IMBISA Determined to be Strong Voice in Southern African region
The Bishops of Southern Africa met for their 10th Plenary Assembly in Gaberone/Botswana, 11 – 15 November 2013. Gaberone, a young and booming city, was a good choice: the Bishops are determined to make a success of IMBISA. The Tswana choir at the opening Mass expressed the enthusiasm and confidence of this young church. Cardinal Wilfred Napier, as main celebrant, stressed the communion and unity between the Bishops and their dioceses right across the sub-continent (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Sao Tome e Principe, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe). Catholic universality always wants to cross national boundaries.
Pope Francis has indicated that conferences of his brother bishops might take over tasks so far reserved to Rome. A special synod will deal with urgent family problems. This is a challenge to IMBISA and will inject it with new life after a time of discouragement when staff of the secretariat had to be reduced due to lack of finance.
Though one third of the members could not attend, the mood was upbeat. Despite cultural differences, e.g. between English- and Portuguese speaking countries, the Bishops were surprised that the lights and shadows in married and family life are very similar all over the region. The remedies to heal the family applied in one area are received with gratitude in another. For instance, it was agreed that all dioceses and national secretariats should have family desks staffed by teams of lay people, supported by priests.
Priests, sometimes shy to take the initiative in family matters, will be encouraged to team up with parents in boosting family life and offering an alternative to negative trends. Individual priests will even be sent for special studies.
Christian marriage is an act of faith, not a matter of convenience, or of men and women using each other for their selfish gratification. The commitment of one man and one woman to each other for life and their mutual self-giving forges a deeper and more fulfilling relationship than cohabitation or “trial marriages”. The woman is respected and loved for her own sake. The man is challenged to play an active role and accept responsibility.
The sacramental and spiritual side of the marital union can only be understood if Christ and his self-giving love is accepted. This is an amazing message. How do we make it known, plant it in young people’s hearts? It needs families that live that love and pray together.
The Bishops agreed also to appeal to parishes to have young couples’ associations, ‘Couples for Christ’ , Engaged and Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille groups (for couples with problems) and similar movements. Traditional sodalities with either women only or men only serve good purposes, but do not usually assist members in dealing with the more intimate and complex problems of their marriages and family life.
The facilitators, Prof. Ranga Zinyemba and Dr Alice Zinyemba, painted a realistic picture of today’s families: the complete nuclear family is not the norm. There are increasing numbers of single-parent families, child-headed families, often due to HIV/AIDS, families headed by grandparents, single women bringing up orphans, single women who were never married raising their children, or as professional, financially secure women do not even want to be married, families looked after by widows or divorcees. Alice Zinyemba, a grandmother, spoke about her own Zimbabwean family, how she is left to look after grandchildren whose parents have gone to seek work in South Africa.
The Bishops do not wish to ostracize such somehow damaged families, but want them to find a place in the Christian community. The year 2014 will be the UN Year of the Family and the Church will speak strongly on behalf of families whose role as fundamental building block of society is disregarded by many.
Finally, the Bishops looked at the way forward for IMBISA. It should be a platform for dialogue among the bishops and for mutual spiritual support. English- and Portuguese speaking countries should complement each other. It should not become a ‘self-serving bureaucracy’.
Recent involvement of IMBISA in the elections in Zimbabwe, through election observation and official contacts with heads of state, should encourage the Bishops of the region to speak with one voice on matters of justice, good governance and the common good in economic development. IMBISA should have a watchdog function when there is trouble beyond our borders. It still has to speak to SADC about the Church’s concerns in the region, e.g. SADC did not keep its own resolutions concerning elections and how they are to be conducted.
It should also have a voice in the universal Church. Is there an ecumenical counterpart? The problem of new religious movements (sects) is common to all, as was emphasized by Angola.
Financial self-support is crucial for the region. Or else the Church in Southern Africa remains dependent on donors and their agendas, though good friends among Catholic agencies were represented (CRS from the US and CAFOD from the UK).
The Bishops took measures to make their secretariat in Harare/Zimbabwe financially viable.
The Mozambiquan Bishops shared their concern about the danger of armed conflict in their country with their brother bishops. IMBISA is united in rejecting a return to war and weapons as a way to settle the renewed conflict between rival factions in Mozambique. IMBISA is determined to be a peacemaker in such situations.
Bishop Frank Nubuasah SVD, of Francistown/Botswana, was reelected as president of IMBISA, and Bishop Lucio Andrice Mandula, of Xai-Xai Mozambique, as vice-president. Archbishop Robert C. Ndlovu of Harare/Zimbabwe, was elected secretary general, succeeding Bishop Angel Floro, of Gokwe/Zimbabwe.
Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
Pastoral Department IMBISA