“It is the context that has changed, not our call”: Prelate in Swaziland

Bishop José Luis Ponce de León of the Catholic Diocese of Manzini in Swaziland, also called Eswatini.

With the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that COVID-19 may never go away, a Bishop in Swaziland has urged faithful in his diocese to remain steadfast in their call to evangelize as the Church adopts to what he refers to as “the new normal.”

 “It is the context that has changed, not our call. We remain baptized and sent,” said Bishop José Luis Ponce de León of the Catholic Diocese of Manzini in Swaziland, also called Eswatini.

In a Pastoral letter, the Shepherd in the Southern Africa country called on Christians not to “live the present waiting to return to the past.” 

“Let us look at the present and to the future and, with the same faith, hope, love and enthusiasm, look for new answers to new challenges. It is us who, today, once again, having been baptized are sent by Jesus,” Bishop José Luis who is a member of the Institute of the Consolata Missionaries (IMC) says. 

The Diocese of Manzini in October last year launched the “Baptized and Sent” initiative dubbed the “Extraordinary Mission Year” (EMY) following Pope Francis' call to celebrate the Extraordinary Missionary Month (EMMOCT2019) the same month.


“Our Diocese has chosen to celebrate more than a month. Next October we will be launching an “Extraordinary Mission Year” which will last until October 2020,” Bishop José Luis announced in July 2019.

The diocese then lined up an array of activities including adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Vespers, Reconciliation, Holy Mass, Healing and Anointing which were to run for a year through 2020.

In the letter penned Thursday, May 21 to mark the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, Bishop José Luis noted that when he was launching the year-long “extraordinary mission,” he did not foresee what the new year held.

“Announcing this special time of grace for our diocese I never thought we would face months of it in a full or partial lock-down,” he said, and added, “We planned special events thinking everything would be as usual. It was not. It is still not and we are all unable to talk about the future.”

However, according to the Bishop, the EMY initiative has not taken a break “until we go back to normal.”

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“There might not be a going back to normal in the future and we will then be called to be missionaries in new ways,” he says. 

At a briefing on Wednesday, May 13, the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Director, Dr. Mike Ryan issued a grim warning to the world against trying to predict when COVID-19 would disappear.

“It is important to put this on the table – this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away,” Dr. Ryan said from Geneva, via a virtual press-conference.

Highlighting various activities that the Diocese has adopted to adjust to what Bishop José Luis referred to as the “new normal” in Church activities, the Argentinian-born Bishop said that the diocese was leveraging on technology to ensure that the Christians remained engaged through Holy Masses on the Diocesan YouTube channel and podcasts through which priests disseminate daily scripture reflections.

And to keep Christians closer to the Church, a number of priests have pinned names of the faithful on their favorite benches in local churches.


Additionally, the diocese has organized projects supporting the poorest in the country including through the help of local religious communities as well as international supporters.

“Our parishes also looked for ways to be close to each one of you through the adoration of the blessed Sacrament, writing down your names on the benches of the church, WhatsApp groups, distributing food to the poor,” observed the Bishop. 

“We also show our being Christians by caring for each other in the simplest things like keeping social distance, wearing masks, washing our hands, being careful of what we share on social media,” the Bishop said and added, “Do not underestimate any of this; remember Naaman when he was asked by the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the river Jordan… Every little act of love counts!”

All the breakthroughs notwithstanding, COVID-19 presents a new set of challenges, according to the Bishop who notes that there are “still more people and situations” the Church needs to address.

“We have suddenly been unable to nourish our faith through the sacraments and our coming together. Some took this time for a deeper personal prayer and spiritual nourishment but others found themselves completely unprepared not knowing how to be close to God,” says Bishop José Luis.

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The 59-year-old Prelate says that for some, the COVID-19 lockdown has been an opportunity to spend quality time with the family but for others who he says are unable to pray as a family, staying together has been a source of family tensions.

Additionally, while the ‘stay at home’ directive has been implemented globally to contain the spread of the virus, this measure cannot work for some who live in small crowded spaces and the homeless, the Bishop says.

“Wash your hands, we are also told, but what do we do when there is no water?” the Prelate queries and adds, “What about all the self-employed people, selling in the streets whose only income is what they themselves are able to make on a day to support their families?”

The Bishop notes that the diocesan initiatives, important as they are, only reach a small percentage of the people.

“God’s question, ‘where is your brother’ (and where is your sister?) in the book of Genesis calls you and me to know what each one of them is going through and then make ourselves neighbours like the good Samaritan in the Gospel of Saint Luke,” Bishop José Luis who has been at the helm of Manzini diocese since November 2013 after being transferred from Ingwavuma in South Africa reflects.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.