Theme of Synodality “breath of fresh air” to Migrants, Refugees: South African Archbishop

Archbishop Buti Joseph Tlhagale of South Africa's Johannesburg Archdiocese. Credit: SACBC

The theme of the Synod on Synodality is a relief for those on the move including the refugees and migrants for they have a chance to participate and be heard, a Catholic Archbishop in South Africa has said.

The theme of the Synod on Synodality has been outline in the Preparatory Document as “For a Synodal Church, Communion, Participation, and Mission”. 

In a statement circulated  Wednesday, March 16, Archbishop Buti Joseph Tlhagale of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg says that the migrants and refugees “wish the Church should consider them as a necessary constituency of the church.”

Archbishop Tlhagale’s statement suggests Synodal way as a response by the Church to the crisis between foreign nationals and the locals following a question posed by one of the parliamentarians to the government on the way forward in handling the crisis to ensure the safety of migrants. 

“The theme of Synodality introduced by Pope Francis on the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops has been like a breath of fresh air to the people on the move, especially migrants and refugees,” Archbishop Tlhagale says.


The South African Archbishop says that representatives of migrants and refugees need to be given official status as “bona fide” elected delegates in the Synodal discussions and that they need to use the opportunity to present their challenges.

He says that once on board, representatives of migrants and refugees need to participate in setting the agenda of the assemblies. He adds that setting an agenda together is important because it will erase the fear that the people on the move might have concerning a biased agenda that might only partly address their challenges.

“Members wish to make it clear that their entitlement to participate and speak out derives from the sacrament of baptism -3- from the seal of holy chrism that set them apart and incorporated them into the body of Christ. They maintain they are Catholics. They too say ‘Amen’ after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ,” Archbishop Tlhagale says.

He says that migrants and refugees, just like everyone else, are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore share in the fatherhood of God. He adds that their sense of belonging gives them a right to engage in Synodal discussions just like their fellow Catholics.

The South African Archbishop says in reference to migrants, “They wish to interrogate the silence of local Catholics in the face of what really amounts to a second round of open persecution after the initial harrowing experiences in their countries of origin.”

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“The synodal platforms, in promoting dialogue, should also shed some light on biblical sayings which do not appear to be applicable in situations where Christian migrants and refugees are involved,” he says.

The Local Ordinary of Johannesburg Archdiocese says that migrants and refugees believe that the Church is an “expert in humanity” and that this can be proven during the Synodal discussions where listening is the bottom-line.

“The synodal platforms are the ideal location where the Church as “expert in humanity” is in a position to listen to the plight of migrants and to mobilize campaigns essentially aimed at restoring and enhancing the dignity of people on the move,” Archbishop Tlhagale says.

The South African Archbishop makes reference to the St. John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter on the twentieth anniversary of Populorum progression of Pope Paul VI, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and poses why the people on the move should not be considered as poor and be given maximum attention.

“They live ‘a gutter-life’ on the margins of society. Instead of being given help as ‘neighbors’ and as human beings, they are simply ignored or harassed. They are physically present, but invisible to all passersby. It is this dire situation that seeks to question the relevance of John Paul’s teaching on the radical option of the poor,” Archbishop Tlhagale says in reference to refugees and migrants.


He adds, “Migrants and refugees have become the deprived, the needy, the marginalized and the poor. They seek to ask the synodal gatherings why they do not qualify for Christian charity and for preferential care.”

He says that the relationship between migrants and refugees and local South Africans is more than “just bad blood,” which he says has culminated into public violence. He adds that this might indicate division in the Church.

“The palpable tension between the two communities can easily point to the reality of a divided church. The truth of the matter is that there are no incidents of visible tensions or violence within the church communities themselves,” he says.

However, the South African Archbishop adds, “it would be a folly to assume that church people are not involved in the attacks directed at foreign nationals.”

He says that the division between migrants and local communities mostly affects Africans and adds that it is rampant in Africa because of segregations based on residence. He further says that migration has boosted Christian faith but poses a danger of emergency and growth of prosperity churches.

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“These divisions nevertheless point to a crisis of faith and of Christian-living. The arrival of large numbers of migrants from Catholic countries in Africa has actually increased the number of Catholics. But this is also the case in the Protestant churches. Migration has also led to the significant growth of the ‘prosperity’ churches,” Archbishop Tlhagale says.

He says that the Church in South Africa is still young and that Christians easily move from one church to another with a claim that all churches are the same. He says that the country is still in need of deep evangelization with a focus on faith and church doctrines.

“As far as evangelization is concerned, South Africa still needs a deepening of faith, of church doctrine, of the meaning of its rich liturgy and of Christian charity,” the 74-year-old Catholic Archbishop says in his statement circulated March 16.

Silas Mwale Isenjia is a Kenyan journalist with a great zeal and interest for Catholic Church related communication. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communication from Moi University in Kenya. Silas has vast experience in the Media production industry. He currently works as a Journalist for ACI Africa.