SOUTH AFRICA: Bishop Sipuka Highlights Priestly Formation, Gaza, Fiducia Supplicans as Plenary Agendas, Pays tribute to Zahara and Mbongeni

By Paschal Norbert

PRETORIA, JANUARY 26, 2024 (CISA) – In a message of hope and outlining the agenda of the first 2024 plenary of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), President Bishop Sithembele Sipuka highlights the successes and challenges of the previous year; gives a background of the position of the bishops on Fiducia Supplicans and pays a glowing tribute to South Africa late icons Zahara and Mbongeni Ngema.

In his opening address to the plenary shared with CISA, the bishop of Mthatha begins by offering condolences to his colleagues in the episcopacy who have lost their loved ones and also recognizes the individual milestones of some bishops and dioceses like Gaborone in Botswana and Manzini in eSwatini, and explains why the plenary is themed ‘Synodality’ on the backdrop of the just concluded October 2023 Synod.

He says, “We are gathering brothers and sisters at a time characterized by many challenges in all aspects and at every level. Yet, as much as these challenges press us, there are indications of good news, even if they exist in the form of a silver lining. And so, if one were to be poetic, one could say it is at the best of times and the worst of times that we gather.”

Bishop Sipuka foregrounds the achievements of the Church in Southern Africa post COVID-19 to have improved steadily in the last three years as witnessed in the growing Mass attendance, increased Lenten collections, better Christian formation and advocacy work through the justice and peace department and the Dennis Hurley Peace Institute.

Of concern to the president of SACBC is “insufficient formation of priests in catechesis, which manifests in priests not being involved in catechism teaching and not encouraging and supporting catechism,” which he contends, “Priests need to be trained in the pedagogy of teaching catechism so that they, in turn, can train catechists. In teaching catechism today, we must do more than drill children on the number of sacraments and commandments.”

The prelate deviates from mentioning much about the economic and high-cost-living crisis in South Africa but outrightly shares his concern about the upcoming elections and the danger of having many registered parties – a prerequisite for a coalition government.

“A silver lining to these social and economic woes is the coming elections, which, ideally speaking, is the opportunity to change the situation for the better. A pastoral letter outlining principles to be considered when voting has already been written. The only cause for concern is the high number of parties. The last time I checked on the 14th of January this year, I discovered that 356 parties had registered with the IEC, and by the time we go to elections, there might be more,” he notes.

Sipuka explains, “The good thing about this abundance of political parties is that it affirms and confirms the vibrancy of democracy. The question that arises is how many of these parties are different from each other in terms of their vision. Given these numerous parties, we seem destined for a coalition government, which has not worked well at the local government level.”

He pleads with Southern African bishops not to be silent or indifferent to the suffering of the Gaza people and asks them to commend the Southern African government for taking the noble step to prove that the war in Gaza is a genocide that needs to end.

“It is inhuman and lacking heart not to be moved to do something about what is happening in Gaza,” he says.

In his address Bishop Sipuka, describes the recent Vatican declaration Fiducia Supplicans as a cat being thrown among pigeons and an undesirable move that has woken up the African Church concerns of imposition of dramatic cultural change and pastoral priorities by European and US Church to the Universal Church.

“The other sentiment it has triggered is the perennial sotto voce complaint that one part of the Church, Europe, and the US, to be specific, tends to impose its priorities over the universal Church. This issue of the blessing of the same-sex union is seen by many as an example of that imposition, particularly by some African bishops,” he notes.

“While I am doubtful about homosexuality being an imported behaviour from Europe or as “un-African”, I concur with the view that it is not a priority at this moment in our situation. We have other priorities, e.g. poverty, corruption, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, shortage of priests, absence of the youth in Church, lack of catechism teachers, clericalism, lack of resources, and many others,” he adds.

Bishop Sipuka also paid glowing tribute to the late South African icons: ‘Loliwe’ hitmaker Zahara who died at the age of 36 after battling an illness and prolific playwright Mbongeni Ngema known for the Sarafina musical drama who died at the age of 68 through an accident.

“Zahara was a good role model for the youth. Coming from a poor background, she was a rising star who cooperated with world-renowned artists like Kirk Walom in producing music. Her music has meaning with a message to communicate and is durable,” he eulogized Zahara.

“Yet she was very human, with many personal struggles amid the temptations of the music industry, but she was very formidable in facing and overcoming them. She was about to get married when she died. She was an ambassador of feminine dignity with graceful and dignified self-presentation, not succumbing to the pressure of validating herself by showing too much skin,” he said.

He praised Mbongeni for offering a platform for “many to articulate the quest for freedom,” and described his music and drama as “not only about severe political and social concerns but also have an aesthetic aspect.”

“Who among those of us who were young in the 80s does not listen with nostalgia to such songs as Stimela saseZola, Woza my fohloza, isiqgebhezana, but are now inhibited by lack of agility to dance to them, or inhibited by the dignity of the office or status?  As much as his art made one conscious of social and political issues, it also elicited playfulness and enjoyment that lifted the soul. He leaves a good example of conversion against women abuse and gender-based violence,” he said.

The first plenary session of the SACBC is scheduled to take place from January 23 to 30, 2024.