e-mail us
South African Mass of reconciliation raises new questions for the church

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Durban, South Africa

Organizers of a special Jubilee 2000 Mass in the city have learned the hard way that asking pardon can be a controversial and highly political activity.

One of the themes of the Mass, held in a sports stadium Jan. 9, was the need to ask pardon for hurt caused by the church, a move that was praised by many outside the Catholic church. However, the theme has sparked considerable controversy among Catholics, including women, gay and lesbian groups and African priests. Those objecting claim that the church has not properly acknowledged the hurt it continues to cause them, and that there is no indication that anything will be done to prevent this hurt from continuing in the future.

Archbishop Wilfrid Napier and his team of organizers enthusiastically adopted a papal call for the church to request forgiveness for the pain it had caused down the ages and incorporated it into the first archdiocesan event of the new millennium. About 10,000 Catholics attended the Mass.

Asking pardon appeared to tie in well with the aftermath of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had investigated the causes of gross human rights abuses during the apartheid era. Testifying before the commission’s hearings, representatives of different Christian denominations and of different faiths confessed that they had not taken a strong enough stand against apartheid. The commission’s subsequent report reflected this criticism.

A Mass at which the church sought pardon for these and other failings appeared an ideal follow-up to the commission. Napier called the event a contribution by the Catholic church to “reconstructing the moral fiber of the nation.”

Many outside the church shared this assessment. A number of political leaders as well as leaders of other denominations and other faiths praised the step taken by the church in asking pardon, saying it served as a model for the rest of the faith community.

Inside the church, however, the Mass has proved controversial, even though many of those who attended said they had enjoyed the almost festival-like atmosphere of the service.

Seeking ‘selective’ pardons

While marginalized groups questioned whether they were included among those from whom pardon was sought, more conventional Catholics said they did not owe apologies to anyone — quite the reverse. Since the Catholic church had so often been persecuted, outsiders should be asking pardon of the church, not the other way around, they said.

The organizers were flooded with calls of complaint, and the local media gave widespread coverage to the views of those unhappy with what they charged was the church’s “selective” asking of pardon.

Among the failings for which participants at the Mass asked pardon were:

  • Condoning and even contributing to intolerance and violence against other parts of society, sometimes including fellow Christians;
  • Showing a lack of understanding and even contempt for Jewish people and for failing to stand with them in their “hour of persecution”;
  • Failing to dialogue with other Christian denominations, for not standing with them in promoting “under God the good of humanity,” and for not serving the rights and dignity of the oppressed members of society;
  • The evil and injustice done to many African cultures and societies, often with the assistance of the church, and for the church’s failure to support their rights and its failure to witness to God’s love for them;
  • Failing to support people with HIV/AIDS and their families;
  • Failing to promote the rights and dignity of women in the church and society, for the lack of recognition shown for women’s contribution to the well-being of the human family and the church, and for the failure to open a just place for them in the lay leadership of the church and society;
  • Failing to take an uncompromising stand against apartheid and failing to vigorously defend the human rights of all South Africans.

One of those who criticized the event was Fr. Dabula Mpako, general secretary of the African Priests’ Solidarity Movement, an organization of black Catholic priests that claims racism is still rife within the church in South Africa. Speaking after the Mass, he said that such liturgical confessions were a “good starting point” but served no function if they ended there.

“There has to be a thorough analysis of how racism continues to be embedded in the church. And there must be action to root it out,” he said. “We have heard this before: In 1991, the Catholic bishops issued an elaborate statement of confession about apartheid and racism, but nothing has happened. The structures that resulted from the past still continue — the internalized racism and sexism are still there.”

His organization wants the Catholic church to call its own “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to deal with the lack of transformation within the church and its hierarchy. Officials of the movement said the fact that a Mass was specially called to ask pardon of various sectors of society indicated that their call for such a commission was valid.

Deciding who can feel hurt

Napier, however, said the Mass and the complaints of the solidarity movement were unrelated. “They are very different issues,” he said.

Catholics who back the ordination of women to the priesthood and diaconate were also unhappy with the Mass. Elizabeth Mkame, a former Africa representative for the Vatican on the liaison committee between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, said it would have been “exciting” if the church had asked pardon for refusing to ordain women, since continuing to refuse ordination was hurtful.

Other women said the carefully limited apology to women continued the previous Vatican line that women’s ordination was impossible and limited itself to their role in “lay leadership.”

“It’s almost as though the church is defining who may feel hurt and what they may feel hurt about,” one woman, a member of a group working for women’s ordination, commented.

But while the liturgy included direct — although arguably inadequate — references to the hurt caused by racism and sexism, there was no clear indication of whether the hurt caused by the church to gays and lesbians was included. Some lesbian Catholics said perhaps they were included in the section that asked pardon from those “alienated through the lack of compassion of the church,” but that it was hard to be sure.

“It seems the church is still far from acknowledging the serious hurt it has done to us over the years,” a group of gay and lesbian Catholics told NCR. “And we certainly don’t see any intention to do anything to stop it in the future.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000