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Solidarity in sodalities — Does the cloth make the (wo)man?

With one of the most important religious events imminent, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks at one anomaly surrounding that which should be a universally embraced event by like-minded people.

On 28 June 2019, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of the most widely practised and best-known devotions in the church.

As per tradition, members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in South Africa will descend on Centacow in the Umzimkhulu diocese, in southern KwaZulu-Natal for the triannual pilgrimage to where the sodality was first found in South Africa.

This pilgrimage will see thousands of black men and women in church uniform pay a special devotion to the heart of Jesus, pierced on the cross.

I emphasise the skin colour of the pilgrims because, though the devotion and practice are universal, the wearers of the uniform of the sodality dedicated to this devotion are almost exclusively black in South Africa and neighbouring countries.

This raises the question as to why it is that only black people in sodalities wear uniforms

This raises the question as to why it is that only black people in sodalities wear uniforms even though the sodalities, or even the spirituality, might be practised across races?

This is not just a Sacred Heart sodality issue. It applies broadly across the so-called “traditional churches” such as the Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans and others brought to Africa by European missionaries.

So rare is the wearing of church uniforms by others who are not black that the phrase, “as scarce as a white woman in church uniform”, had to be crafted to emphasise just how rare the sight is.

At best, it is only if they are members of a religious congregation, such as the Carmelites or Franciscans, that one is likely to find a white person dressed in some sort of “uniform”.

Naturally, another question that arises is this: how come those who introduced a concept to Africans, do not themselves embrace it with the enthusiasm with which the Africans do? For some people, the answer is that black people are so colonised that, when the white master says they must go one mile, they will voluntarily go two.

I have different views.

Any idea that black people are taking up church uniforms because of how mesmerised by whiteness they are, suggests that black people have no agency.

Any idea that black people are taking up church uniforms because of how mesmerised by whiteness they are, suggests that black people have no agency. It seeks to reduce black people to zombies and automatons who cannot process what is ahead of them, and to see whether they embrace it and, if they do, on whose terms.

Black people do not need to take their cue from whites, or anyone else, on how they want to express their spirituality.

It is now accepted that a Mass in Rosebank and another in Mohlakeng will result in different experiences. One can even wonder how it is possible that the same liturgy and readings could bring about such a difference in people.

If the best argument against church uniforms is that whites do not wear them, then that is an argument for white supremacy rather than for black foolishness.

If the best argument against church uniforms is that whites do not wear them, then that is an argument for white supremacy rather than for black foolishness. It seeks to make whiteness the barometer of how individuals should express their spirituality and show their solidarity with those with whom they share that spirituality.

In a culture that celebrates solidarity and a sense of community as virtues, it makes sense that black people would opt for symbols that reflect this communion and sustain it even when members move up and down the social and economic ladder.

One cannot tell the social and class differences between the former premier and cabinet minister, Nomvula Mokonyane, and the domestic worker when they are both in their St Ann’s sodality purples.

A point often neglected in the readings around Pentecost is that the Scriptures say there were people from all over the, then known, world and everyone heard the message of their day in their own language.

The Holy Spirit spoke to Africans in their own language and did not ask the Europeans to translate to Africans on Its behalf.

We can infer from that passage that Africans were there at the birthing of the Church. The Holy Spirit spoke to Africans in their own language and did not ask the Europeans to translate to Africans on Its behalf.

I have to concede though, that overemphasis on a uniform, has the potential to make members worship the cloth rather than the spirituality it is supposed to represent, as though the habit makes a monk.

Unfortunately, this applies across churches and society because there are just too many cases of those wearing religious collars, police uniforms or even doctors’ white coats who have committed shameful and criminal acts while in uniform.

This is a formation flaw that must be corrected by formators, rather than a structural deficiency of uniform-wearing sodalities, professions and vocations.

Those who choose to wear church uniforms must be held to the higher Christian standard than those who have not made this commitment. Church uniforms should stand as sacramentals. Wearers of uniforms must, by their own example and not just by the identity bestowed by their uniform, bring the message of the Gospels. Then again, that is what is expected of all Christians.

* 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.

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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