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“It's a big responsibility”, South African Bishop-elect Says, Promises Collaboration

Mons. Neil Augustine Frank, appointed Coadjutor Bishop for South Africa’s Mariannhill Diocese. Credit: IMBISA

Mons. Neil Augustine Frank who has been appointed Coadjutor Bishop for South Africa’s Mariannhill Diocese has described his Friday, December 17 appointment as “a big responsibility”.

Reacting to the news of his appointment, Mons. Frank told ACI Africa correspondent in South Africa that while he knows the ministry ahead is challenging, he will seek to foster a collaborative ministry with members of the Clergy.

“I received the news with much anxiety.  It's a big responsibility. I think there's been a lot of affirmation that has been expressed by my brother Oblates and by many others,” the Bishop-elect said during the December 17 interview.

The member of the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) added, “I'm very grateful for that and I'm grateful for the confidence that's being placed in me. And I know the immensity of the task ahead as being the leader of a Diocese.”

In a September 2020 letter, the leadership of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) announced Vatican’s decision to place the Diocese of Mariannhill under an Apostolic Administrator.

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“I have been informed by the nunciature that following the apostolic visitation to the diocese of Mariannhill, the Holy See has decided to appoint an apostolic administrator ‘sede plena et natum Sanctæ Sedis’ in the person of Archbishop (William) Slattery OFM with immediate effect,” SACBC President, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka said in a statement that was obtained by ACI Africa 24 September 2020.

In the letter that was addressed to members of SACBC and the Clergy, Bishop Sipuka clarified the meaning of Archbishop Slattery’s appointment in the Episcopal See that had been under the leadership of old Bishop Pius Mlungisi Dlungwane who was aged 72 at the time. 

“What this means is that while Bishop Dlungwane remains the Spiritual head of the Diocese and continues to be a member of the Conference, the actual administration of the Diocese, which includes organization of Pastoral life and work in the Diocese, discipline of the clergy, financial administration and other related administrative matters are now the task of the Apostolic Administrator,” SACBC President stated.

He added, “We entrust Archbishop Slattery, Bishop Dlungwane, the Clergy, religious and the faithful of Mariannhil to the Holy Spirit for a fruitful collaboration in advancing the mission of the Church in that part of the world.”

Mariannhill Diocese that is under the Ecclesiastical Province of Durban had been put under Apostolic Visitation on 6 February 2020 after Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Slattery to represent him in the initiative. 

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The Apostolic Visitation was in response to Bishop Dlungwane’s request, which he reportedly made in view of “enriching the life and pastoral activity of that Local Church.”

In a February 2020 interview with ACI Africa, Archbishop Slattery had described the Visitation as “a moment of grace for a particular church to review and renew the focus and commitment of the Church on the great ministry of pastoral care.”

In the December 17 interview with ACI Africa correspondent in South Africa, the Bishop-elect said he is ready to face the challenges that Mariannhill Diocese has been experiencing.

“There's been a lot of confidence in me to manage these different situations. And I know that there is a lot of help around to manage the difficult situations. But the Diocese doesn't just come with difficulties as there's a lot of good things about Mariannhill,” Mons. Frank said.

He described Mariannhill Diocese as “almost completely a Zulu speaking Diocese” where “a lot has been achieved over the years” and that it is “one of the important Dioceses” in the country.

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“There are few English-speaking communities and this is great for the inculturation of the faith,” he clarified, and added, “There's a lot of beauty in the place.” 

Mons. Frank recalled his recent visit to the South African Diocese saying, “I had a reason to travel through parts of the Diocese recently, long before, well, weeks before this appointment, and was just amazed at the beautiful places around in the Diocese.”

“There are challenges and scandals that might have to be addressed. There is this great beauty in the place and a deep faith among the people, which is to be celebrated, so I'm not overwhelmed by the difficulties and the challenges,” the South African Bishop-elect told ACI Africa December 17.

Born in August 1966 in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Durban Archdiocese, Mons. Frank made his perpetual vows as a member of OMI on 4 January 1998 and was ordained a Priest on 21 August 1999.

He received his Bachelor of Science (1988) and Master of Science in physics (1991) from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal University. Mons. Frank completed his studies in philosophy at Saint Joseph's Scholasticate (1993-1995) and his studies in theology at the Rome-based Pontifical Gregorian University (1995-1998).

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After his ordination, he served as Parish Vicar and Parish Priest in several Parishes in the Archdiocese of Durban (1999-2004).

In 2004, he studied in Pune, India, for a Master's degree in philosophy. On his return to South Africa, he served as Pastor of two Parishes, lecturer, head of the philosophy department (2006-2014) and president at Saint Joseph's Theological Institute (2015-2018). 

Until his appointment, Mons. Frank has, since 2018, been the Provincial Superior of OMI in South Africa.

Asked about his priorities, Mons. Frank said, “I don't think I had too much of that opportunity yet. Certainly, my being one with my brother Priests in the Diocese and getting to know them and working with them and understanding their aspirations and their pastoral initiatives and application, getting to know them personally, that will certainly be one of my priorities.”

“Understanding the administrative needs of the Diocese and communication with the people creating that relationship, I think is very important,” he told ACI Africa, adding that one other priority will be to “brush up on my Zulu that I learned 20 years ago.”

“I'm a bit embarrassed that my Zulu is very poor; but that's certainly one of my very first priorities, to start working on that again,” he told ACI Africa.

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mons. Frank intends to revive pastoral activities in the South African Diocese.

“As soon as COVID-19 permits, I will engage with the Clergy that are involved in all these activities and the lay people and the many groups and Sodality that are very powerful and active,” he said.

He added, “I don't think that reviving them is going to be very difficult. I think that desire to have all those events again is in the hearts of the people. So, it's going to work easily, I think.”

“I'm looking forward to having a holiday at this time. But I don't know how much of a holiday that will be because there's much work to do and lots to think about now, lots to plan,” Mons. Frank said.

Asked about that date for his Episcopal Ordination, he said, “I have no idea; I think there are quite a lot of people and groups of people to be consulted before a date is set.”

Mariannhill Diocese was erected as an Apostolic Vicariate on September 10, 1921 and elevated to the rank of a Diocese on January 11, 1951. The Diocese measures 12,612 square kilometers with a population of 329,575 Catholics, according to 2017 statistics.