The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) began their bi-annual plenary session on 22 January 2020 in Pretoria, Gauteng. In his opening address as president of the conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka spoke about the SACBC’s new Pastoral Plan, the position of the Church in society, engagements with the government, the state of the grant system in South Africa, the electricity crisis, and electoral reform.

Bishop Sipuka began his address by renewing the Conference’s condolences to the families, dioceses and seminary staff after the unexpected death of two seminary professors and formators, Frs. Owen Wilcock and Sibusiso Zulu. He pleaded with the bishops present to offer experienced priests to the seminary to fill the void left by their tragic passing.

He also extended condolences to the Oblate Congregation (OMI) and the Diocese of Klerksdorp for the murder of Fr Josef Hollanders, “a man who, as Bishop Phalana explained, had no money to be robbed because ‘he used every penny he ever owned for his people, he gave away everything he had’.” Bishop Sipuka commended the police for the quick arrest of the suspect who has already appeared in court” and noted that the SACBC will continue to “pray for the repose of the soul of this dedicated missionary who was part of the life of the people that he served and spoke their language fluently.”

He also bade farewell to Fr. Hugh Lagan SMA who has recently returned to Ireland and who was instrumental in initiating awareness about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious and drafted policies for dealing with it. He also contributed to the ongoing formation programme for priests.

New SACBC Pastoral Plan: An evangelizing Community, serving God, humanity and all creation

Bishop Sipuka noted how the new SACBC’s Pastoral Plan was completed in 2019. He said that “the Pastoral Plan has two aspects, first, the facilitation of personal relationship with Christ from which follows the second one, being Missionary Disciples of Christ. Put differently it is about an evangelized community that in its turn evangelizes.”

[…] an evangelized community that in its turn evangelizes.”

Bishop Sipuka identified two aspects that were lacking in the plan: Firstly “the Agents, structures and programmes of implementing the Pastoral plan” which he hoped would be added as an appendix; and secondly, the area of self-sustainability.

He explained that the immediate context of the Pastoral Plan arose because the Bishops realized “that as a Church in this region, we are not making an impact, both on the people we serve and in society.” He explained that “there is no growth in faith and spirituality, the furthest most of our faithful go is confirmation and they remain there.

With regard to witnessing for Christ and continuing the work of evangelization, the majority of our Catholics do not see these as their task. They tend to see themselves more as there to be serviced by the Church, to be served sacraments, to be preached to and to be buried. The most they do is to fulfill the obligation of supporting the Church financially, and some of them do so grudgingly because they have no sense of the missionary nature of the Church which requires resources in order to do this missionary work."

[…] the majority of our Catholics […] tend to see themselves more as there to be serviced by the Church, to be served sacraments, to be preached to and to be buried.

The bishop stressed that every effort was made to consult in the drafting of this plan, entitled “Evangelizing Community, serving God, Humanity and all Creation”, and that, therefore, it should be incorporated into plans at every level and in every part of the local church.

But the reason why he felt the Church was not making an impact had to do with the larger context, “the changed cultural and social context which no longer provides an advantageous platform for the propagation of faith as it was done in the past [since] the culture today does not serve the living or the propagation of the faith.”

He bemoaned the increasing secularization of society, and said that “we can no longer continue to do church services the way we used to … before.” In the context of this changed cultural situation “we cannot seek to do what has been successful before but only try harder this time, preach more, teach more, have more solemn liturgy, pray more, do more of the activities of the past that were successful.”

He explained that “without wanting to change what the Church and its message is, this Pastoral Plan seeks to change the way of being church, to change the system of being church, so that it responds effectively to the changed situations of our time.” He concluded that “this Pastoral Plan aims at helping us to move from a maintenance church to a missionary church, from a church that services those who come to church, to a church that goes forth.”

This Pastoral Plan seeks to change the way of being church, to change the system of being church, so that it responds effectively to the changed situations of our time.

He admitted that many in the Church ‘wrestle’ with these changes, and the need to change, saying: “The present storm in a tea cup about the co-authorship of a book by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah is but only one indication of this wrestling.” He explained that “We are invited through this Pastoral Plan to be bold and creative in this of task of rethinking the goals, structures, styles and methods of evangelisation in our Conference.”

Increased communication with government and greater understanding

Bishop Sipuka also commended the present government for “its willingness to talk.” He explained that “between August last year and now, together with other church leaders, we have had three opportunities to meet and talk with the President of the Republic of South Africa. And again within that time, we had a chance to speak to four different Ministers, and on two of these occasions we were invited by the Ministers themselves to talk to us. In this very week we will again talk to the President, and this gives a sense of hope. There will always be buts, but the fact that this government is talking, is a good thing, and it needs to be commended for that.”

He explained that through their interaction with government they have learnt to appreciate the scale and complexity of the problems facing the country, especially in terms of migrants and refugees. He noted that “There is a need … to work on long-term solutions that will make people not to leave their countries, and immediate solutions that call us to respond to the present needs of migrants in a human and a Christian way, and this is where the Pastoral Plan will prove to be helpful.”

Praise for progress in education of girls

Bishop Sipuka requested that the SACBC formally congratulate the Department of Education, led by Minister Angie Motshekga, “for the improved matric results this year.” He noted that it is “commendable that both in numbers, and in the quality of passing, girl learners have done better than boys.” And “we compliment what has gone well even if it is not perfect.”

Social grants not sustainable

Bishop Sipuka commended the government on the grants offered to those with “various forms of need”, on which their very survival depends. But he said that “the way it is administered and the attitude about grants is problematic with regard to a sense of responsibility and the dignity of some people who receive grants.”

the way [social grants are] administered […] is problematic with regard to a sense of responsibility and the dignity of some people who receive grants.

He gave the example that “while giving grants to young teenage mothers is something necessary, something needs to be done about teenagers bearing children in the first place, because we are becoming a nation of fatherless children and that will, in the future, have very negative social results.

We cannot solve the problem of teenage pregnancy by only giving grants, we need to get to the bottom of the problem. The government, civil society and the Church must engage with this problem. We need to come up with some programs which will deal with the formation of young people in order to curb this problem.”

He also wondered if “just giving a free grant to a young energetic women is helpful in instilling a sense of responsibility and dignity. In the context of our country being so littered with plastic, pampers and bottles would it not give a bit of dignity to the young mothers to ask them to clean their environment in return for the grant? They are assisted, and they also need to assist in return to clean the environment. But someone can rightly ask, what about the boys who impregnate them?”

While grants are necessary, they must be a temporal measure. No nation can perpetually live on grants, it is not sustainable and it is not desirable for human dignity.

He continued that “This would also be true for young energetic people who get free housing. Would it not give dignity to them to ask them to at least dig the foundation trenches, so that they can have a true sense of ownership because they have made a contribution to their house? Maybe that would also make them take care of it?”

He said that “While grants are necessary, they must be a temporal measure. No nation can perpetually live on grants, it is not sustainable and it is not desirable for human dignity. The people will regain their dignity when they are able to participate in the economy instead of being given handouts. People are not to be treated as objects of delivery, but as active agents of the growth of their economy. So we must keep the conversation about the economy going and engage in discussions about alternative economic systems that will give dignity to everybody”

Electricity crisis within political battlefield

Bishop Sipuka announced that one of the issues he wants to talk with the South African President on Thursday, are about “the possibility of the presence of forces that want to bring this country down.” He noted that “during the struggle the bombing of power stations was a strategic method of weakening the apartheid government.”

He asked whether those who are “supposedly against the President using the same strategy? Is electricity production becoming a battle field again for settling political differences?” He noted that the contradictory statements from the President’s office about whether or not there was sabotage, or whether the President was “misled” makes any reasonable person wonder what the truth is.

Need for electoral reform to overcome crisis of democracy

Bishop Sipuka noted that there is uncertainty about the safety of our democracy, because “the rise and fall of a President in this country depends on the political party because the electoral system is based on proportional representation, giving power to the party that wins, even if only by a slight margin, to control the President.”

He explained that “Given the context of the negotiated settlement, maybe this system was good when it was first adopted, but given the present dynamics of self-interest that have developed, one needs to ask the question; has time not come to consider changing to a constituency representation, where the President is answerable to the people and not the party?”

Developments in eSwatini, Botswana

He thanked Bishop José Luiś Ponce de León (of Manzini) for informing the conference about “the recent scandal of the eSwatini King who bought a string of expensive cars for his wives while his people languish in poverty”, and was grateful that there was more time allocated for Bishop Jose to update the Bishops about developments in eSwatini.

He also welcomed Bishop Frank Nubuasah (from Gaborone, Botswana) who had previously had problems attending the Plenary session due to visa restrictions.

He concluded his address thanking all those who worked at the Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA) and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) and encouraged everyone to “continue to implement SECAM programmes in our conference” and asked the Holy Spirit’s guidance during the plenary session.

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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