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Missionaries were not in cahoots with the colonial regime says Archbishop of Johannesburg

On Saturday 21 April 2018 the Archdiocese of Johannesburg celebrated a mass of thanksgiving to mark the Catholic Church's 200-year presence in South Africa. The spotlight.africa team was there to report on this important occasion.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg celebrated 200 years of the Catholic Church in South Africa at a mass of thanksgiving led by Archbishop Buti Tlhagale on Saturday 21 April 2018. The mass was held on the plot of land upon which will be built the much-talked of Mother of Mercy Marian Shrine and Pastoral Centre. It is hoped that this will be a holy site that will bring Catholics of the Archdiocese, and further afield, a place where they might express their devotions to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and be spiritually nourished.

The mass offered occasion to remember the Catholic Church’s presence in South Africa for over 200 years, to take stock of all the good and of the enormous contribution the Church has made throughout South Africa. Not only was it an occasion to pay homage to those who built the country’s Catholic presence; it was also time to take a look at the present situation in which the church finds itself and to ask what still needs to be done to realise the work of God in the land: to bring justice, peace, mercy and love to all its people.

Catholics throughout Johannesburg attended in their numbers to celebrate the joyous occasion of the Church's bicentenary and to see the site that will house the shrine to which so many have generously contributed despite our lean economic times.

Opening Procession of the mass to mark 200 years of hte Catholic Church in South Africa
Opening Procession of the mass to mark 200 years of the Catholic Church in South Africa

In his homily, the Archbishop called the occasion a “time to meditate on the pioneering missionaries who brought us the faith” and then proceeded to tell the story of the Catholic Church in South Africa over its 200-year history. He singled out the Church’s contribution to education and healthcare thanking the missionaries who courageously responded to the challenges of building the church in this new territory. He quoted Bishop Stanislaw Dziuba of the Diocese of Umzimkulu who said: “We stand on the shoulders of the giants, the many missionaries from Europe, whose work can still be seen by the many hospitals and clinics that bear the names of saints.”

Catholics throughout Johannesburg join in celebration at Mother of Mercy Marian Shrine and Pastoral Centre in Magaliesberg
Catholics throughout Johannesburg join in the celebration at Mother of Mercy Marian Shrine and Pastoral Centre in Magaliesberg

Tlhagale recognised that their mission had initially been to sustain the faith of migrants to South Africa but that, quickly, they learned of the needy and responded, especially in offering education and healthcare to the indigenous peoples of the land. He made particular mention of the religious sisters who founded schools, “built schools where there were no schools”, and offered education, especially to black children who had experienced the pain of segregation even when government schools didn’t have official exclusionary policies.

Noting the enormous impact made by men and women of the faith, he recognised also that their “civilising mission had been defective” as is evident today when visiting some of the places where missionaries were present. These places, today, were often lacking even basic sanitary conditions. Nonetheless, the positive legacy-mark of these pioneering Catholic faithful – many of whom never returned to their home countries or saw their families ever again – on society is an indelible one that ought to be applauded. A legacy that has sadly been overlooked and “not always, regrettably, been acknowledged” said Tlhagale.

The archbishop made mention too of the rumours that have been spread by “those who glibly accuse pioneering missionaries of having been in cahoots with the colonial regime” replying that “history tells us differently” and that “they suffered hardships like Saint Paul in their missionary endeavours, they suffered poverty, discrimination, rejection and suppression […] they endured so that we, today, may enjoy the legacy they have left behind.”

Lay faithful and religious at the celebration in Magaliesberg

The archbishop went on to speak of the “massive challenges” that are still left to the Church in South Africa, today, citing a need for Catholics to affirm and preserve their unique identity and to avoid “distortion of their Catholic doctrine”. He referred in particular to the theology the Church holds of the Eucharist.  He cautioned too against continuing religious syncretism.

Speaking to the faithful gathered he warned against “placing the role of the power of the ancestral spirits at the heart of your religious beliefs”. Finally, he addressed the Church’s role in responding to the challenges of racial injustice and the ever-present and pervasive inequality and discrimination at work even among those who share the same faith.

Catholic faithful return to their places in the congregation after making donation to build Marian Shrine
Catholic faithful return to their places in the congregation after making donations to build the Marian Shrine

The mass was also a time to take-up another collection in a fundraising drive to bring to life the archdiocesan project of the Marian Shrine, which was announced some years ago by the archbishop. Following his homily, a priest of the archdiocese coaxed the many groups and sodalities of the parishes and priests working in the archdiocese to come forward and deposit their donations to build the shrine. It will soon be erected on the very soil where the faithful now stood.

Listen to the homily of Archbishop Buti Tlhagale here:

Images: Russell Pollitt SJ, spotlight.africa

* 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.