[This story was updated on Monday, 25 June 2018 at 10h30am to include the audio of Archbishop Stephen Brislin's homily.]
The closing of the year-long bi-centennial celebrations of the Catholic Church’s presence in Southern Africa took place at the Velodrome in Belville, Cape Town. 5000 worshippers gathered with 20 bishops, 90 priests, 19 deacons and 70 religious from all over the region.
Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, the mother diocese of the Church in Southern Africa, presided and preached at the mass. About 100 liturgical dancers also participated in the celebration.
In his homily Brislin said that the Commandments are not out of date and that Scripture is not limited to a specific culture or time but speaks to us today. He told those gathered that the Church should not be intimidated by so-called progress.
The archbishop said that the greatest gift the church offers is salvation but that it was also true that the Church makes the world a much more humane and just place. Quoting the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, he said that the Church has a perspective and wisdom that society cannot afford not to have.
The mass was reflective of the Church in Southern Africa, it was celebrated in different languages. The canon of the mass was read by concelebrating bishops in local languages. It was the first mass which was lived-streamed from the Velodrome.
Amongst the twenty bishops present were Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, archbishop of Durban and Papal Nuncio Archbishop Peter Wells.
Brislin related a story of how a group of bishops, looking down as they walked and talked on the street in Cape Town, were encouraged by a local shopkeeper to look up and hold their heads high. He said that he felt that these were God's words speaking to Catholic's in the region today. The archbishop exhorted the Church to look to the future with confidence, not arrogance; filled with hope and not despair; focussed on Jesus Christ and not on pessimism.
The archbishop said that the words of Pope John Paul II, “Remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and look forward to the future with confidence,” have provided the framework for the Church's celebrations over the last year.
He said that the Church has recalled the past with gratitude – especially the work of religious congregations who came to Southern Africa as pioneers and established the Church. “We have also not forgotten the ordinary men and women who, over the past two centuries, have sacrificed so much and with such great generosity so that we can rejoice today in the faith that has been handed on to us.”
Brislin said that on the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist we appropriately ask: What does the future hold? He went on to say that we are all too aware of the rapid and confusing changes in the world and in the Church. This has led to the very foundations of our faith and Christian values slipping away beneath us – even in our own families, those we love, question or reject fundamental Christian values.
Like those who went to John the Baptist after his baptism in the Jordan, we might ask the same question: What must we do in the complexity and confusion of our own times? “John the Baptist came to bear testimony to the light, the truth, so too we are to bear witness to the world, to be the light of the world as commanded by Jesus himself when he told his disciples 'You are the light of the world'.”
Brislin said that he believed that the Church has suffered a dent in self-confidence. He outlined four major reasons why he thinks this has happened:
First, secularisation. Religion, especially in the West, has lost its social and cultural significance. The role of religion has become restricted, faith lacks cultural authority. Religious organisations lack social power and public life proceeds without reference to the supernatural.
He said that the practice of faith is tolerated, religion is seen as a private affair that should not impinge on the public domain. Faith is seen as subject to secular law, even in the area of moral teaching.
Second, the cases of sexual abuse by clergy and others that have rocked and plagued the Church, as well as the bad handling of many of those cases, has caused a deep lack of confidence in the authority of the Church. “Rightly we experience deep shame at what has happened,” Brislin said. He went on to say that we know that this happened because of human weakness and not because there is anything wrong with the content of the faith or the message we preach. However, this has left a deep sense of disillusionment and insecurity.
Third, the divisions that exist within the Church. The Church has always been diverse, which is a blessing and a richness given to us as a gift from God. Aggressive adherence to and the promotion of certain ideologies has led to division which has torn people apart – blogs, he remarked, show us how unrestrained and divisive people can be.
Fourth, the advances of science and technology which has given rise to a sense of inadequacy. He said that the Church can no longer feel confident in its ability to address pertinent issues which impact on people and society today.
The danger when we lose confidence is that we land up in a siege mentality and are tempted to seek security in like-minded people, amongst ourslves and our group and not listening to others outside, Brislin warned. This could cause us to “idealise the past, believing in a golden era of our faith that we should try and recapture.” He cautioned against this saying that it is a foolish endeavour since we live in a world of the here and now, with all its present problems, its present mentality and attitude. “We must learn from the past but we can never turn back, we can only look to the future and embrace the challenge to be the light of the world, the light to the nations.”
We need to regain our confidence so we can face the future. Quoting Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner – who predicted that the Church would become a church diminished in numbers, a “little flock” – the archbishop said that Rahner's conclusion was important: the only defence that would lead to success in promoting the Christian faith is a “missionary offensive”. He said that he believed that this is what the “new evangelisation” is.
Brislin said that the missionary era of the Church is never over until the Kingdom of God is present in all perfection.
He then outlined how he thinks the Church can regain confidence. The first step towards this is recognising that the Church is a church of the “little flock” – not in numbers but in knowing that we should not have political, economic or military power. We should depend only on the strength that comes from God. The Church needs to reaffirm faith in God. “Numbers are not important, but those willing to accept consecration to God in baptism.”
Using an image from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Brislin said that we are like powerlines that carry electrical current. The current is God – we are can choose to conduct God's current and in doing so bring light to the world.
The Church, the archbishop says, has three things to confidently offer to the world: First, the fundamental belief in the dignity of all human life, the sanctity of all human life, made in the image of God; second, that the economy must be at the service of people rather than people at the service of the economy, the economy must advance the common good; third the beauty of marriage and family life. We cannot be fulfilled as persons without others.
The archbishop said that we live in era of experimentation – experimenting with the meaning of the structures of marriage and family, undermining the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment open to the transmission of life which all threatens human flourishing, a fundamental good.
Brislin said that Catholics have no reason to be ashamed of their faith. He urged the faithful not to succumb to being blown in the wind, like a feather, giving into the insatiable desire to accommodate all that the modern world upholds.
“We do not retreat into a laager seeking a comfortable space for ourselves. We do not dream of a mythological golden era in the Church and try to recapture something that in fact has never existed in the first place.”
At the end of the year of celebration it is appropriate that we look to the future. “The baton of faith is in our hands, not only our faith but the faith of future generations. We bear the responsibility not only for the present but also for the future,” the archbishop said.
You can listen to Archbishop Brislin's homily below: