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A “cold shower” for the Church in South Africa

In August 2018 Canadian priest and author of “Divine Renovation” will be visiting South Africa. In preparation for the visit his book was launched in Johannesburg. Ricardo da Silva reports on the launch at which Dominican Fr Martin Badenhorst was the guest speaker. He offered a contextual vision of the book for the South African Catholic Church calling it a “cold shower”. 

On Thursday night at their offices in Auckland Park, The Jesuit Institute South Africa hosted the launch of “Divine Renovation” a book by Canadian Catholic Priest Fr James Mallon intended to inspire a process of renewal in Catholic across the world. The event was organised by the Department of Evangelisation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg, the well-established faith-revitalisation programme Alpha and the Jesuit Institute.

Dominican priest and academic Fr Martin Badenhorst introduced the book most ably and with great wit and candour. He offered his impressions of it from the South African perspective and the context of the local church and the wider society in which it is found. The launch hopes to engage priests and their congregations and to promote familiarity with Mallon’s approach ahead of his arrival for workshops later this year in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.

Badenhorst praised “Divine Renovation” noting that it offered a “clear and truthful” picture of where the Church finds herself today and is filled with “great insight and with great knowledge” that was “humorous and loving […] engaging thoughtful and provocative”. He warned though, against a wholesale implementation of Mallon’s work in South Africa calling for a careful appreciation of the local situation first. The Dominican is well-placed to make this observation having served, for some time in the 90s, in the same Archdiocese as Mallon. In light of this Badenhorst proposed that a South African reader might read the book with a new subtitle in mind “From a Mission to a Missionary Parish” in contrast to its officially published caption: “From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish”.

In support of this new slogan he cited a few statistics that plainly contrast the church in Africa with that of North America. The church in Africa despite its many challenges still has a positive growth-rate which is sadly no more the case for most of the Western church. It was also revealing to see the distribution of bishops across the church where, despite the negative growth rate, in Europe, the number of bishops ordained has increased by 4,2% between 2010 and 2015 as opposed to an almost negligible 2% in growing Africa. In addition to this, Africans have a ratio of roughly 1 priest to 5,000 faithful whereas in Europe and North America the ratio is 1:1,500.

Summing up his statistical analysis he remarked that the numbers point to the reality that, “the church in Africa is struggling to be church, let alone established parochial organisations. Most of our faithful live on various forms of outstations on this continent, and are visited once a month, sometimes once every 15 years.” This is hard news to be kept in mind when reading the Canadian experience-inspired book. The buzz word for much of the church’s renewal proposed by Mallon boils down to “resources, resources, resources” which is an even greater challenge for the much poorer and resource-straggled African church.

Dominican Fr Martin Badenhorst with the head of regional development for Alpha Africa, Mr Tom Miles.

The depressing statistics aside, at the core of Mallon’s approach is a focus on creating a church where the faithful feel included, welcome, a full and valued part of the community to which they belong. It is about identifying themselves in the community, liturgy and faith development programmes that are offered. In short, the resources available, limited as they may be, need to be focussed more on the growth of the church as a community and not on maintaining buildings and structures alone or to keep faithful to the traditions of parish stalwarts who have “always done is this way.”

Badenhorst identified Mallon’s central insight to be the cold shower of actual commitment to the faith measured by engagement – those who are actively engaged in parish life. The book is thus a call to rid ourselves, as Badenhorst puts it, of “the sclerosis of outdated structures and attitudes” which blocks the very lifeblood of the faith.

We need to return to “our clarion call”, the church’s essential mission to proclaim the Kerygma, the life-giving and saving message of Jesus Christ who has died, is risen and will come again. This was the mission announced by Vatican II with its “aggiornamento” agenda pleading a return to the sources of Church as community, spreading the faith far and wide true to its apostolic foundations.

To highlight, perhaps, the lack in addressing this, Fr Badenhorst asked those priests gathered, which were perhaps tellingly less than a handful, to consider how much time they spent in preparation for the Sunday liturgies.  In their parishes, did they take time to pray with the Sunday’s readings and prayers and to write their homilies or did they as Eugene Jackson remarked on Facebook to the tweets of Fr Russell Pollitt SJ during the talk: “In many cases I would say google sermons just before mass or return to the old file from their very first sermon for that particular Sunday.”

We need to fight the temptation and sin of clericalism in our church’s leadership to which Pope Francis has so often counselled and willingly engage the members of our parishes to take on ministries based more on their strengths than their well-intentioned willingness. There was much to digest in Badenhorst’s South African take on “Divine Renovation”. The one thing that made me stop and think was a story he told of advice he was unexpectedly given when starting out his ministry: “Father, please lead, don’t shove.”  It seems that this is central to the church's renewal.

Images: Russell Pollitt SJ

* 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.