Colleagues, guests, brothers and sisters, good evening.
Instead of giving a farewell speech, I have decided to pay special attention to seminarians. My topic therefore is: Future Priests: Prospects and challenges.
Joyce Rupp, in her book titled “Praying our Goodbyes” rightfully contends that goodbyes are part and parcel of the human predicament. She asks a poignant question in the introduction to the book: Who of us has not said farewell to someone and felt a great heartache and a deep sadness, wanting to stop the process and wondering when the ache would ever leave? She then goes on to give the original meaning of the word Goodbye. She states that, “the word goodbye – originally meant “God-be-with-ye”. There is a recognition here that God was a significant part of the going. There is a recognition on both sides that time for parting has arrived and no one can stop the process. Therefore, goodbye is the proclamation in the belief that when we part, God is with us.
Goodbye to the traveller means that, the other people cannot keep the traveller from his journey, they know that his leaving is essential for his growth. So go, go with God.
As I bid farewell to all of you, I feel honoured and sad at the same time. Honoured because I have the opportunity to deliver this valedictory speech on behalf of the other Fathers, sad because it is me who has to do this tough job.
As seminary formators, we have been privileged to participate in the process of forming future priests for the Church in Southern Africa. This privilege gave us a unique and a special opportunity to journey with you seminarians and to get to know the future leadership of the Church on this part of the globe. Furthermore, this has given us a feel of where the Church in Southern African is at. The experiences that you shared with us gave us the glimpses into the life of your particular Churches. In that sense, dear students, we have learnt a lot from you and in your own way have inspired us in our vocations. We are also deeply thankful to all the seminary staff: support staff, laundry, kitchen, administration, library, cleaning staff, maintenance staff for making our stay here pleasurable and bearable.
A sincere word of gratitude goes to all the formators and lecturers, for their fraternal and generous spirit. In them we saw great dedication, passion and love for the Church. These men have left their dioceses and the joys of being parish priests, simply because they want to contribute to the formation of future priests. I earnestly plead with all of you to appreciate these men, their hard work and zeal for staying in this house.
They may not be perfect, like all of us. But there is one thing that we know about them, that they try their utmost best to do their work according to the mind of the Church. The onus is upon each and every student to open his mind and heart to formation.
Allow me to thank you dear brothers for the light moments we shared together over the past years. Thank you also for challenging us to grow and to think broader than our own areas of specialisation. I can let the cat out of the bag this evening and tell everyone that some of our meal times were spent over robust academic discussions and arguments. Those engagements were truly formative and informative. As I go back to parish work like the other two Fathers, I will sincerely miss those precious moments. One issue which remains unresolved though is the question of the being of the text.
One thing I assure you dear formators is that on my part I will continue reading and writing more books. It is my earnest belief that the time has come for us philosophers and theologians to tell the Good News of Christ from our own experience as Africans. The time has come for African philosophers and theologians to take Mbiti’s concern seriously about the lack of African concepts of Christ. In 1968, John Mbiti lamented that “the African Church was without a theology, without theologians, and without theological concern” (1972:51). The other African countries, like Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, DRC, etc., have responded positively to this challenge. What about us in Southern Africa?
As theologians and future theologians, Mugambi challenges all of us when he writes that,
I am wrestling with a contradiction: The gospel proclaims the good news in specific cultural and historical terms. Yet missionary Christianity has reached Africa as terribly bad news, in which people have been taught in Church to despise their culture, their ancestry, their history and their knowledge. How can Jesus the Son of God, who created Africans in his own image, condone such dehumanization? Either this negative teaching is theologically erroneous, or it is imperialist theology rather than theology” (1995:77).
I therefore argue this evening that the time has come for the Church in Southern Africa to appropriate Jesus’ question to Simon Peter: “who do you say I am?
I sometimes get worried when I hear a seminarian say that he is only striving to get a percentage which is known as an ordination mark, 50%. When I hear such, I begin to wonder whether we shall be able to address John Mbiti’s concern and Mugambi chastising challenge. One thing which caused me pain over the three years I spent here was seeing some students failing to utilise the opportunity they have. You do not need to worry about tuition fees, medical care, laundry, meals, etc. Your counterparts in the secular universities have to contend with such issues. In my mother tongue we say: amathanga ahlanzela abangenamabhodwe.
I dare to challenge you dear students to begin now to take seriously what Ugandan Sister Mary Savio says:
But the problem was that when we got the gospel, it had changed so much that it had a different culture. We were absorbing it through many cultures that had touched it. But now it is for us Africans to think, which is the real Christ? And which is the other culture? Where do I fit in? Should we be going for everything that came with this gospel? How can we make it our own? Or how can we really belong to Christ? And not to the Canadians! And not to the French! And not to the British! That is not easy – it needs a lot of discernment and faith (in Stinton 2004:44).
The bitter truth that some of your professors complain about is that, the seemingly struggling students never make a follow up with a professor for further academic assistance. If we start here in the seminary to settle for less, do the bare minimum; how are we going to have vigorous and directional theologians who will seriously reflect on the perennial questions asked by Sister Mary Savio? I therefore challenge you, dear future priests, do not aspire to become maintainers, but dynamic, creative and vigorous theologians as well.
Our world has become very complex due to various socio-political and economic factors. We cannot leave out also the advances made in technology and in the human and social sciences. This scenario places a particular challenge to future priests that they should be conversant with such an environment. How can we be salt of the earth if we are tasteless? How can we be light if we are not enlightened? The role of salt and light is to make an impact on food and on the environment. As priests in the near future, God willing, you must be ready to make a positive impact on the Church in Southern Africa. I therefore concur with what my own formators use to say: “never ordain a pious fool”.
But above all, dear future priests, cultivate a personal relationship with God who has called you. Like Pope John Paul II, let me quote myself what I said in last year’s magazine,
A seminarian is a Christian who is discerning his vocation to the priesthood within the Church of Christ. It is, therefore, incumbent upon him to begin to show signs of his willingness to be set apart for Christ, because through ordination he becomes the ‘other Christ’, alter Christus. A seminarian, therefore, cannot desire to serve God as a priest and yet refuse to set himself apart for service in the Church of Christ. His entire life must be oriented towards the priesthood. He must love those things that are placed at his disposal in order to assist him inculcate the necessary evangelical nutrients for his ministry at a later stage.
Pope Benedict XVI also underlined the importance of God’s love in the life of a seminarian when he was addressing the seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He said to them, “Remember that, what counts before the Lord is to dwell in his love and to make his love shine forth for others”. The goal of seminary formation is to produce an integrated man who is firmly grounded in God.
As you go forward, dear future priests with your journey of discernment, please remember always Jesus’ words “Abide in my love” (John 15:9). If you do not have a close relationship with Jesus now, the Master and Lord of the vineyard, you will not have it either in the future as priests. Actually, what you will be in the future starts today. Glimpses on the kind of a priest you will be can be discerned now during the period of your formation. If students are asked to pack their chairs in the hall after a public lecture and you do not do it, even as a priest you will dodge your basic responsibilities. If you do not do your house duty diligently, you will not be diligent either in your pastoral ministry. So, if you do not abide in Christ now, you will not bear much fruit as a priest in the future.
Pope Benedict XVI, addressing seminarians in Palermo, Italy (Fr. Musa Mncwango knows this area more than any one of us here) said, “the seminary is particularly valuable for your future, because…it leads you to being pastors of souls and teachers of the faith…live this time of grace with dedication…be obedient to the orders of your superiors and of those responsible for your growth in Christ” (3 October 2010).
When I agreed to come to the seminary in April 2013, I said that I want to participate in the formation of future diocesan priests in our Conference area. I said that, if I go to the seminary my contribution will be based on three things: forming good, happy and holy priests.
We must be good people if we are to be good priests. We must be abantu who know that motho ke motho kabatho. Secondly, you must be happy and content that you are becoming Catholic priests. Never feel small or inferior that you are becoming priests. Priests, through the laying on of hands, do things which no one else does on earth, even things which angels cannot do, for example, at Holy Mass priests have the power to change the species of bread and wine into the species of the Body and Blood of Christ and we call this the doctrine of transubstantiation and in the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation priests forgive sins in Persona Christi et in Persona Ecclesiae. St. John Vianney Seminary is a Catholic Seminary which teaches theological courses from the perspective of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, Magisterium and Human Reason. If there is any theological course which ignores questi fonti, I am afraid it is depriving you the joys of being happy Catholic priests in the future. Do not be after the rich and the famous, instead be after Christ who has called you because your true happiness lies in him.
God said to His chosen people, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Leviticus 20:26). Lumen Gentium dedicates the whole fifth chapter on holiness.
Let me conclude with the following story, and it will drive home what I have been saying:
An elderly carpenter was ready to retire. He informed his employer of his plans to leave the house-building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife and children. He would miss the pay cheque but he needed to retire. The employer was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he would build just one more house as a personal favour. The retiring carpenter agreed to do it, but his heart was not into it. Hence he resorted to sloppy workmanship and used inferior materials. When he finished the house, the employer came to inspect it. He then handed the front door key to the carpenter, saying ‘This is your house. It is my gift to you’. The carpenter was shocked: What a shame. If only he had known that he was building his own house.
And so it is with us. We build our lives one day at a time, often putting less than our best into the building. Then, with a shock, we realize that we have to live in the very house we have built. If we could do it over again, we might do it differently.
You are the carpenter of your own priestly life in the future. Without knowing it, each day you hammer a nail, place a board, or erect a wall. Someone once said, ‘life is a do-it-yourself project’. Your attitude and choices you make today, build the house you will live in tomorrow. Build wisely on the proper foundation.
Someone once wrote, “You know the Greeks did not write obituaries, instead they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion’”?
Thank you for your attention.
Rev Fr. Nhlanhla T. Mchunu