A quarter-century after South Africa rose from the ashes of apartheid as a democratic nation, racial divisions still dominate the public forum. One of the great challenges facing the country’s Catholic Church is therefore to bring together the various groups apartheid had separated. Institutional divisions are removed, but the Body of Christ in South Africa is still lamentably divided along racial and cultural lines.
This was evident at the January launch of the bishops’ new Pastoral Plan in Soweto’s Regina Mundi church, the “cathedral” of the anti-apartheid struggle. Few white faces were in evidence; they rarely are at Church events which are seen as being “too black”.
The division is also economic. Many parishes are live-streaming Masses during the coronavirus emergency, but most South African Catholics cannot afford data plans. The lockdown also means that many Catholics in this community-driven society can’t live the Faith with others even within the small Christian communities and sodalities that form the structural basis for their faith-life.
When the coronavirus lockdown lifts, churches are likely to be full again. Secularisation has yet to take firm hold of South African society – at least not outside urban areas – and even in the cities, Masses are still well-attended, though congregations are greying. Vocations are still healthy. The national major seminary, St John Vianney, has 130 students , and more study for the priesthood in religious orders at St Joseph’s Theological Institute near Pietermaritzburg.
Noticeably, the great majority of seminarians are black. The Church in South Africa was long dominated by a white clergy, many of them missionaries from the northern hemisphere. The clergy are becoming rapidly indigenised, and are coming to reflect more closely the country’s demographics: 71 per cent of Catholics are black. Missionaries still come to South Africa, but now they hail from the Indian sub-continent and other African regions. Their role is purely pastoral.
The Pretoria-based Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference comprises 29 dioceses (including Botswana’s two and one in Eswatini). The SACBC are running many excellent projects, among which the AIDS Office is a standout. In the 2000s, it opened South Africa’s first retroviral treatment clinics (long before the government did). Today the AIDS Office has a huge network of field workers, who train communities in home-based care and build houses for vulnerable people.
Neither that work, nor other SACBC and Church programmes receive much public notice. That is due not so much to anti-Catholic bias in the media – there is some of that – as to the local Church’s failure to tell its story.
For the past 25 years, the SACBC’s Social Communications Office has been staffed by no more than one overworked priest, who would also have pastoral responsibilities. Only two archdioceses publish a regular newspaper (and that, monthly or quarterly). The one radio station, Veritas, broadcasts in the Johannesburg area. There is one independently published national Catholic weekly, The Southern Cross (which is also South Africa’s only mainstream Christian weekly newspaper). With the Catholic Church failing to tell its good news stories to the nation – or even most of its own flock – it rarely features in the public discourse.
Somehow the local Church has also escaped a deluge of sexual abuse scandals. The reasons for this may be many; none of them include a shortage of abuses to report.
Implementing the pastoral plan will have to wait for the Covid-19 emergency to abate, but the Church will have its work cut out when a traumatised and hungry nation emerges from lockdown.
Günther Simmermacher is the editor-in-chief of The Southern Cross
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