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Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R — Pastor bonus

On 25 November, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R, who has served the Diocese of Rustenberg for 30 years. Mike Pothier shares some of his memories of his shared time with this Redemptorist priest — first on the Justice and Peace Commission and later the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office — whose ministry as a peacemaker and a pastor extended far beyond the walls boundaries of his diocese.

Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R as Bishop of Rustenburg affords us an opportunity to celebrate, and give thanks for, Kevin’s three decades of diligent service and courageous Christian witness.

He has surely lived up to his episcopal motto: Your servant, for Jesus’ sake.

The peacemaker

It is worth recalling the situation in South Africa back in 1990, when Kevin began his ministry in Rustenburg. Much of his diocese lay in the then Bophuthatswana bantustan, where Lucas Mangope was refusing to accept the political changes taking place around him, responding with repression and violence.

The new bishop did not stand by while activists, church workers, trade unionists and others were being harassed and detained, or worse, and he soon earned a reputation as a ‘troublesome priest’.

At first they thought they could intimidate him, and they certainly tried — but history tells us who won that particular battle.

I recall many a Friday evening in the early ‘90s, arriving in Pretoria for the then regular Justice and Peace Commission Executive meetings, and listening to the story of Kevin’s latest run-in with the Bop police or some homeland official. At first they thought they could intimidate him, and they certainly tried — but history tells us who won that particular battle.

In those days Kevin was the deputy chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission, the chair being his much older cousin Archbishop Denis Hurley. What a great privilege it was to spend those weekends in the company of two people who, it seemed to me, had so seamlessly integrated the spiritual and the social faces of Christianity.

A few years later in 1997, when the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office was established as an offshoot of the Justice and Peace Commission, Kevin became our liaison bishop with the Conference. It was not as though he didn’t already have enough on his plate, but he took to this role with enthusiasm, and regularly came to Cape Town to attend meetings with MPs and Ministers, or just to spend a day talking to the staff, encouraging us as we explored what was then a new and slightly uncertain area of Catholic social action.

The pastor

These trips to the Cape provided another insight into Kevin — the pastor. More often than not, he would decline to come down on an afternoon flight for a meeting the next day, instead getting up at 4.00am or earlier to make the early flight out of Johannesburg. Why? Because there was a Sister’s jubilee Mass to celebrate, or a sick priest to visit in a corner of the diocese. Maintaining the right balance between his diocesan and national — indeed, international — responsibilities could not have been easy, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done.

One of the other great themes of Kevin’s episcopate has been his work with people living with HIV/AIDS. Others are much better placed to write about this aspect of his work, but for me it again illustrates the integrity of his ministry.

Maintaining the right balance between his diocesan and national — indeed, international — responsibilities could not have been easy, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be done.

Many of us whose work in the Church focuses on structural issues such as politics, economic justice, social trends and so on, tend to neglect the immediate, human needs of people. Conversely, many who concentrate on the welfare of others, on charitable works, are apt to overlook structural issues. Kevin could do both.

Kevin could talk at length — and did, all over the world — about the structures and the social forces that underpinned the AIDS pandemic, but he would as often be found at the bedside of someone in the last stages of the disease, offering comfort and consolation.

For me, thinking back over the role our Church has played in the ups and downs of our country, from the apartheid years and the liberation struggle, through the transition to democracy, amidst the scourges of racism, poverty, unemployment, AIDS, and violence, and now in an era sadly hallmarked by corruption and political meretriciousness, one thing stands out clearly – if the Church is not relevant socially, it is not relevant at all.

Kevin Dowling’s priestly ministry, like that of Denis Hurley before him, embodies this reality, and all of us who have had the good fortune of benefiting from that ministry over the years have much to be thankful for.  

Kevin, may you enjoy a richly deserved retirement, and may you continue to grace us and inspire us for many years to come.

* 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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