The church in the society

State of the Nation; a limited vision

Religion played a major role in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. The State of the Nation address of President Zuma saw little use for it and the debates for a new South Africa sideline the role of the Church

It is surprising that religion and spiritual values are being reduced to the level of pious platitudes. Many of those in leadership roles have come from Christian backgrounds and Catholic Schools.

What does the church contribute to the building of society? What can it contribute to a vision for the future? To push religion aside, one of the great molding forces of civilization, is surely a great mistake.

It is the role of politics to organize and distribute power. It is the role of economics to control and distribute wealth. The media have taken upon themselves to be the masters of the distribution of information. What is it that the Church and the faith community distribute?

The Churches’ task is through its experience of God to give birth to a vision of life which forms fraternity – the great missing dimension- for equality and liberty are everywhere promoted.  And from true fraternity come friendship, trust, love, marriage, loyalty, faithfulness and the family. This of course underlines the dreadful scandal of a disunited church, the very thing Jesus worried about as He prepared to die.

Modern, secular society believes that the only two institutions which can deal with social problems are either the state or the market. Those on the left prefer the state, those on the right favor the market. But modern, secular society is wrong. The new South Africa can not be held together simply by the coercive use of power or by the regulated mechanisms of the market. In fact, power and money are precisely what conflict and violence are about.

Families, religious congregations, faith communities, fellowships, voluntary organizations are not held together only by political aims or by economic interests but by love, loyalty and faithfulness.

Take the example of Sipho Radebe (not his real name). From a rural village in the former Transkei Sipho is an executive in one of our banking institutions.   The Radebe family lived in destitution in a hidden rural village. His father was a miner who sent home R20 a month. With a little vegetable garden his mother fed the family. Looking at his family 30 years ago you might have said they had nothing. But you would be very wrong. For they had family, they had a vibrant Church community and they had faith. They were rich in social capital.

They had a family in that the father and mother loved the children and were faithful to each other. Whatever they had was given to the children, they shared an experience of what it is to be human, what it is to be African , what is to be part of humanity. Sipho grew up convinced of his true human worth.

The Radebe’s played a key role in the community of the church. There they taught the faith, lead the choir, shared in the responsibility of the parish council. The Church was where they met decent people who valued loyalty, friendship, human warmth, dependability. Further, it opened the doors of education, it allowed them to experience the exercise of leadership, it assured them that God had a plan for them and that they had a role to play in the world. The Radebe family had faith. And it was this faith that allowed them to break free from poverty, dependency and despair.

The state and the market are impersonal. There are problems they cannot solve. Those problems belong to the family, the community, and the congregation. It is these which give us the power to change personally, in the heart and in the spirit.

People in the past were poor, but they had faith, they had community, they belonged and so they had hope. The mindless violence, the drugs, the rampant sexuality, the alcohol abuse, the poor schools show that the state and the market alone can not solve the suffering and hopelessness around South Africa.

Secular leaders need to remember that we live in Africa. The strength of Africa has been in spiritual values and it is only through these that we can build a democratic state. Therefore it is in our homes, our churches, our Catholic schools that values are kept alive which are dying elsewhere; fidelity, altruism, decency, civility, reverence, restraint. Without these values human dignity cannot survive. Without honesty and justice democracy is just a charade.  And without these values the liberal democracy that is South Africa today will discover that it faces a huge social pathology that it will be totally unable to solve.

The time has come for us to work together as faith communities in genuine partnership with governments on one hand and with business on the other, to create local welfare initiatives based not simply in the power of the state, not simply on the world of the market, but on our faith in human beings.

Because it is that faith which changes lives and rebuilds the landscape of hope.  It is this that secular society does not understand.

Bishop William Slattery ofm


The Spirituality of the Bible

1.     Introduction                                  

“In God we discover new seas the more we navigate”, wrote Fray Luis de Leon. Origen used the same metaphor in saying that study of the Bible is to set sail on a log towards an ocean of mysteries.  Millions of people for 2000 years have found in the Bible the meaning of life and have responded to existence guided by its revealed word.

The Bible of course is not a tract on spirituality no more than is it a handbook of science.Yet, in a very unique sense the Bible is a spiritual text which invites, motivates and guides humanity on a spiritual journey. But for Christians it contains the revealed Word of God.

For the Hebrews the word ‘Dabar’ is not purely an intellectual word as for the Greeks for whom a word was aimed at the intellect alone. Rather it means a Word in action or an Action in word. God said, “Let there be Light and there was Light”. A person reading the Word of God in faith is not only invited to understand something but to encounter Someone. The Bible not only tells us about God but invites us to meet and experience Him. The spirituality of the Bible flows from this encounter.

Many images in the text speak of the Bible as a life giving word. It is compared to rain, “Which descends from Heaven and does not return to Heaven without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…Isaiah 55 v 10.

The Word of God is like a seed which emerges from the hard earth through its own inner force, Luke 8 v 11-15. The Word of God is sharper than a double-edged sword which “ penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit…it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4 v 12.

The Word is a hammer which smashes the hardness of the rocky heart. Jeremiah 23 v 29, Ezekiel 36 v 26.  It is also a burning fire in the bones, Jeremiah 20 v 9.  It is a light which describes the decisive inbreak of God upon the human mind and shows us the living God. John 8 v12; Ps 27 v 1.

Finally, to surrender to the Word is to be taken over by Christ. So one is able to say; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2 v 20.

When Goebbles heard the word ‘culture’ he said that he immediately wanted to reach for his gun. The word spirituality may invoke the same response today as it has come to mean very varying realities. Indeed, many wish to use it in opposition to the word ‘church’ or ‘religion’.

By Spirituality here I mean a concrete personal response to the action of the Holy Spirit. Spirituality deals with the field of action of the Spirit in the human person and in the community. It is the spiritual experience of knowing from within the presence and actions of the spirit.Spirituality arises from intense spiritual experience to which the person bears witness by their faith, life and community.

There are many sources of Christian Spirituality and indeed many forms of Christian spirituality. But here we look at the Bible as source.

2.        An Experience of the One God, the good God.

The first great theological theme of Scripture is that God is one. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your spirit and with all your power”. Dt 6. The books of Judges,Kings and prophets resound with Israels’s battle to remain faithful to the One True God. We remember the struggle of Elijah with the baals, the anger of men like Hosea, Amos and Jeremiah; “they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold  living water Jer 2.

The peoples who surrounded Israel venerated gods which were little more than personifications of natural forces, whose service were tied up with a sophisticated mythology whose rites were intended to guarantee the fertility of the land, of animals and of human beings. The God of Israel was not an intra-cosmic divinity but above and beyond all natural forces.

In the New Testament the absoluteness of God shows itself in Jesus, in his radicality. Perhaps it is best expressed in Matthew 5 v 47; “Be you perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. Take up your cross and follow me. The beatitudes are par excellence invite the whole person to be totally given over to God. We must adhere to God without reserve, without fear, full of surrender and intimacy. Its expression is the prayer of Jesus ABBA, Father, Matthew 14 v 36.

Because God is one and God is all we find in the Spirituality of Jesus an urgency which demands decision. The Kingdom is at hand. So his first words in the Gospel of Mark, “Be converted and believe the gospel”. Jesus is totally opposed to superficiality and to day dreaming. Be vigilant! No one putting his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven” Leave the dead to bury their dead.

Since God is the source of goodness Jesus invites us human persons to have confidence in Him. The secret of experiencing God is to have trust in Him. God is the father of the orphans, the friends of the widows, Psalm 68. This poverty of the human person before God is re- emphasized by Jesus who came as a poor man of a humble heart. The poor person like Jesus is someone who exudes meekness, non- violence, gentleness.

An arising out of this Biblical poverty is a spirituality characterized by desire. This desire born of helplessness, dependence, humiliation before God is the door by which God responds to us in our need. Confidence in God is the fruit of Poverty and is at the heart of Biblical spirituality.

3 Bible spirituality flows from God’s gift, All is gift.

The Good God had gifted us with everything. The response to that gift is the soul of biblical spirituality.

The Bible shows us that above all that there is only one God who is the origin of all things. Decartes begins all things, as it were, in his philosophy with the assertion Cogito Ergo Sum. But as Karl Barth says the Bible insists the correct starting point of all is Cogitor Ergo Sum -it is because I’m thought of that I exist, I am because God is. Biblical spirituality is not that we come to know God but instead we are known by God. It is because I am thought about, it’s because I am searched for, because I am loved by God that I myself can think and love God.

Biblical spirituality shows itself as a God-given human experience of an entirely unmerited gift. “Before the mountains were born, or the earth or the world brought forth, you are God, without beginning or end” Ps 90. “The eyes of all creatures look to you, and you give them their food in due season, You open wide you hand and satisfy all their needs” Ps 145. He keeps creation in existence; “When you hide your face, they are dismayed” Ps104 v 29. “You have given us dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet, all sheep and cattle, and even the savage beasts, the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea who make their way through the waters …Ps 8 v 6-7. Our life is God’s gift.

In John 8 v 58, “Before Abraham was I am”. Before the human person has begun his journey toward Zion, God has already announced himself at the door of the house, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If there is someone listening to my voice and opens the door for me, I will come in to him and I will dine with him and he with me. Revelation 3 v 20.

Romans chapter 9 v 30, “I have been found by those who have not sought Me”, says the Lord to Israel. Paul reminds the Galatians “But now that you know God—or rather are known byGod—how is it that you are turning back…?  Galatians 4 v 9.

To have received everything from God, to be intimately and essentially God’s s gift, this is the basic reality of human existence, and consequently of human conduct and spirituality.

4.        God enters a covenant with us


The idea of covenant is original to the Bible, we do not find anywhere else the idea of an alliance between divine and the human partners. We find a covenant with Abraham, with Noah, with Moses. The covenant relationship becomes crystallised into a fixed expression; “I will be your God and you shall be my people. Another expresson of it is with David and his lineage “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Sam 7,14).

It is in the psalms that we meet the living spirituality of the old testament. It has been said that the psalms give us a mystical portrait of the face of God. Here we are shown a personal God engaged in interpersonal dialogue, God is spoken of as ‘our God’ 75 times, we are ‘His people’ 50 times, we are ‘His inheritance’ ten times, we are ‘his flock’ 7 times.

This interpersonal relationship between God and his people is at the heart of Biblical spirituality. It is expressed in many beautiful symbols.

We are invited to savour, to taste the freshness of God. We must thirst for Him. God and humanity conduct a ‘dialogue of the eyes’. “The eyes of the Lord look down and his eyes examine human people” Psalm  11v 4. His gaze upon us is full of tenderness. “The Lord looks down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he views the earth, he hears the cries of the prisoners and releases those condemned to death”. Psalm 102 v 19. But the eyes of mankind are upon the Lord,” To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens; my eyes like the eyes of slaves on the hands of their lords. Like the eyes of a servant on the hands of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God”. Ps 122. “Guard me as the apple of your eye”.16v 8.

Jeremiah foretells a ‘new covenant’ Jer 31v 31.This new covenant will be perfected in Jesus’ Paschal mystery. While a contract is an agreement among people regarding things a covenant is more like a marriage and arises because of God’s great love for His people.

The fact that God enters a covenant with Israel is of great importance for it helps us to understand law and morality in Scripture. Revealed morality does not occupy the first place, it is secondary to an experience of God, to a ‘knowing’, in the biblical sense. Issuing from the experience of liberation in Exodus the laws purpose is to serve and develop this liberty, both exterior and interior in daily life.

The believers moral option presupposes a personal experience of God. 20. Therefore we must not see the laws and prescriptions of the Bible as an imposition from without, rather they are a way of liberty. In the decalogue we relate as a family in God. Thus the law becomes a stimulus and not a burden, it respects and favours an itinerary, it launches towards the kingdom and educates the conscience rather than imposing a leaden burden on our shoulders Matt 11. 29-30; “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy and my burden light”.

It is in Jesus that the Covenant with God is perfected. In the institution of the Eucharist Jesus says; “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. At the banquet of the kingdom in perfect communion with Jesus and with the Father, the new covenant reaches its fullness and the promise; “I will be their God and they shall be

my people” will be fulfilled entirely Rev 21 v3.






5`    Biblical Spirituality is communitarian

In consonance with the nature of the trinitarian God and of the human person made in His image the Bible underlines the essential community dimension of spirituality. This dimension has its motivation and its expression in love.

In the Bible the human person is not an isolated and autonomous individual but essentially a member of a community, belonging to the covenantal community,to the people of God, which in the New Testament is also described as the body of Christ ( Cor, Eph, Col) to which individuals belong as members, -or as a vine, into which individuals are grafted as branches (John 15). In this fundamental relational framework, the objective of human living is not the formation of a perfect, independent personality as in pop psychology, but the formation of a member of the living body of Christ.

Starting with Abraham’s family Israel becomes a tribal community. They share slavery in Egypt, they are together and alone in the desert and on Sinai commit thmselves together to one God. Together they go up to take the land of Palestine. Then, above all in worship and through their sanctuaries, with the ark in their midst, they create a bonded community. The monarchy and the prophets form them in common identity and in common faith.

Jesus gathered a community about Himself. With Pentecost the Spirit of the Risen Jesus made the followers of Jesus into fervent community. This community had these characteristics; a) fidelity to the teaching of the apostles, b) Koinonia, a profound bond of faith and love, c) a Common worship in the breaking of the bread and temple prayers, d) community of goods so that no one was in need, e) spiritual communion in a unity of faith and f) continuation of Jesus mission of healing and pardoning. (Acts 2, 4 and 5).

The Holy Spirit is the key factor in understanding the spirituality of the Christian community.When Paul in Galatian chapter 5 lists the virtues and vices we find that they are predominantly of a social nature. Paul underlines love as the ‘greatest way’ I Cor 13. That Christian spirituality is of a community nature may coincide in certain points with the norms of behaviour deduced from reason (e.g. respect for others), but their full expression and motivation derive from a different immediate source, that is, from the identity of the community as the body of Christ. Thus Christian spirituality derives from union with God in Christ, the laws and teachings of the Bible are simply a means to respond to love.

This aspect of Biblical theology raises demands for social justice. Since we are a community justice and mercy must be present for all. The prophets are very consious of injustice done to the poor both structurally and to them individually. God cares for the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan. Biblical spirituality leans towards the poor as God’s favorites. “What you do to the least of these little ones you do unto Me”.

The social teaching of the Church in line with the teaching of the prophets insists that neglect of the fatherhood of God goes hand in hand with both public and private moral degeneracy (Amos 2 v4-8 Is 1 21-31 Jer 7 1-15 and Ezechial 22 v1-4. The Church has always maintained that those socio-economic systems that claim absolute authority for themselves and subordinate the transcendent value of human beings, created in God’s image, to groups ideologies can lead only to the collapse of civilisation.

6.       Life in the Spirit demands a loving response.

Biblical spirituality is based on the biblical view that we are partners with God, active partners called to respond. The gift of being chosen by God, the gift of the spirit requires from free beings, an active acceptance, an adaption of self to the Spirit of Christ; “ If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” Gal 5 v25. The presence and the interior dynamism of the Spirit does not dispense Christians from their own decisions and vigorous efforts. Jesus Himself was not exempt from an arduous struggle.

Immediately linked with that founding moment in Biblical experience, the Exodus we come to Sinai, the covenant and the Decalogue. The occupation of the land and the time of Kings find Israel failing due to its failure to respond to God in life, morals, hope and faith. The prophets continually remind Isreal to leave evil ways, to return to the path of the Lord.

For the prophets liturgical worship must be nourished and expressed in justice and in fidelity to the covenant. Prophetic spirituality unites Heaven and Earth, God and man, Faith and Life , the Mystic life and Social Justice. This is summed up in Hosea; “What I demand is love not sacrifice, 6 v 6.

Liturgy, religion, spirituality have no sense and are reduced to magic if they are not expressed and lived and nourished by justice, daily observance and real faithfulness to the demands of the covenant.

Indeed each Prophet had own demand for the incarnation of the word in life. Amos expresses an anxiety for Justice, Hosea points out how infidelity frustrates the impassioned love of God, Isaiah is the witness of infidelity of the people of Zion, Jeremiah suffers for his call to base political future on trust in God not in Egypt, Ezekiel opens the horizen of a Jerusalem perfect and resurrected. The 2nd Isaiah in the famous hymns of the servant of Yahweh opens to us a spirituality of suffering and on co-operating with God’s will for the salvation of others.

In the New Testament we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. But this is a salvation that is accepted and lived. The question is not, ‘are you saved’ but ‘are you spent’. If you love Me keep my commandments. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on rock”, Matt 7 v 24. Actions will speak louder than words at the general judgment. Eight times in Revelation St John tells us that the Christian has to win the victory through collaboration with Christ, Rev 2 v 7,11, 17, 26, 28 and 3 v 5, 12,21. Those who die in the Lord are proclaimed blessed because “their deeds follow them” Rev 14.v 13.

7.                God is active in history, He is part of my life.

The Bible shows clearly that God is acting in history. The first credo of Israel is the confession that God is He who has led us out of slavery in Egypt, Exodus 20 v 2. The most ancient liturgical canticle is that of Mary which was elaborated by Moses, Exodus 15, “Sing to the Lord because He has triumphed wonderfully, He has thrown the horse and the horseman into the sea”. In the Hallel of Psalm 136 the choir repeats again and again; “He alone does great wonders, His love endures for ever”. Israel began to have a theology and a spirituality when it realised that God is at work in history. He resides with the house of David. 2 Sam 7.

The Jewish liturgy was a celebration of the inbreak of God now in our history, that same God who chose our ancestors. The pasch was a ritualised memory of Exodus liberation, Pentecost was the re-experience of the new covenant between God and His people. The feast of tents reminds the people of how God was with them in the desert, kippure is the confession of faith in the God who cancels the sin of Israel. The Sabbath, in Dueteronomy 5, is a celebration of liberty, the liberation of God’s people. God is still doing these things now.

Biblical spirituality insists that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us now. In all that I do, in my ordinary everyday life, God is there- among the pots and pans. The absolute demonstration is the coming of God in Jesus and His living and sharing our existence. Everything about his life was ‘ordinary’.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is amongst you”. It is not only in the temple that we meet God but in my present reality. Jesus’ talk is of every day experience. Look at the birds of Heaven, the lilies in the field, the banquet given by King and the poor home of a lady who has lost her coin. The Kingdom of God is there in the experience of farmers and fishermen and in the healing of the poor and forgiveness of sinners.

Jesus also reveals the presence of God in his miracles. These miracles are parables in action in which is announced the salvation of the poor, of the prisoners, of the blind, of the oppressed. (Luke 4 v 18). A Biblical spirituality is very concerned with the here and now, the ordinary, the everyday, it is there that I meet God. It is a living our of the spirit of Jesus; “I have come to serve and not to be served”

8             Biblical Spirituality and sin

While the bible is the narrative of Gods’s initiatives it is also the story of human wickedness, weakness and failure. Sin and failure, penance and expiation, play an important role in human experience. “If we say we have not sinned we are liars” (I John 1v 9) The Bible shows us a God who does not act as judge and as implacable vindicator, but takes pity on his fallen creatures. He invites them to repent, to do penance, and he forgives their faults. Biblical spirituality is not based on a rigid and inflexible moralism. Its guarantor is a God who is full of mercy, who wishes not the death of the sinner, but that he turn and live. From the prophets to Jesus this is a recurrent theme.

Of course, it is seen most clearly in Jesus whose stories show the joy in heaven on the finding of the lost sheep or the lost son and who died for sinners. His name is Saviour and he is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Matthew underlines the fact tht Jesus mission consisted in the task of saving his people from their sins (1 v 21), calling sinners(9 v 13) and obtaining pardon for sins (26v28).

A biblical spirituality shows us the omnipresence of sin in the human condition, it shows the destructiveness of sin for the individual and particularly for his society and community but it invites the sinner to turn to God and it is only in God that sin can be overcome.

Sin is too much for our personal spiritual strength, it is only God who can save us. Sin is not simply ignorance, it is a cosmic power, it is real, it is an objective reality which human effort alone can not overcome.

9.     The goodness and importance human reason and wisdom


God saw what He had made and He found it very good. All creation comes from the hands of a good God. We are made in the image of God and it is this which gives it its full dignity.

It is true that we do not find in the Bible a Declaration of human rights. This is because the duties expressed in such a declaration are presented not as passive rights but as active duties. What is primary is not so much the right of a person to a certain treatment but rather the duty of every individual to treat others in a way that respects the human dignity given them by God, and the infinite value to which every human person is entitled in God’s eyes.

The goodness of human wisdom and traditions is seen in that the bible so often takes laws, stories and culture from neighbouring people and recounts them to reveal the Mind of God. Human wisdom is taken seriously in Wisdom, in Proverbs. But the great affirmation in the Bible of the human reality is the Incarnation of Jesus. He took up our flesh, He became one of us. How can we not take our poor human reality seriously?

A Biblical spirituality today will listen with great attention but with discernment the wisdom of science and human knowledge and achievement. Modern society with its sensitivites, desires, proposals, movements and preassure groups in involved in the search for solutions for the great problems of today for which the Bible may not have specific answers. Christians live together with their contemporaries in this situation and join others in their responsibility for finding adequate solutions.

“The Bible has no immediate and ready answers to those problems, but its message on God the Creator of all, on human responsibility for creation, on the dignity of every human person, on solicitude for the poor, etc prepares Christians for an active and fruitful participation in the common search for an adequate solution to these current problems.

Inspired by the Bible the Church finds herself in continual dialogue with the complexities of modern culture and participates in the search for just norms to handle this shared situation. The following are some typical areas.

a)     A growing sensitivity concerning human rights led first to the abolition of slavery, then to a lively awareness of the equality of all human races and the urge to eliminate any form of discrimination.

b)    Preoccupation with the development of weapons of mass destruction raises the need to reformulate questions on the morality of warfare.

c)     Concern for the equal dignity of the sexes requires a thorough re-examination of the conditions in which their respective roles are played out because of the divergent concepts in different cultures, even today.

d)    Human scientific discoveries can lead to the destruction of creation and to massive inequalities among different peoples. We have a great responsibility to preserve creation and to have equitable distribution among all people”. The Bible and Morality. No 110. Pontifical Biblical Commission, 2008.

10   Spirituality of Hope and Joy.


From the Bible there arises a confidence that God has all of time and human history under a plan and that He the Good, the Merciful, the Father, is always with us. There was always a conviction, even when the prophets used the most absolute and damning language that God would renew and restore because above all God was faithful. . We think of Job and his journey through the suffering world of evil in order to come to the glorious light of God. “I have known you by hearsay but now my eyes have seen you”. Job 42 v 5.

Eventually this led to the hope of a messiah, someone sent by God, greater than any king of the past, who would bring about the full flowering of Israel. This figure we see realised in Jesus, the Christ who lived amongst us and now risen from the dead is within His Church and in all believing hearts. Paul in 1Corinthians 15 v 3-5 confesses that the final event of human history has taken place in the resurrection of Christ in time. From this hope and faith arises the great gift of the Holy Spirit –Christian joy and peace. This joy is evidenced in the great joy of the saints and those who have made the gospel the heart of their lives.

“Who then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger of death?   …No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us…there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to seperate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord”.   Romans ch 8..

Pretoria Seminary

The most difficult time was when there was a hanging at Max prison nearby. It was the years between 1984 and 1991 in Pretoria and some of those executed were condemned for opposing the apartheid state with force. They were heroes to the black seminarians. They held a prayer vigil in the Seminary on the night before such an execution. The minority of white students felt such times as tense and confusing. They had had to do military service in terms of national conscription. I was Rector of the National Seminary in those years.


St John Vianney Seminary was situated in the centre of Pretoria, the capital of the white ruling minority. The group areas act which separated people according to race was still very much in operation. Black Seminarians had to have a permit to stay here and our neighbors continually complained to the Municipality. Football on a Sunday they saw as a major sin.


These were the years after the Soweto uprising of youth and the slogan was Liberation before Education. This put further pressure on African students as their peers outside saw them as opting out of the struggle. As a body the seminarians were good but they were young and easily disturbed.


Other African countries were more physically demanding than modern South Africa but in the apartheid years the country was a social hell. Apartheid was built on centuries of vicious segregation. Unfortunately, it had been very successful in dividing people on racist grounds. Students from all racial groups met for he first time in the Seminary and they knew nothing about each other. The staff were Irish Franciscans.


Formation in this context was very demanding. Many students came from broken families. The South African economy was built on migrant miners who lived far from their families in huge hostels. They went home just once a year and could not bring their wives and children to live with them. Family life was shattered, many young men no contact with fathers or elders. In the church catechetics was poor as they were few Catholic schools. Many of our students attended Mass once a month in their local station.


It was an advantage being Irish in responding to the valid demands of the African students to be involved in their struggle for liberation.


I had been a student at University College in Galway in 1966 when Ireland commemorated the Irish uprising of 1916. Excellent programs on RTE where relatives and friends of the executed leaders were interviewed had touched me deeply. These programs had brought one very close to the struggle of Irish people. Thus one deeply empathized with African seminarians in their desire to shake off oppression.


We allowed the students not only to celebrate the traditional ceremony feasts, St Patrick, St John Vianney, etc but also to celebrate the martyrs of Africa and to celebrate the heroes of the African’s struggle. I used to smile at the songs sung by the Seminarians in Zulu and Sotho, they were sometimes blood-thirsty, but the White students did not understand the words.


In this situation of national chaos is was of prime importance to insist on spiritual direction. We were lucky in those years to have with us Fr Con Murphy SMA and Fr Kevin Egan ofm as spiritual directors. They were able to appreciate the human condition of seminarians and to help them place that with a discerning of voice of God.


As Rector I continually enquired of their motivation in becoming priests. One tried to take them down to their own religious experience of life to touch their personal encounter with God. As Tabor was undoubtedly an indelible moment for the apostles so our students had to base their future on the rock of their own encounter with the Beauty of the Lord.


We went with students to high profile funerals and had the leaders of mass movements come to speak with them.


Perhaps, it the most dramatic moment was in 1885 when the students decided go on a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria , the seat of the Government executive. This was the symbol of the white power and it was illegal to go within a mile of the place in a protest march. The students wanted to march on the Union Buildings to present a letter of demand to release Mandela and to have democratic elections.


It was difficult to allow them to go. The previous week during university students protest s in Johannesburg the police had opened fire when students disrupted traffic in the city. However, having agreed that the students should wear their cassocks, and not disrupt traffic or be violent they could go. About 37 of the 90 students set off.


On arrival the Union Building the students found the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs holding a press conference for foreign journalists. The international media had heard the old fables for apartheid before and felt that the apparition of these clergy praying rosaries and singing hymns marching on government offices much more newsworthy.


Some of the students who had relatives overseas had phone calls later in the afternoon from London and Europe. The protest had gone around the world.


Introducing shared prayer in groups further allowed students to meet in Christ and He who brought the tax-collectors and Zealots together as apostles did he rest.


As well I assisted Fr John McGuinness from Belfast who was Chaplain to Maximum prison where people were hanged. As he did not speak some African languages I often went to pray with those about to be hanged.


Through this contact I was able to get students to come and visit some of the political prisoners though not those on death row. This has allowed the students to become great friends of many of the present political leaders in South Africa.


WE balanced this visitation by reflecting with the students on the spiritual experience that came from meeting their friends in jail.


Many of these students have now become excellent priests and even bishops around South Africa. But it was the difficult time, a time in which one saw the hand of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in human souls. It was my great desire that they should know and love Jesus and many have come to do so.


Finally, I think the time in the seminary allowed our students to grow in their humanity. One of the students explained to me what apartheid had done to the African person?


As a child he went with his grandfather to buy a cow from a white farmer. His grandfather was a respectable , elderly African gentleman. The item of clothing which he prized above all else , that was his hat. He would not allow any child to even touch the hat. This lovely hat defined him.


They this white farmer, a young and decent man. His grandfather and the farmer began to haggle about the price of the cow. The young boy saw something amazing. His grandfather had taken off this sacred hat in front of the young man and crushed it behind his back as if it were a paper bag. The student explained that for him this is what apartheid had done to the African soul.


It was a great grace to have been with young African people at that time. They were very generous, they were very good. Their ability to tolerate and learn from overseas people like myself in the heart of their struggle was generosity itself.


Bishop William Slattery ofm