THE HISTORY OF CATHOLIC CHURCH IN SOUTH AFRICA
The history of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa begins with the arrival of Bartholomew Diaz at Walvis Bay on 8th December 1487. He appropriately called it the gulf of Santa Maria de Conceicao. The first Mass, celebrated perhaps in late December 1487 or early January 1488, was celebrated on the island of the Holy Cross (named as such by Diaz), just off Port Elizabeth. 10 years later Vasco da Gama, on his way to India, would, on Christmas day, sight the land to which he gave the name “Tierra de Natal”. These explorers also brought missionaries with them, but the priests did not concentrate on evangelizing South Africa. Indeed, there is no evidence of any missionary work during these early days.
Between 1652 and 1795, under the Dutch East India Company rule, Catholicism was forbidden in South Africa. Only occasional visits of priests traveling on Portuguese or French boats were allowed. The same attitude prevailed between 1795 and 1802 under the British rule. In 1804, the Dutch government opted for religious toleration, but two years later, the British rule forbid again the presence of the priests and lost no time in expelling them.
In 1818, Pope Pius VII appointed the Benedictine Dom Edward Bede Slater as the first Vicar Apostolic of the Cape. But he never set foot on South African soil as the Government in London forbade him to go there, so he went to Mauritius where he was the first Vicar Apostolic there also. Likewise his successor, Dom William Placid Morris resided too in Mauritius, never putting foot on South African soil. But with the appointment of Bishop Raymond Griffith, Dominican, as third Vicar Apostolic of the Cape and first bishop of South Africa in 1837, the history of the Catholic Church as a visible institution begins.
In 1847, the Eastern Cape Vicariate was created. Father Aidan Devereux became its first Vicar Apostolic. It is he who invited the first religious sisters to South Africa. Then, in 1852, the first missionary of the newly-founded congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, arrived. After many obstacles in founding missions, in 1861, Bishop Jean-Francois Allard travelled to Lesotho where he obtained a mission from the King Moshoeshoe, the founder of the Basotho nation. This mission was to become one of the strongest Catholic communities in Africa.
But at least, very little had been done for the indigenous people in South Africa. The first significant result came with the Trappists of Mariannhill in the 1880’s, under the leadership of Abbot Francis Pfanner. They developed innovative missionary methods, combining farming, schooling and preaching. These efforts eventually led to conversions, contributing to the growth of Catholicism in Natal.
In 1925, the first South African born bishop, David O’Leary, was consecrated in Johannesburg. But the South African Church still relied heavily on expatriate clergy. It was only in 1948 that a national seminary (for whites) was founded. In 1951, when Pope Pius XII established the hierarchy in southern Africa, not more than five out of twenty one bishops were born locally. The first four African priests had been ordained at the turn of the century, but it was only in the 1920’s in the diocese of Mariannhill, that the first concerted efforts were made to train a black clergy. This led to the establishment of a national seminary for blacks in 1947.
In spite of promoting indigenous clergy in the Church, the fact remains that the Catholic Church in Southern Africa was very slow to evangelize the indigenous peoples. The first clergy were sent out to minister mainly to the settler population, and so they remained in the settler towns and villages along the coast. It was only in the middle of the Nineteenth Century that Catholic missionaries from France, Belgium, Germany and Ireland began to move into the Interior and began evangelizing work. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a French congregation but with a strong Irish contingent, began to preach to the Zulu and Sotho peoples, and others soon followed them.
Gradually churches, schools and hospitals were built, so that by the middle of the twentieth century, there was a network of Catholic hospitals and clinics right across the country. By 1950, there were 41 Catholic hospitals and 29 clinics in South Africa, and Catholic nurses and health professionals, mainly religious, cared for a large part of the population. In some cases, Catholic hospitals were the first health care institutions to be built, as in the case of the Johannesburg hospital, which was founded by the Holy Family sisters a few years after gold was discovered in 1886.
The Years of Apartheid 1948-1994
In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party won the Whites-only general election, and began to implement a policy of apartheid or separation of the races. Any institutions which catered for Black people and which were in private hands immediately came under suspicion. By the early 1970s there was immense pressure on Catholic and other Church schools, and many of them succumbed and handed over to the government. There was similar pressure on health institutions. Many Catholic hospitals were situated in the rural areas where they served mainly Black people, and some of these areas were earmarked to become "homelands" or areas for the sole occupation of Black people of certain ethnic backgrounds. In 1973 the government made the decision to confiscate all mission hospitals, and by 1976 this was complete. Only one hospital, St. Mary's in Mariannhill outside Durban, survives to this day.
Catholic hospitals in the cities too, came under pressure, but of a different kind. Many of them served mainly the White community, but as the financial climate became more difficult, and hospitals and medicine more and more expensive to run, they too began to feel pressure. One by one they closed, until by the 1980s there were only a handful of Catholic hospitals left in the cities as well. It was a crisis point for Catholic health care in South Africa.
Despite its late coming on the missionary scene, and the evil system of apartheid, the South African Catholic Church has shown remarkable signs of growth throughout the 20th century. Long seen as a foreign church, it has now gained influence in all sectors of society. At least 8% of the South African population is Catholic, putting it up to the second biggest church in the country after the Dutch Reformed Church. About 80% of its members are black.
Like most Christian Churches, the Catholic Church was relatively slow in opposing apartheid. It labored at the cost of the heritage of segregation that it had shared with the rest of the Church in most pre-liberation colonial situations.
During the first decades of Nationalist rule, the hierarchy often adopted a conciliatory stance towards the government in the hope of maintaining the Church’s network of schools, hospitals and welfare institutions. When in 1953 the government struck at church schools for African children with its Bantu education Act, the Catholic Church fought desperately to retain the educational system seen as its major aid to evangelization. The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, created in 1947, made its first pronouncement against racism in 1952 and in 1957 condemned apartheid as “intrinsically evil”. Until the late 1970’s however, there were few acts of defiance against the state. Within the Church itself, a de facto discrimination was practiced at many levels.
In 1970’s, under the influence of the Vatican Council and spurred by protests from black clergy, catholic opposition to apartheid started to intensify. In 1972 a move began to desegregate the seminary. In 1976 the decision was taken with regard to both seminaries and schools. The Soweto uprising of 1976 led to a still greater awareness among Catholics for more active Catholic participation in various manifestations of Christian protest, activated mainly by the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute. Since February 1990, priority is given to conflict resolution, education to democracy and development.
South Africa is a home to many of the African Churches especially Zion Church which has its origin in Moria, Limpopo Provinces. They have great influence both in the government and civil society. Presently, the Catholic Church has got over 30 dioceses in South Africa but sadly, today, the Church is not able to influence much the government in making good policies on health and education. However, the Church personnel are doing their best in catering to the needs of the people of South Africa especially those affected by HIV/AIDS diseases. In short, the Catholic Church in South Africa has gone through many ups and downs over the years and she faced many challenges during the apartheid period.
Since 1994 (post apartheid), South Africa is known as “New South Africa”. The Church is faced with new situations and challenges in this fast changing Society. I think, more creative ways of evangelization and pastoral work is needed to keep the Church alive and relevant to the people of “New South Africa.”
This article is compiled by
Fr. Sunny Vattapparayil SVD
Mater Dei Pastoral Centre,
Diocese of Polokwane