Church in South Africa growing but still needs support

By Chicago Catholic
Sunday, July 10, 2016

On a recent visit to Chicago South African Bishop Victor Phalana stopped by the offices of the Catholic New World and spoke with editor Joyce Duriga about the church there and its future.

Bishop Phalana, who is shepherd of the Diocese of Klerksdorp, located southwest of Johannesburg, visited Chicago after attending a celebration in Boston honoring the Ugandan martyrs. This was his first visit to Chicago.

Catholic New World: In your writings you have said you want South Africa to become stronger and to come into its own. What are some of the big issues that are facing people in South Africa today?

Bishop Victor Phalana: We are a young democracy. We only got our independence in 1994 with the help of Nelson Mandela and all the others, and it has been really a good experience for us to see how we are evolving. We are still growing and understanding the principles of democracy, appreciating them and celebrating them.

From the side of the Catholic Church, we are a small minority. The Catholic Church is less than 5 percent of the total population of South Africa, which is 50 million. The challenges that we face include the fact that it is physically a poor church, struggling to stand on its own feet to support itself.

We are still a mission country, if I can say that. Most of our dioceses depend on subsidies from the Vatican to work, to even operate our small chanceries. We are trying to say to the people, “We cannot depend on outside help forever. We have to now stand on our own and be able to support ourselves. Let us try to get help when we need it, but let us also support ourselves.”

I think that message is coming though. People have become more responsive, more generous. They are starting now to have that sense of ownership, that this is their church.

Catechesis and lay formation in general is very poor simply because we don’t have resources to provide materials or to train people. There are very few Catholic schools in the country. It depends on the passion of the local pastor or even a local bishop. If you’ve got a passionate bishop in that particular diocese then there will be formation taking place but if not then you’ll find that you’ve got catechists who are volunteers but who are not trained.

You struggle even to have resources, books for children or for adults who are coming to the faith. That is what I’m experiencing myself and those are the kinds of things that are challenges. I’m trying to see how I can introduce some form of formation of catechists who are good people.

CNW: Can you tell us about Blessed Benedict Daswa, South Africa’s native son?

Bishop Phalana: His name is Tshimangadzo Benedict Daswa and he was beatified in 2015. He was a teacher, husband and father. He converted to Catholicism as a young adult and he took his conversion seriously to the extent that after his conversion and his baptism, he brought his wife and his children to be baptized.

Because priests were not able to reach out to all the communities for Sunday services, he volunteered to lead services in his own community. As a school principal, he was not just a teacher but he was also a model, a hard worker, a disciplined man who managed to instill in the teachers that culture of work, of self-respect and self-discipline. The teachers respected him and children respected him.

He was murdered because he did not agree with some of the practices in the community especially belief in witchcraft. In one particular instance he had a soccer team and they were losing games. Members of the community were insisting that they must go and consult a diviner who would give them supernatural powers to be able to start winning games.

He said, “No, I’m not going to be a part of that.” So most of the players left him. He started a new club, and that new team committed to Christian principles and rejected any form of superstition. Another time he defended a lady who had been identified by the community as a witch, and they were actually either going to kill her or to throw her out of the village. He defended her.

He created enemies in those who believed in traditional healing and divination. That, we believe led to his death by stoning. They stoned him to death and poured boiling water over him just to make sure that he was really dead.

At his funeral the bishop and the priest in the area wore red vestments and they said, “We are burying a martyr.” That stayed with people. We are so happy that in a very short time the Holy Father accepted that he could be beatified.

CNW: What would it mean to the South African people, the Catholics, to have their own saint?

Bishop Phalana: I think first it means we are maturing. We are growing as a church. These are the signs of spiritual maturity and development among our people. The fact that it was a lay person means so much because in our neighboring country in Lesotho they have a blessed but he was a missionary, a French-Canadian.

We went over there to celebrate with them and to thank God for this great hero, but now South Africa is blessed with its own local saint, son of the soil. I think there is a sense of pride, there is a lot of rejoicing.

I saw during the beatification Mass that there were so many non-Catholics there who also got the message about Benedict Daswa and wanted to be there to celebrate with us.

CNW: There was a lot of coverage at least in the Western press, the Catholic press, about the recent synod on the family and the African bishops having stronger voices than they did in the past. There’s also been a lot written and talked about how the future of the church is in Africa.

Bishop Phalana: It is true that the future of the Church lies in Africa and in the developing world such as in Asia and Latin America. People are becoming more and more convinced of their faith. We see growth on all sides. There is a boom in vocations to priesthood or religious life.

We are becoming a church that is more and more self-reliant.

We are starting now to write our own theology. We feel that we’ve had a theology that was imported, if I can call it that, but we really never thought and reflected and produced our own theology. A lot of African theologians and philosophers are beginning to write their own books from the African context.

We are also growing in numbers. There are many baptisms and confirmations, for example. It is just amazing how fast the church is growing. We can say that about the rest of Africa but we can’t say the same about South Africa.

The South African church is growing slowly and I don’t know if it is because of secularism and materialism. What happens sometimes after independence is that people start enjoying the fruit of freedom. For some people they don’t see a need for God and they start embracing idols like sports, music and social media. These are actually taking people away from their faith in a way.

But we also have young people, for example, who are still committed to come to church and who like to participate in church.

CNW: Is there anything you want Catholics in Chicago to know about the church in South Africa that might not be addressed very often?

Bishop Phalana: Yes, one of the things I’m concerned about is the way the international world is treating us in South Africa now. Many are pulling away from South Africa through investments or foreign aid or assistance and saying that you are a rich country.

People are not aware of the discrepancies that are still there, the total imbalance; the rich are very rich, the poor are very poor. I want people to understand that the reality of poverty is so huge and government alone will not be able to handle it. We still need assistance from our brothers and sisters out there.

The church of South Africa is growing and developing but we still need assistance from places like the Archdiocese of Chicago, and we are happy with what they are doing already where the archdiocese is supporting some of our seminarians from South Africa studying at Mundelein.

But one of my reasons for coming here is also to explore other forms of partnerships that we might have where both our diocese and Archdiocese of Chicago can benefit from a relationship that we can build together because we do need help still. We’re on our way to total self-reliance, but we still need assistance.

For more on the Diocese of Klerksdorp, visit


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  • mission
  • evangelization
  • victor phalana
  • south africa

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