, 24 July, 2020 / 9:24 PM
The ordination of Bishop Joseph Kizito as the Local Ordinary of Aliwal Diocese in the Ecclesiastical province of Eastern Cape, South Africa in February was the highlight of the Ugandan-born Prelate’s life.
It is a day that Bishop Joe Kizito, as he is fondly referred to in the diocese, reminisces about as he recalls the celebrations that would, sadly, usher in the period of COVID-19 and countless uncertainties that came with the pandemic.
“It was a beautiful day,” Bishop Kizito tells ACI Africa in an interview, reflecting on the ordination that took place on February 15.
“I remember the bright evening of Friday, February 14 when I took oath of office inside the Cathedral. I also remember the following sunny Saturday when people came to see their new Bishop. So many people came,” he recalls.
About 700 members of the faithful attended the event that was graced by 22 Bishops and over 30 priests, shortly before the country reported cases of COVID-19 and a lockdown was declared, barring public events and limiting social gatherings to a handful of attendees.
In an interview with ACI Africa on Thursday, July 23, Bishop Kizito reminisced about the colorful celebration that was characterized with entertainment, good catering and good weather.
“We thought it would rain but it never rained that Saturday morning. It was beautifully sunny. The beautiful African sun was shining on her son that day,” he says of the event that lasted for about three hours after which he was left to face the world and to begin his episcopal ministry.
Three weeks into his episcopal ordination, and after a few pastoral activities including visiting only three parishes, lockdown was declared in the country, grounding most of the activities that Bishop Kizito had lined up for the people of God in the South African diocese.
Reflecting on his first 100 days in office as Bishop in the southern African country, the 53-year-old Prelate says his mission had been marred with countless challenges in the diocese that has been among the top in terms of COVID-19 infections in the country.
“The 100 days have been days of prayer and growth,” he says, and adds, “It has mostly been very challenging. I haven’t been able to reach out to people the way I should as Bishop.”
With at least 65,316 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Eastern Cape Province where Aliwal Diocese is located, the Province has the third highest COVID-19 prevalence in the country, coming after Western Cape and Gauteng Provinces.
“There are so many sick people here. Many are in isolation and a few have died. There has been a lot of fear and anxiety and we have been faced with the responsibility of bringing calm to the people,” Bishop Kizito says.
The most difficult pastoral activity to execute as a Shepherd of the People of God during lockdown, the Bishop says, is ministering to families that have lost their loved ones to complications associated with the virus.
“My biggest challenge is going to pray for the sick people and families that have lost their loved ones to COVID-19,” he says, and adds, “When in such places, there is this unsettling discomfort that grips you very strongly and it becomes difficult for one to discharge their duties well as a pastor. You have to be careful and do everything very fast and leave the family. This is very ungratifying.”
The Prelate has, however, beaten fear to make himself available to people who need him the most, the danger of contagion notwithstanding. This, he says, has earned him a significant share of stigma in the diocese.
“The idea of avoiding people who need me has never sat well with me. I always go whenever I hear someone has fallen sick, whether or not they are down with the virus. And because of this, not many people want to associate with me,” he says, adding that some religious communities started distancing themselves from him for fear that he would infect them with a presumed virus.
His 100 days as Bishop have also been marked by the loss of his close friend, a Priest who succumbed to kidney disease.
The Bishop narrated to ACI Africa how, during his preparation for the Episcopal Ordination following his appointment in 2019, he was busy with Fr. Boniface Kasali, who was extremely sick.
“I had planned to accompany him back home to DRC (the Democratic Republic of Congo) where he was to get a kidney donor. This was not possible due to the Visa processes. Fr. Boniface left by himself and within two weeks after he left, he died on Sunday, April 26 in his home Diocese of Butembu- Beni in DRC,” the Prelate said, adding that Fr. Boniface was hurriedly buried, a day after his demise.
He grieved for the Cleric who had stayed in South Africa from 2003 till 2020, laboring to master the local language and culture of the southern African country.
“As his Bishop and the Priests, with the people of Aliwal Diocese we shall miss him very much since one could count on him for any issues on pastoral work. He had a very good working relationship with the children, youth and the adults,” the Bishop condoled in a message that was published on the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) website.
All the challenges notwithstanding, the new Bishop is one of the few Prelates in South Africa who had successfully implemented a pastoral plan before the pandemic struck and brought activities in the Church to an unceremonious halt.
Launched two weeks to the Bishop’s ordination in February, the new pastoral plan, “Evangelizing community, serving God, humanity & all creation” replaced the old pastoral Plan “Community Serving humanity” of 1986.
Expected to run for 10 years, the pastoral plan will be characterized with celebrations, study days by using the different Church documents, Bible, Diocesan policies, Code of Canon Law, discussions, workshops, prayers and pilgrimages.
The COVID-19 lockdown has been, to Bishop Joe, a moment of reflection, calling him “to look at the families with new eyes.”
“They (families) are the Church, what we call the domestic Church,” the Prelate says, adding that in his pastoral letters, he has encouraged members of families to take the Small Christian Community approach, where family members share roles in domestic worship.
“I have been encouraging that families take up the Priesthood of the Baptized. We are all Priests, baptized and sent and in such times, we are called upon to look deeply in our mission as Priests much as we are lay people, to conduct liturgy, to give each other blessings,” he says, and adds, “The buildings where we worship may be closed but the people, who are the real Church, are still present in their families.”
The Prelate who declares that he is not a fan of online Church proceedings says, “People don’t have to sit in front of screens to watch me yet I don’t see them. That is why I have always encouraged sending of reflection materials to guide them in their prayers as a family.”
Additionally, he says, people of God in his jurisdiction are poor women and children who cannot afford Internet and mobile devices.
Despite the hurdles, the expectations that the new Prelate had for the Church in South Africa where he has stayed since 1990 are still alive.
“What I envisioned on the day of my colorful ordination as Bishop was a journey with lay people and the poorest of the poor. It is a hope that is still alive in me despite all the storms that come my way,” he says, adding that he derives strength to soldier on from daily scriptures.
“The other day was the feast of St. Magdalene and I couldn’t help but reflect of the line, ‘Why are you weeping’ in the Gospel. Such words encourage me to take my cross every day and to follow Jesus who is weeping with us and with people who are going through unimaginable pain in their lives,” Bishop Joe Kizito tells ACI Africa.