In his opening address to the January plenary session of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), conference president Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town has raised issues related to the proposed Pastoral Plan for the Church in the region and has criticised recent populist moves within the country. Whilst acknowledging the problems of the current time, he encouraged members of the Church to remain hopeful, and to work for the country we all want. This involves confronting the problems of racism and economic injustice.

“We are privileged to live and minister at this time”, said Archbishop Stephen Brislin in his opening address as president of the SACBC at the January plenary. He was speaking in light of the 200 year anniversary of the official establishment of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa, noting that it was a momentous occasion well worthy of gratitude and celebration.

Gratitude and an apology

Amidst the celebrations, Brislin was also quick to acknowledge the Church, divinely instituted, is made up of human beings with frailty. “In particular, we express remorse for the times when we remained silent about - or even worse, were part of - the negativity of colonialism and apartheid. People have been hurt by the Church in this regard – and in other matters – and unreservedly we apologise for this. We also apologise unreservedly for incidents of sexual abuse of minors which have occurred in the Church of Southern Africa. Thank God, today we have committed ourselves to rooting out this evil and to protecting children.”

Whilst expressing gratitude for the past 200 years, he noted that “true gratitude is expressed in our own commitment to be faithful to what has been handed onto to us and to be faithful stewards”. He explained that our task is “to proclaim Christ to the world, to evangelise and bring people into an encounter with Christ”. He noted that the restructuring of the conference has been based on the principle that every aspect should be in the service of evangelisation, and that conference structures are meant to be “at the service of dioceses and not the other way round”. This mind-shift has led to the formulation of a new draft Pastoral Plan with its vision of an “Evangelising Community serving God, Humanity and all creation”. He explained that it has eight themes: Evangelisation; Laity Formation and Empowerment; Life and Ministry of Priests and Deacons; Marriage and Family; Youth; Justice and Peace and Non-Violence; Healing and Reconciliation; and Care of Creation.

Pastoral plan

Brislin noted that one huge strength of the Church as an institution is the work done at the grass-root level and noted that in these “confusing, but also urgent times, we need to give leadership”, particularly in changing attitudes and humanising our society. He made four specific points about the Pastoral Plan.

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, first vice-president of the SACBC

Firstly, reflecting on the success of the Mini-World Youth Day, he commented that he was struck by the number of questions young people had about life and faith and their limited opportunity to be able to voice those questions within the Church. He proposed that forums or programmes be adopted that give young people a space to ask their questions in their own parishes so that there can be dialogue. He thought this issue was urgent, noting that youth today are under enormous stress. He urged the bishops and the Church in South Africa to identify ways in which youth can be given accompaniment.

Secondly, Brislin said the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops’ Conference had undertaken to produce the Lenten Reflections on the problem of continued racism in South Africa. He noted that dealing effectively with racism is “an essential ingredient to the healing and reconciliation that is needed in our country, without which I do not believe we will ever be able to achieve any true peace”.

Thirdly, the President noted that the issues and concerns raised by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ form an integral part of the new Pastoral Plan. “Considering the clear evidence of climate change and the effects of this on humanity – especially the poor – it is also an urgent matter for the conference to address.” The water crisis in Cape town, he said was a case in point. He called for the Church in South Africa to boldly help with supporting attitude and behavioural change in how we relate to the resources that have been given to us by God.

Finally, recalling Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he noted that the new pastoral plan exhorts pastors to “accompany and support people, even if their life situations do not reach the ideal.”

Frustrated with corruption

Turning to examine the socio-political environment in South Africa Brislin said the allegation “of massive corruption and ‘state-capture’ have frustrated, angered and infuriated most South Africans” and that there was a general feeling of helplessness and despair. “If this is true, then the crime is enormous and those responsible should be brought to account and face the legal consequences.”

Brislin had some harsh words for the leadership of the country and acknowledged that South Africa faces many problems but that “while paying lip service to the problems we face, and using pious words, leaders in whom the electorate placed their trust, have betrayed the country and most especially betrayed the poor for their own selfish and greedy interests”.

Brislin remarked that he hoped that the December ANC Conference “would have given an overwhelming vote against corruption” and that whilst “this has not happened, the new leadership has given hope”. The actions by Cyril Ramaphosa “are promising” because “he has not delayed in dealing with matters that are of great urgency”. He praised the fact that the National Prosecuting Authority has, at last, began the process of prosecution and declared the prosecution of those alleged to be involved in state capture as a “light amidst all the darkness”.

Thoughtful change needed

Brislin accepted that in order to correct the imbalances of the past and the present inequity in South African Society there has to be economic change. He explained that this was a fact “we must accept and help others to accept, and it will involve sacrifices on the part of some”. He referred to research that had shown that such change is in the interests of the wealthy as much as it is in the interest of the poor and that it is necessary for survival and peace. Brislin said he recognised that not all the bishops are fully conversant with the various economic models that might achieve this and requested that at a future plenary of the conference an economist might be invited to help the bishops discern this urgent matter further.

Commenting on the recent waves of populism in society Brislin said it was “regrettable that some politicians and parties use the existing tensions for their own political gain”. He implored them to seek realistic solutions and noted that populism “requires vigilance in order that it does not drag us into chaos”. While noting that populism can become competitive, Brislin was critical of the ANC conference’s recently adopted approach to the expropriation of land without compensation. “Land reform is essential in our country, but the resolution is unfortunate because the provisions made in the Constitution have not been tested.” Brislin said it would have been preferable for the provisions to have been implemented first and that “if they did not work, then certainly changing the Constitution could be considered”. His impression was that this resolution was “a populist move rather than a well-reasoned response to the land crisis”.

Speaking on the prevailing issue of corruption in South Africa, the Archbishop noted that state-capture was not the only form of corruption in our society, citing examples of corruption existing in the corporate environment on a massive scale.

“The corrupt include people who sit on the pews of churches, mosques, temples and synagogues for their weekly worship”. Brislin said it was necessary for the Church to conscientise people and challenge them to abandon their corrupt ways. Brislin said the bishops have a duty to ensure that “as Church, we use our temporal resources honestly, wisely and in the service of evangelisation” and that we are always “transparent and accountable”.

Despite focusing on these problems, the archbishop noted that there is a renewed sense of hope and purpose in the country. “The incoming president will not be able to perform miracles and it is part of our responsibility to give support to government in all their undertaking that serve the common good.”

Commenting on President Zuma’s announcement about free tertiary education, the archbishop labelled it as ”highly irresponsible and damaging”. He explained that “I do not believe that any person can be against free tertiary education as an ideal, but it needs to be balanced against the needs of others – especially those young people, who are in the majority, and who are not able to attend universities and colleges, who are unemployed and without hope, and consequently need to be given assistance and training in skills that can equip them to earn a living.”

Calling this another populist move by the government, the archbishop accused the president of deepening tensions with education and putting the proper functioning of universities and colleges at risk.

“We trust that the new leadership will be able to lead the country through these difficulties and to establish an ordered process of de-colonisation and de-racialisation of educational institutions.” He noted that “the de-colonisation debate raises many emotion, but it is a serious issue and, I believe, an issue that can be resolved.” He also proposed that the bishops inform themselves on these matters and if necessary call for experts to address them.

More work to be done

In closing, the Archbishop reported on the various engagements he had undertaken as president of the SACBC, highlighting the work done and that which is still needed. He said work was still needed on issues of human trafficking, migrants and refugees, the South African Council of Church’s (SACC) ‘Unburdening Report’ and the ongoing efforts to challenge corruption, as well as work within various sectors such as mining to bring about economic justice. He also explained his hopes and fears about the current state of the Holy Land and whether a two-state solution is possible.

He exhorted that “together, as the Catholics of this country, united in our faith in Jesus Christ, we continue the tradition handed on to us over the past 200 years. Because we believe, we continue to speak, to evangelise and to glorify God, in anticipation of the Resurrection and our meeting once against at the side of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, archbishop of Durban, commenting on the pastoral plan, asked if the time has come for the conference to setup a committee to look at the major issues facing South Africa. He encouraged the conference to establish a team to prepare positions on vital issues such as the economy, racism and the political situation. He urged that the new pastoral plan take into account issues facing the country. Brislin undertook to discuss these issues further during the plenary. SA.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

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