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At our Annual Plenary sitting in Mariannhill, Kwa Zulu Natal, from 30 July to 6 August, we, the Catholic Bishops of Southern Africa deliberated on a number of key issues affecting the life of both the local and the universal church, centered on the safeguarding and protection of children and the vulnerable adults, domestic violence and the current state of our nations – (Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland).
What the local Church needs to do about safeguarding and protection of children was based on the fruit of the February 2019 Summit called by Pope Francis, namely his Motu Proprio (special instruction) Vos estis lux mundi (You are the light of the world). This reflection was led by Fr Hans Zollner SJ, a world recognized authority on what the Church at every level needs to do to deal with the child abuse crisis, and more especially what we must do to prevent this from happening in the first instance.
What is of particular interest is that Pope Francis’s main focus is what Bishops are obliged to do in their Dioceses on a day to day basis to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are safe from the scourge of abuse.
We, Bishops, will enhance structures for reporting any cases of abuse; and we commit to accompany victims in their healing process, and especially bring perpetrators to account. ‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi’ has set out specific new norms which give clear guidance to the Bishops in working with the cases of abuse in the local Church.
We have also resolved to send suitably disposed people to do special studies on the safeguarding and protection of children and vulnerable adults, so that the problem of abuse is not only addressed more fully and professionally, but also prevented from happening.
We are also concerned with the escalating violence in society, the almost universal “service delivery” protests which are the source of the growing culture of destruction of property.
Clearly this is a project that extends right down into the family. Sadly that is where much violence is taking place. So, it has to be the place where we focus of our fight against the culture of violence, which is destroying us as a people.
In particular we commit ourselves to making a special effort to make the safety of women a major priority in the Catholic Church.
We urge all, starting with our leaders, to cultivate a culture of respect for life and limb, a culture of responsibility towards the weaker ones in society, and accountability for how we are keeping our brothers and sisters.
We urge especially our political leaders to live up to the expectations, hopes and aspirations of those who voted them into positions of service and responsibility by doing their duties faithfully and as a sign of their patriotism.
As Bishops, we also align ourselves with the analysis of concerns voiced by Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, Catholic Bishops’ President, in his address as he urged us not to focus on addressing the symptoms of the problems, but instead to identify and deal with the root causes. One of these is the tendency to put our politicians on a pedestal, from which they dictate what is good for us, rather than listen to what we their fellow citizens are highlighting as the most urgent needs.
We also identify with him in his statement that it is wrong for us Church Leaders to retreat to our sacristies, especially at this time when our people need us to be engaging actively with our political leaders. We certainly need to do more than just issue occasional statements no matter how important those might be. Rather we need to be fully engaged in walking with the people as we did in the past during the apartheid regime.
We are aware of the damage done to the economy by state capture, and especially how difficult it will be to get the economy back on track. For that reason we affirm our support for the different institutions which are key to turning things around; therefore, we urge all South Africans to hold hands together and work selflessly to restore basic trust and confidence needed to lift our country back onto the path to growth.
We once more urge all to root out any form of corruption which is tainting the image of our infant democracy.
As the Catholic Bishops we renew our commitment to engage fully in building a better society and restore the image of the Church so severely tainted by the abuse scandals.
Today in the first reading we hear about the Israelites who are walking through the desert. As they go through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, they begin to experience a lot of hardships. They begin to despair.
Today, many of our people are experiencing economic hardships; rising food prices, job losses, violence, collapse of the health system and so forth. Although our nation got constitutional democracy twenty five years ago, they feel that they are still walking through the desert.
As we gather today in the Plenary, they are waiting to receive from us a message of hope. We should not disappoint them
It is encouraging to see that, in the first reading in Exodus, God has made an intervention in the lives of the Israelites who are tired of walking through the dessert. God enters in to their lives in form of an Ark of the Covenant and the dwelling that Moses had created. And through the Ark and the dwelling, God revealed himself to them as a God who has not abandoned them. Instead, God is close to them, and walking with them through the night and through the day. We therefore read in Exodus 40 that: “In the daytime the cloud of the Lord was seen over the Ark and the dwelling; whereas at night, fire was seen in the cloud by the whole house of Israel in all the stages of their journey”. This was God’s message of hope to Israelites.
In our country, it is also the message that our people are waiting to encounter and hear. They want an assurance from us as Bishops that, although we are in a state of technical recession and political uncertainties, God has not abandoned us. God is walking with us as a nation, both during the daytime and night time.
Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that we are in a technical recession and the nation should brace itself for another round of massive job losses.
Through this experience as a nation, our people expect us to announce a message of hope and declare with faith using the words of St Paul that, as a nation, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-9).
One of the priests once asked me: Is this not time for Bishops to encourage us to consecrate the nation and entrust it to God’s mercy in the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Perhaps, we should.
As Bishops, it is important that we realize that our message of hope should always be accompanied by a call to repentance.
After all the words that we spoke to one another yesterday, we now sit before the Lord in the upper room so that the only words that should speak to us this morning should be the words of Christ. We acknowledge that the word of God we have heard in the gospel is a call to repentance.
I think the damage that the abuse has done to the Body of Christ is so deep that a mere adherence to the policies and protocols will not restore the trust in the church. We need to do something over and above a mere observance of protocols on sexual abuse. We need to open our hearts to repentance and conversion of heart. To use the metaphor in the gospel today, we need to allow God as the fisherman to collect us, to bring us to the shore, to search into our hearts, to separate the good from the bad, and then throw away the bad fish within our hearts.
Over and above the protocols and press statements that we make, the victims of abuse are waiting for this repentance. They are waiting for a repentance that enables us to see that the healing their pain is more important that protecting the institutions in the church. This is because the wounds in their hearts are the wounds of Christ crucified. They are waiting for repentance that enable us as bishops to listen to them, to believe them, to walk with them. They are waiting for a repentance that enable us as Bishops to ensure that those who have abused are never again able to offend. As Bishops, if we have repentance in our hearts, we shall start to hold one another to account. The crisis that we now face as a church will lead to purification, if we open up to this form of repentance.
If we are to take this path over and above preaching about God’s forgiving our individual sins, we need to start preaching that God’s mercy is so powerful that it can forgive and heal sins of the nation. At a fundamental, a large number of our problems in the country are a result of our reluctance as a nation to repent from the sins of the nation.
Pope Francis has helped us to identify some of the sins of the nation. Here, we can talk about the sins of greed and corruption, the sins of hostility to immigrants and racism, the sins of destruction of environment and culture of violence, the sins of lack of respect for life and culture of abortion, the sins of materialism and worship of wealth.
The message of hope that we should preach as a church should be a message of inviting our nation to repent from personal sins and the sins of the nation. I am sure that many of our people do not associate the message of hope with a call to repentance. However, as is evident in the gospel parables in the book/gospel of Matthew 13, the message that we are supposed to preach, this message of the good news about the Kingdom of God, is a message about repentance and personal encounter with God’s mercy, that is why in the gospel today, we hear that God is like a fisherman who uses a dragnet for his fishing, there are two phases. In the first phase, the fisherman is perceived as being merciful. For many hours, he patiently drags the net through the sea collecting both bad and good fish. While dragging the net through the sea for many hours and allows plenty of time for the bad fish to repent and transform into good fish.
During apartheid and now 25 years after apartheid, like a fisherman, God has been patient with us as a nation. Although we have sometimes made efforts to self-destruct as a nation, God has not destroyed us. To echo the words of Pope Francis, although we are tired of asking for God’s forgiveness, God is not yet tired of forgiving us, cleansing us and healing us as a nation. And this should be the message of hope that we as bishops should announce to the nation.
Homily by Bishop Duncan Tsoke to the SACBC Bishops during their Plenary. 01st August, 2019
(SECAM’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY)
Today the Catholic Church in Southern Africa celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagasca (SECAM). This forum is the embodiment of a collective aspiration to become one Catholic Church that embraces diversity and complementarity. But it also symbolises another aspiration of the people of the continent: the promotion of peace, unity, solidarity, economic progress and a freer movement of peoples.
Made in God’s Image
Male and female, He created them. He created them both in His own image. We all belong to one Father who created us in His image. Now, we celebrate the feast of all nations to remind ourselves of that reality of a collective belonging. We celebrate the day of all nations because the nations no longer stand together. The image of our common belonging and common origins, is no longer visible. It is perhaps the long and arduous journey through time that has made us strangers to each other or even worse, enemies to each other? The truth is, today we human beings, we appear to have been made in the image of the biblical CAIN. We appear to be thirsty for each other’s blood. We seem to delight in inflicting pain on each other.
Race, nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion – are the ideological walls we build in order to keep the unwanted people away from us. Do you remember the Berlin Wall. Now see the obnoxious wall in Bethlehem that keeps the Palestinians at bay. Listen to the distressing debate on the Mexican-US border.
Listen to St. Paul writing to the Corinthians: He uses the analogy of the body: “God has formed the body together, giving all the more honour to the least members so that there is no bodily rupture and members are mutually concerned about one another” (1 Cor.12.24). This powerful metaphor acknowledges the rich diversity of members and calls for mutual-recognition and collaboration. But these words of scripture do not appear to have moved our hearts. They are regrettably like water on a duck’s back. We are enjoined to embrace each other, to embrace the stranger with warmth because of the inborn love we possess in our hearts.
Compassion. A Defining Virtue of Christian Living
We ought to accept people as they are because they are people. We are moved by their plight and seek to be hospitable; to soften the blow of their predicament. That is what we would wish them to do for us were we to find ourselves in a similar situation. At any rate we show kindness and mercy because these virtues are the hallmark of being truly human and of being truly Christian. These are in fact the qualities of God Himself. For St. Paul, this is in fact the very essence of love. This is the power of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5.5). Reaching out to those who are in search of a home and in search of the basic necessities of life, is in fact showing love to a neighbour, “loving one’s neighbour as one-self”. One shows compassion to migrants and refugees because they are pushed from pillar to post. They are blamed for the tardiness and even incompetence of the local people. They are called names and castigated simply because they genuinely seek better opportunities for themselves and for their children.
Some of them have taken great risks in leaving their own countries. They have fled wars and persecutions. They have fled hunger and lack of opportunities. They have made the ultimate sacrifice a man or woman can make for his or her family; to rise, to cross boundaries, to move into unknown lands and countries and seek to establish oneself. It takes a specific courage for a people to uproot themselves from their country of birth in order to find a home elsewhere. Migrants and refugees are thus the vulnerable people of our society. They are like the many women and children in our communities who bear the brunt of us abusive men. Migrants and refugees are the ones whom Christ calls the least of my brothers and sisters. “When you show any kindness to them, you show it to me” (Mat. 25).
Exploitation of Refugees
Many migrants and refugees remain fearful and vulnerable. Many employers exploit their predicament and do not pay them a living wage. They exploit especially those migrants and refugees who do not have proper documents. Many receive slave wages and are continuously threatened with arrest. Some are victims of corrupt police officials. And, as if that was not enough, many have been victims of xenophobia. When local communities go on a service delivery protest, they take out their anger on foreign nationals. They harass them, attack them, destroy and loot their shops. It is most unfair for migrants and refugees to be made scapegoats for the glaring shortcomings of the government and local authorities.
Mention must be made of the fact that there are those within the migrant community who give migrants and refugees a bad name. There are those who are heavily involved in drug-trafficking. Drugs have become a scourge in some of our communities. Thus the palpable anger of the communities is understandable. There are those migrants who are involved in robberies and human trafficking. These aberrations by some should not lead to the wholesale condemnation of the entire community of migrants and refugees.
The freedom of individuals to host migrants and refugees into their homes should be protected and promoted. But, realistically, local families are themselves under tremendous pressure because of the shortage of housing. The rapid expansion of informal settlements attest to the chronic shortage of land and residential areas.
It makes ample sense for the Church to promote welfare institutions that will be of service to migrants. The efforts of non-governmental organizations and other religious institutions need to be strengthened in their serious attempt to alleviate the plight of migrants and refugees. As Church, as Christians, we are concerned with relieving human suffering and enhancing human well-being on a large scale. Every person, irrespective of origins, deserves to be given a change, a golden opportunity to make ends meet, to take care of his or her family. This is what the golden rule of the Gospel demands. The going out of our way to serving others. To do to others what we would greatly appreciate, if it were done to us.
Becoming Truly Human
The parable of the Good Samaritan cautions us “not to worry about who deserves to be cared for”. Rather, we should be concerned about (us, ourselves) becoming a person or persons “who treat everyone we meet with dignity, respect and compassion”. This is the heart of the Gospel message.
In the parable of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Jesus says: “Mary has chosen the better part”, the listening part. Here the emphasis of Jesus falls, not on providing a service such as in the case of Martha, but the emphasis falls on receiving a gift, that is, receiving the other person who comes into our space. This person, this migrant or refugee, is a messenger of grace.
We are encouraged, not to see the migrant, the other unknown person as a threat, a rival, a competitor. No, we should see the other as a blessing in disguise; as an opportunity or as an instrument that brings the best out of us, making us worthy of being called: human beings with a heart.
It has often been said that if we are not going to be helpful to others, at least we should not harm or hurt them. We should not burn their houses, destroy their properties, loot their shops or inflict pain on their persons.
Indifference. The Grave Sin of Our Time
The grave sin we commit in our times, is the sin of indifference to the plight of others. We walk on the other side of the road like the Priest and the Levite. We don’t want to see, we don’t want to know. We carry around with us hearts of stone. We measure the worth of persons by applying the misguided criteria of race, nationality, culture and religion. When we discriminate against our fellow-Africans, we betray our own humanity; we diminish our own honour and the worth as human persons. We obscure the image of God imprinted on our faces and in our hearts. The fact is, we are creatures that find our perfection only by establishing a relationship with others. It is this mutuality that makes us truly human. It is a mutual relationship that cuts across man-made boundaries, geographical frontiers, cultural fault-lines and racial divides. Person to person relationships irrespective of origin, language, race or culture, are generally warm and pleasant. Relationships are poisoned by a prejudice that is embedded in society.
St. Paul writing to the Galatians reminds us that we are all sons and daughters of God: “All of you have been Baptised into Christ. Therefore there is neither Jew not Greek, slave not free, male nor female. We are all heirs according to the promise” (Gal.3.26).
We must learn to bring down the walls among us, embrace each other and “do as God would want us to”. This is the moral posture and attitude human beings should assume.
We owe this one to ourselves.
“All you nations, praise the Lord, for He is good”.
+Buti Tlhagale omi
St. Henry’s School