Vatican City, 25 April 2014 (VIS) – The bishops of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, from South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, were received in audience by Pope Francis this morning, at the end of their “ad limina” visit. Francis handed them his prepared address, in which he recalls the arduous labours of the missionaries and the men and women of these countries in sowing the seed of faith and reaching out to the people in the villages, towns and cities, and especially in the ever-expanding urban townships. He emphasised the “flourishing parishes, thriving often against very great odds: far distances between communities and a dearth of material resources”. He praised the efforts made for the preparation of permanent deacons and the formation of lay catechists to assist the clergy where there are few priests.
“Priests and religious brothers and sisters are of one mind and heart in their service of God’s most vulnerable sons and daughters: widows, single mothers, the divorced, children at risk and especially the several million AIDS orphans, many of whom head households in rural areas. Truly the richness and joy of the Gospel is being lived and shared by Catholics with others around them”. The Pope remarks that, despite the difficulties faced by Catholic minority communities in countries where many religions are present, “the richness and joy of the Gospel is being living and shared by Catholics with others around them”, and he prays that they “will continue to persevere in building up the Lord's Kingdom with their lives that testify to the truth, and with the work of their hands that ease the sufferings of so many”.
He notes the serious pastoral challenges communities face, according to the bishops, such as the declining birth rate which affects the number of vocations, the tendency of some Catholics to drift away from the Church in favour of other groups who seem to promise something better, and abortion, which “compounds the grief of many women who now carry within them deep physical and spiritual wounds after succumbing to the pressure of a secular culture which devalues God's gift of sexuality and the right to life of the unborn”. He adds, “the rate of separation and divorce is high, even in many Christian families, and children frequently do not grow up in a stable home environment. We also observe with great concern, and can only deplore, an increase in violence against women and children. All these realities threaten the sanctity of marriage, the stability of life in the home and consequently the life of society as a whole. In this sea of difficulties, we bishops and priests must give a consistent witness to the moral teaching of the Gospel”.
The Holy Father expresses his appreciation for the unity of the bishops with their people and their solidarity with the vast number of unemployed in their countries. “Most of your people can identify at once with Jesus Who was poor and marginalised, Who had no place to lay His head”. He asks the prelates to offer, alongside the material support they provide, “the greater support of spiritual assistance and sound moral guidance”. He also comments on the reduced number of priests and seminarians, and urges “the authentic promotion of vocations in every territory, a prudent selection of candidates for seminary studies, fatherly encouragement of those men in formation, and attentive accompaniment in the years after ordination”.
Likewise, he encourages the rediscovery of the sacrament of reconciliation, “as a fundamental dimension of the life of grace”, and emphasises that “Christian matrimony is a lifelong covenant of love between one man and one woman; it entails real sacrifices in order to turn away from illusory notions of sexual freedom and in order to foster conjugal fidelity”, and approves the bishops' programmes of preparation for the sacrament of marriage, which are “inspiring young people with new hope for themselves and for their future as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers”.
Finally, he refers to the bishops' concerns regarding the “breakdown of Christian morals, including a growing temptation to collude with dishonesty”, an issue the bishops addressed in their pastoral statement on corruption, in which they note that “corruption is theft from the poor … hurts the most vulnerable … harms the whole community … destroys our trust”. “The Christian community is called be be consistent in its witness to the virtues of honesty and integrity, so that we may stand before the Lord, and our neighbours, with clean hands and a pure heart, as a leaven of the Gospel in the life of society”. He concludes, “With this moral imperative in mind, I know that you will continue to address this and other grave social concerns, such as the plight of refugees and migrants. May these men and women always be welcomed by our Catholic communities, finding in them open hearts and homes as they seek to begin a new life”.