The personal representative of Pope Francis to South Africa, Archbishop Peter Wells, addressed the assembled bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) during their plenary this week. Highlighting three themes from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Archbishop Wells challenged the Bishops to encounter, dialogue and dream with their people so as to bring hope and build bridges. Matthew Charlesworth SJ reports.
Archbishop Wells, the Papal representative to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and eSwatini, gave the opening address during the SACBC’s plenary session in January. He highlighted the hospitality he has received over the last year and assured his brother bishops of the Holy Father’s closeness to them all, and especially to Cardinal Napier, the priests, religious, and lay faithful who are suffering from the tragic loss, last week, of Archbishop Abel Gabuza, coadjutor Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Durban. He said that he hopes they, together with the late Archbishop’s family, may find “solace in knowing that in faith it is Christ who is our true hope, and it is He who wipes every tear dry.”
The Archbishop noted that many people from the region reached out to him “to voice their frustration and anxiety with what has been happening” during this pandemic. He noted that amid the extended lockdowns, his main concern “has been and still is the concern for the physical and spiritual (interior life) well-being of the people of the Southern African countries.”
The Nuncio’s talk focused on Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, brothers and sisters all. He noted that it is an invitation to adopt a new approach to social and political life, but it is also a new approach in encountering today’s culture.
Despite the significant effects of COVID-19 on the local Church, Archbishop Wells invited the Bishops to “imagine the construction and development of social and political life in the light of that evangelical radicalism, which, according to Pope Francis, calls for the building of communities that support and respond to the material and spiritual needs of their members” (FT 8).
COVID-19 is, of course, not the only context the Pope considers. His concern also extends to the broader and underlying issues of the mismanagement of immigration, racism, xenophobia, unemployment, discrimination against women, slavery and trafficking, populism, wars, financial speculation, technological abuse of power, and the incredible failure of modern society to respect the sanctity of human life in all its stages. All of these contexts exemplify how we view our neighbour.
The Archbishop explained that we will only be able to recognise our neighbours as brothers and sisters regardless of race, borders, language and culture, if we open ourselves to others by adopting the attitude of the Good Samaritan. The Holy Father warns that we have not truly changed our attitude if “caught up as we are with our own needs, the sight of a person who is suffering disturbs us. It makes us uneasy, since we have no time to waste on other people’s problems. These are symptoms of an unhealthy society.” (FT 65).
The Nuncio explained that the Church’s response needs to be three-faceted: universal humanity; formation; and the importance of building bridges.
Echoing Pope Francis, the Archbishop challenged the bishops to develop a culture of encounter, rather than of confrontation, with culture.
He explains that “rediscovering universal brotherhood and sisterhood in the world, and feelings of belonging to the same humanity is the ‘key’ to understanding the Holy Father and his path for the faithful and for all people of good will. Recalling that Christians are called to foster social friendship, and therefore to contribute to the building of a common humanity, his reflections resonate with believers and non-believers who sincerely strive to become neighbours to others.”
Pope Francis teaches that the culture of personal encounter and “dialogue” (FT 198), invariably helps us to rediscover our universal humanity and in turn facilitates a movement towards a “civilization of love” (FT 183).
The Archbishop urged the Bishops to give the people of God the gift of hope, so that the laity through “the holiness of their lives and the strength of their witness will contribute to human progress.” This new order is not ‘mere utopia’ but the fruit of a personal conversion that will eventually reach all communities, institutions and cultures.
In Fratelli Tutti, the Pope used the image of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the type of conversion that is needed to see and care for our neighbours – who are our brothers and sisters.
If we can recover our humanity and our common sense of belonging, the Archbishop believes we can then dream together, quoting Fratelli Tutti (8):
It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation (…) We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.
The Archbishop reminded the SACBC of their own words that Pope Francis cited in his encyclical, saying that they are as prescient today as they were in May 1986, where the call for conversion must begin with the Church.
“By forming a new society, a society based on service to others, rather than the desire to dominate; a society based on sharing what one has with others, rather than the selfish scramble by each for as much wealth as possible; a society in which the value of being together as human beings is ultimately more important than any lesser group whether it be family, nation, race or culture.”
Addressing the Bishops directly, the Nuncio quoted John Paul II, who said that Bishops have the vocation to be bridge builders between their local church and the universal Church: “The bishop is the sign of Christ’s presence in the world, going out to meet men and women where they are: calling them by name, helping them to rise, consoling them with the Good News and gathering them into one around the Lord’s Table.” (Rise, Let us be on Our Way.)
Bishops are challenged to invite their people out of isolation to community and communion with the Lord, but also to help to carry them by being a sign of hope, so that they can “be leaders who foster ‘the dream’.”
Reflecting on COVID-19, the Archbishop admitted that his central concern has been how to bridge the gap between the physical and spiritual well-being of the people, and how the Bishops can work to heal the physical and spiritual wounds of uncertainty and anxiety in the region.
He suggested that “we need perhaps a new language, new methods, and a new missionary ardour (….) Our methods of evangelization may require a profound reconsideration to see whether they are effectively communicating the authentic Christian experience of the Church’s social teaching – with closeness, simplicity, warmth and transparency.”
He said: “As Catholics and shepherds, we need to give witness to hope, to carry on through the coming days and months, so that we can truly be a people of faith united in common purpose and open to divine providence in order to truly become beacons of hope.”
Noting the relationship between the Church and Government, Archbishop Wells pointed out that “turning to God does not mean we deny the role of government in handling public health emergencies. It means acting as the Church has always done, with common sense, wisdom, charity, but, above all, with faith and confidence.”
He ended by offering some practical guidance on how to promote a culture of encounter by reiterating Pope Francis’ call to “preach the Gospel joyfully to everyone, even to those at the peripheries. The Church goes out. She fulfils her mission through imbuing Christian principles in the laity and spreading the Christian message that every single person is called to holiness by virtue of their baptism.”
He emphasized the need for “local churches [to] give back hope to the lay people. Giving back that hope means fostering holiness and a personal encounter with God.”
For the faithful, he recalled, one way to help the laity to embrace the Holy Father’s messages is for bishops to have a rapport with their people, especially the youth. St John Paul II observes that the shepherd’s personal knowledge of his sheep cannot be fostered during infrequent meetings but rather “from a genuine interest in what is happening in their lives regardless of age, social status or nationality, whether they are close at hand or far away”.
Ultimately, Archbishop Wells called on the Bishops and the local Church to “necessarily engage in authentic dialogue, for the benefit of the community and for the good of the local and universal Church.”
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