This 200 year thing has got me thinking numbers. The Church in South Africa is just 200 years old, which is still very young by world standards. The 19th century missionary thrust was powerful but in some parts of Africa, notably Ethiopia, the faith has been sustained since the early days of Christianity in unique ways.
Christianity more broadly in SA is itself not so young. In fact the first to set foot and plant a cross were Catholic Portuguese seafarers but they never settled. Protestantism arrived with the Dutch, the French and the English. The Catholic church was more or less officially banned until 1818. The recently documented history of the early days is mainly of structures, bishops, priests, religious, schools and hospitals in the process of spreading the gospel. Interesting personalities, men and women, feature and they certainly experienced a great deal of hardship and discouragement but persisted with determination.
At the Commemoration Mass on 28 January in Pretoria during the bishops’ plenary meeting I spoke to a number of older sisters who had spent years as teachers and nurses. Have they retired? Hardly. They are still at work in their communities in a variety of projects, although much less in schools. Bishop Sipuka observed in his homily that older women and men were in the majority in the congregation at the Mass, as they are in many parishes. Although there are younger bishops some are also nearing retirement age. The small priest retirement home attached to my Johannesburg parish will fill up no doubt but I know of quite a few 80 year olds who don’t see themselves moving in there just yet.
Amongst lay men and women working in the church with whom I engaged recently it struck me how many had celebrated their half century of marriage and even three score plus 10, 20 or more in years. Dullah and Dawn celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and notched up half of that in family ministry.
But these oldies are dying off too. Funerals one attends are sadly at times for younger people but generally for older family and friends. Men and women who have worked tirelessly for many years in the church in lay ministries are moving on. Many do work as individuals, others as couples. Is their family apostolate valued sufficiently? Couples married for 50 or more years are still role models and mentors, of service to others. Widowed people too can make a unique contribution from their life experience.
So, all in all, can we speak of a plethora of oldies? The term plethora can be defined as a surplus, or excess but also as an abundance or profusion. The abundant contribution of the oldies in all areas of church life, of the wisdom of the oldies must be valued and celebrated but our concern is where is the younger, fresher blood that will carry the baton forward coming from? Are youth programmes producing the same level of commitment to serve. If so where and how? If not why not?
This young church of ours is changing from a more Eurocentric to a more African worldview which is good and necessary. That is what the family life theme of UBUNTU is intended to reflect about and live. Is it African, is it Catholic and what can or should it be? There is concern too about the loss of culture amongst younger people. This plethora of oldies are tired but is it not our sense of ubuntu and care for others that keeps our noses to the grindstone and our hands on the wheel. At the same time we have to accept that for the Church to be energised for the next 100 years or more the labourers in the vineyard will be a different breed, driving their driverless cars but hopefully still ready to put their shoulders to the wheel. TR FAMILY WEEKLY 31 January 2018.