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