops wanted to celebrate the bi-centenary of the Church in Southern Africa with other faith leaders. “We are all affected by the same challenges and today we had a wonderful meeting where we saw that, as a Church in South Africa celebrating 200 years, we cannot celebrate our bi-centenary alone; we have a wonderful history with them.”
“We were saying, even if in different ways, that we need to promote unity and peace in our country. We need to encourage our country to come back to its senses and go back to values. Thank God that despite our different faiths there are common values amongst us,” Phalana said.
He went on to say that they really did talk and share, expressing their mutual concerns about the problems South Africa faces. Phalana said that they agreed on the need to collaborate. “There is no room for exclusion, we have to do something concrete, come closer together, respecting each other's dignity, respecting our diversity, [and] work [towards] our common goal. That goal is to build peace, unity, and encourage our country to move towards progress and development. Our people are our concern.”
The bishops said that sometimes it has not been easy, but “we have managed to overcome some of the obstacles” so we invited them and asked them to assist us in looking back to where we come from. Phalana said that in the way Pope Francis has invited us to look forward, the gathering of faith leaders spent time discussing what could be done together in the future.
Bishop Phalana admitted that there were divisions all over – even within religions; he said that there are divisions amongst Christians, but said that working together opened the door for dialogue. Phalana said that although Christians are not going to come together as one anytime soon, it is important that they find ways in which churches can work together and promote the common good.
Quoting Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, Phalana said that while it was impossible for all Christians to be one, as there are serious differences, we can “complement each other and learn to respect each other and work together”.
Pictures by Paul Tatu
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