What the struggle against apartheid taught Cardinal Napier

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban speaks at a Vatican press conference, Oct. 20, 2015. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban speaks at a Vatican press conference, Oct. 20, 2015. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

.- The bishops of the Church must be united under the Holy Father and not divided into factions, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban maintained Thursday at a lecture in which he shared lessons gleaned from South Africa's effort to end apartheid.

Bishops “should never be seen as pitted against each other in a contest or control over the Church, but rather they’re a college,” Cardinal Napier said Feb. 18 in Washington, D.C., where he was delivering the annual Cardinal Dearden lecture at the Catholic University of America.

The lecture is meant to promote the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and Cardinal Napier focused on the collegiality among bishops taught in Lumen gentium, the council's 1964 dogmatic constitution on the Church.

Cardinal Napier discovered the power of collegiality when he joined South Africa's bishops’ conference and they united the Church in opposition to the racial segregation of apartheid, then a national policy.

At their first plenary session in 1979, “I got the experience of what it means to be a bishop,” he said. South Africa's bishops were already “committed to engage in what Pope Francis would now call pastors earnestly listening to each other, but also listening to the laity.”

In the Church’s struggle against apartheid, he said the central question was, “How does the Church become involved in transforming society?”

The bishops went to work. They opened Catholic schools to students of all races – which contrasted with the government’s policy of segregation at the time.

In 1977 South Africa's bishops issued a declaration of commitment on social justice and race relations within the Church, acknowledging that “the Catholic Church in South Africa is lagging behind in witness to the Gospel in matters of social justice,” and committing the Church to practicing de-segregation and social justice.

Their challenge, as the bishops saw it, was transforming the minds of Catholics who accepted the prevailing segregation into believing that “each and every person … has equal dignity and worth.” This was done through promoting a vision of the Church that is “community serving humanity,” Cardinal Napier emphasized.

The bishops and the faithful thus worked together to overcome widespread discrimination in South Africa through “becoming a real community of brothers and sisters” in Christ.

These same principles of collegiality must be at work today in “reforming the Church, beginning with marriage and the family,” he insisted. “These are the foundation stones upon which the Church and society are built.”

Cardinal Napier referred specifically to the bishops present at the recent Synod on the Family, but also spoke more broadly of the college of bishops in his talk. The bishops must be “walking together,” he said, “in a joint effort to make the Church a change-maker in modern society.”

“I think it’s more about ourselves being one, from the bishops down,” he said of the Church, citing St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on commitment to ecumenism, Ut unum sint.

If the bishops splinter into factions, he added, then the faithful “will be split along the same lines.”

Cardinal Napier noted that Pope Francis has emphasized collegiality in his work to “reform and renew the Church.”

The Pope decided from the beginning of his pontificate “that the only way to get this [reform] happening would be to involve the college of bishops, of cardinals, right from the beginning,” he said.

“Whatever influence we have on our society, we have to do it through that vision of being a community serving humanity,” Cardinal Napier concluded.


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