Ngome, a place of prayer, a call to repentance in our times

Prayer and Repentance, Is that what most people experience when they visit this beautiful pilgrimage site in northern KZN?  While it is not right in the middle of the populated hills it isn’t far from the many goings on in rural Zululand. There was mention of the famous annual reed dance by Zulu maidens for the Zulu King to be held in Nongoma soon.  Its aim is to promote womanhood, virginity, moral behaviour and marriage.

We were told that the name Ngome is associated with dance and song but for us it was also a quieter more reflective place.  Although Benedictine missionaries have been in the area for nearly 100 years the local people remain very traditional in their religious practices and the Catholic presence is small.  However, up to 1000 pilgrims, many coming by busloads even just for a night vigil, visit the site every weekend where the last of 10 apparitions of Mary, Our Blessed Mother happened in 1971.

Sr Reinolda May a German Benedictine nun had been trained and worked as a midwife at the Nongoma Hospital and was also a very active  pastoral carer in the community.  Mary appeared to Sr Reinolda on 9 occasion from 1955 for many years. She asked for the image and title of TABERNACLE OF THE MOST HIGH. This was also her constant message, “be a tabernacle, be hosts.” Already in 1958 she asked, “Prepare hosts for me who put themselves completely at my disposal. Only a flaming sea of hosts can drive back the hate of the godless world and restrain the angry hand of the Father. Don’t get tired. I find consolation in revealing myself to you. I shall never abandon you.” The large host on her breast symbolises her role as the bearer and mother of Jesus, God’s son to whom she constantly points. In due course Mary requested to have a shrine built at a confluence of seven streams.

This place of the streams was eventually located and gradually, after some setbacks and challenges from the church about the authenticity of the apparitions and the messages, a shrine was built and opened officially in 1997.  Sr Reinolda herself had died in 1981 and at least one miracle had already taken place in 1956. A cause for her beatification has been opened.

The painting of the image that has become well known was approved by Sr Reinolda and the statue in the grotto, of a beautiful young Western woman with her amazing eyes is venerated by pilgrims visiting from all over the world.

Ngome is one of a number of shrines in the country, and not the only one where apparitions have taken place but it is typical of the history of many apparitions of Mary, and of Jesus at times too.  Their messages are always about prayer and repentance, without which there can be no peace in the world.

The programme on our weekend – the Assumption weekend of 2019 – was the regular one, time for private prayer, adoration, confession, Stations of the Cross, Mass and inspirational talks by the resident priests.  Petitions are placed at the altar.

Core to the Ngome experience is water. One of the highlights for pilgrims is the renewal of baptismal promises which includes pouring of water over them.  Water from the spring is then collected by the pilgrims and many litres are taken home. There is no formal claim that Ngome spring water has healing properties but it is blessed by the priest at the closing Mass.  We didn’t drink some of our water there and then and interestingly for me on Sunday morning I observed local village people carrying their washing down to the stream too. Maybe some do see it as wearing a blessed shirt.

On coming home I opened an email from the Jesuit Institute that began, “How can we survive these times?”  Our country and families are living in stressful times and we search for ways to survive not just economically but living healthy family lives. The thousands of maidens taking part in the reed dance are one response. Will there be Catholics among them?

For me personally this was a relatively quiet time, for reflection and prayer, of reverence and adoration. There was singing, but in my view, and in line with its name, Ngome didn’t offer much of the joyful dancing in the traditional African style. Although excellent, the fact of an all-priest team leading the programme was somewhat of a disappointment. I would have loved to see lay family people making some contributions from their lived spirituality.

Ngome is a place where no doubt special moments of healing and encounter were experienced. A place for memories, special faith moments remembered, new memories made. Such an experience is an aspect of church life that is important, taking us out of the regular routine. Don’t we often say that something more is needed than Sunday Mass?  But the something more is not just another experience – to which some people may even become addicted.  What is needed is a deeper realisation that Jesus himself and Mary too are real and alive and involved in our spiritual journeys, no matter how we spend a few days in such a place, or how we come to appreciate our Sunday Mass or more frequent participation in the sacraments as was advocated.

“How can we survive these times?”  Surely not alone.        TR  FAMILY WEEKLY 21 AUGUST 2019

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