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Despite Devastation, COVID-19 “providential in some way”: South African Bishop

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka pictured at SECAM Golden Jubilee in Kampala, Uganda in 2019.

While COVID-19 is having devastating effects on the people of God in Southern Africa, the pandemic might have been “providential in some way,” the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has said.

In his opening address during the ongoing virtual Plenary Assembly of SACBC members, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka highlighted some positive effects resulting from COVID-19 including increased awareness of inter-connectedness, a heightened sense of God, and ability to engage the digital media, among others.

“While Covid-19 has brought about devastation, it has also been providential in some way,” Bishop Sipuka said at the start of the January 26-29 virtual Plenary Assembly.

One of the positive effects of the pandemic has been “the sense of unity and solidarity in addressing and coping with the pandemic,” he said.

The pandemic has also “raised the sense of God among people and reduced that sense of self sufficiency, increasing instead the sense of dependence on higher power than one’s own,” Bishop Sipuka who is the Local Ordinary of South Africa’s Umtata Diocese further said.

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He explained, “In talking with people you hear more reference to God and prayer. It seems that people are singing that hymn ‘this world is not my home; I am just a passerby’ with more meaning than before.”

“Another significant one is the ability to use means of communication, hitherto unfamiliar to most of us, and yet here we are holding a plenary meeting from our Dioceses. Who would have thought this would happen a year ago, but thanks to COVID-19 it is happening!” he went on to say.

In his six-page speech obtained by ACI Africa, the 60-year-old Bishop further said that the challenge of COVID-19 “is an invitation to reimagine the way of being Church.”

Unlike the reformation of the 16th century whose “invitation for change was largely theological, focusing on matters related to Ecclesiology, Sacramentology, Justification and so on, the current reformation,” Bishop Sipuka said, originating from “various circumstances of life including COVID-19 pandemic is not a doctrinal one but a practical one.”

“It is a reformation of practice, a reformation of relevance, and a reformation of how practically do we become Church in these changed circumstances,” the President of the three-nation conference bringing together Bishops and Diocesan heads in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland added.

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He also rallied SACBC members to think about how they “can beef up the counselling skills of Priests and Pastoral workers because the spiritual and psychological consequences of COVID-19 are very devastating.”

“Some people have not only lost one member of the family from COVID-19 but two or three and add to that, the inability to mourn and the rapid and unsupportive manner of burial,” he said and added, “For some this situation may be made worse by being laid off from work.”

“A combination of these disasters in the midst of a lockdown can be very devastating and the Priests and Pastoral workers may not be able to effectively assist in this situation,” the President of SACBC who doubles as the first Vice President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) said.

He went on to commend South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa for “acting early and decisively on the (COVID-19) crisis,” thus preventing “a situation that would be worse than now.”

The South African Bishop however expressed his disapproval with the way the government handled resources amid COVID-19.

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The government failed to implement a clear plan to deal with the pandemic, a challenge that was exemplified in the handling of the R500 COVID-19 relief package, he said, adding that there seems to be no strategy in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine.

“While I note the incapacity of the government to implement the good plan to deal with Covid-19, we too as Church have not done well to respond to the needs of COVID-19 crisis,” SACBC President said and added, “We could not say to the government, give it to us and we will implement it.” 

He observed that while the leadership of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), “had great ideas,” on handling COVID-19 “at grassroots level we could not implement, mainly because of the lack of effective ecumenical structures.”

“As we get into the 2nd wave of COVID-19, the main concern is that people have let down their guard on health protocol at a stage where the virus is reported to be 50% more lethal than during the 1st wave,” Bishop Sipuka said during his January 26 address.

He added referencing the citizenry, “They mistake the relaxed regulations for reduction of virus infection, whereas the opposite is true. In the first wave the virus was less potent and there was space in the hospital; during the 2nd wave the virus is more lethal with no space in the hospital.”

“As we grapple with the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, may God guide us with his wisdom to make a contribution that will lead to effective elimination of this virus and lead to resumption of a life of dignity for all,” Bishop Sipuka implored at the beginning of the virtual SACBC Plenary Assembly in which Catholic Bishops in Zimbabwe are participating.

On his part, the Apostolic Nuncio in South Africa, Archbishop Peter Bryan Wells said that he has been concerned about the “well-being of the people of the Southern African countries” amid COVID-19 pandemic, including “how to bridge the gap, to heal the physical and spiritual wounds of uncertainty and anxiety.”

“Many people from the region have personally reached out to me to voice their frustration and anxiety with what has been happening,” the representative of the Holy Father in South Africa said.

With the second wave of the pandemic leading to closure of churches in Southern Africa, “there is the urgent need to address not only the physical needs of the flock but more importantly the interior or spiritual life of the people,” the American-born Archbishop who also represents the Holy Father in Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho said January 26.

Amid COVID-19 challenges, “Turning to God does not mean we deny the role of government in handling public health emergencies. It means acting as the Church has always done, with common sense, wisdom, charity, but, above all, with faith and confidence,” Archbishop Wells added in his address to SACBC members.