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Southern African Bishops’ New Associate Secretary General Thankful for Gender Inclusion

Sr Phuthunywa Catherine Siyali, the new Associate Secretary-General for the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference SACBC

The new Associate Secretary General for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has expressed her elation at the appointment, noting that the three-nation entity of Bishops has always been keen on including women at the helm of Church leadership.

Sr. Phuthunywa Catherine Siyali who is expected to take office on April 1 told ACI Africa that she is looking forward to being the “eyes and ears” of the Bishops at the South Africa-based Conference.

Expressing her excitement on the news of the appointment, Sr. Catherine said, “I was humbled and at the same time very happy.”

“I am happy that the Bishops in Southern Africa hold the women in very high regard at the Conference,” Sr. Catherine told ACI Africa Thursday, March 11.

She explained, “We had Sr. Hermenegild Makoro who served the Conference as Secretary General for nine years after she had served for a while as Associate Secretary General. The Bishops know that women have a lot to offer in Church leadership.”

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In her position, the member of the Congregation of the Sister of the Holy Cross will mainly support the work of SACBC Secretary General, a position currently held by Fr. Hugh O'Connor.

Her role alongside other officials of the Pretoria-headquartered SACBC Secretariat is also to be the Conference’s “think tanks”, helping Bishops in coming up with and implementation of key decisions.

“We are basically the eyes and ears of the Bishops who are very busy people, overseeing the running of their Dioceses,” Sr. Catherine says about their role at SACBC that comprises the Catholic Bishops of Botswana, South Africa, and Swaziland.

She adds that the work of an Associate Secretary General at the Bishops’ conference is also to prepare for the Bishop’s Plenary Assembly meetings.

Her work, the 50-year-old Nun shares, will also be to coordinate the activities of the Conference’s Council of Evangelization that usually holds two meetings every year.

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Her work, she further says, requires a deep understanding of all the Dioceses in the SACBC jurisdiction.

“One must understand that Dioceses are not the same. We have rural Diocese, semi-rural ones and urban ones and each Diocese varies from the other hugely. Understanding this diversity helps us to plan for our Dioceses well,” Sr. Catherine told ACI Africa.

The native of Aliwal North Diocese in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province has served at the SACBC in different capacities, an opportunity she says has been a learning experience.

Between 2013 and 2019, she served in the SACBC Department for Christian Formation, Liturgy and Culture as the Coordinating Secretary for Culture. She later on took on an additional Commission as the SACBC Liturgy Coordinator from 2016 to 2019. 

“It was an enriching experience,” Sr. Catherine says of her experience at SACBC, adding, “I have learnt a lot. There were challenges, yes, but I have grown in the process. I have understood how the Catholic Church works and I know a lot about every single Diocese here.”

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Before joining SACBC, Sr. Catherine served in various Diocesan posts such as Diocesan Animator, Diocesan Catechetical Coordinator, HIV/AIDS Coordinator and as a Board member of the AIDS program and empowering underprivileged women with handwork skills.

She also has pastoral experience as a Holy Cross Formator and in the pastoral care of Vocations as Directress and was involved in different spheres in the work of her Religious Order and Province.

She obtained her Bachelor of Theology (BTH) degree from UNISA in 2006 and BTH Honours through the University of KwaZulu Natal in 2011.

Information on the SACBC website indicates that the South African Nun also trained as a Spiritual Director and Retreat Director through the Jesuit Institute of South Africa in 2017.

At the end of last year, she completed a Formation of Formators Course in Nairobi Kenya at the Association of Sisterhood of Kenya’s (AOSK) Chemchemi Ya Uzima Institute.

From her experience serving at the helm of Church leadership in South Africa, Sr. Catherine has learnt that it is not easy for women in such positions who have to work extra hard to prove their worth.

“I worked with Priests and I can say that it isn’t easy. As a woman, you have to prove yourself triple times that you are just as good as men at the job,” she told ACI Africa March 11.

“And it doesn’t start in the Church,” she said, adding, “It is about our culture, which is still very male-dominated. To succeed, women have to work twice as hard.”

The new Associate Secretary General for SACBC further recalls that to succeed, she embraces humility at her job and allows her male colleagues space to learn from her as well in an environment where she says she fosters teamwork.