Why the Southern Africa Bishops’ New Pastoral Plan is Important

Bishop Sithembele Anton Sipuka of Umtata Diocese, South Africa, President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC)

As the Church leaders in Botswana, South Africa, and Swaziland prepare to officially launch their new Pastoral Plan this Sunday, January 26, the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) that brings together the three countries, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka has explained why the new pastoral plan, which will replace the one that has guided evangelization activities of the Church in the region for the last 30 years, is important.

In his address during the opening session of SACBC Plenary Assembly Wednesday, January 22, Bishop Sipuka highlighted and explained two reasons for the pastoral plan, identifying gaps that it will help fill.

One of the reasons for the plan according to  the Bishop is the realization that the Church in the region was not being impactful to the Christians and the society at large, a gap that the new plan seeks to fill.

“The immediate context of the Pastoral Plan if I recall well, was the realization by the Bishops that as a Church in this region, we are not making an impact, both on the people we serve and in society. There is no growth in faith and spirituality, the furthest most of our faithful go is confirmation and they remain there,” the SACBC President addressed his brother Bishops who gathered at St. John Vianney Seminary, Pretoria, South Africa.

The Local Ordinary of South Africa’s Mthatha Diocese observed that the majority of Catholics in the region served by SACBC do not seem to see witnessing for Christ and continuing the work of evangelization as their responsibility. Instead, Bishop Sipuka noted, Catholics in the region “tend to see themselves more as there to be (served) by the Church, to be served sacraments, to be preached to and to be buried.”


He added referencing Catholics within the jurisdiction of SACBC, “The most they do is to fulfil the obligation of supporting the Church financially, and some of them do so grudgingly because they have no sense about the missionary nature of the Church which requires resources in order to do this missionary work.”

As a result of this attitude, the 60-year-old South African Prelate said, “our faith does not influence society, it is as if the Catholic Church does not exist,” a situation the Prelate noted is duplicated when the Church engages in charity and development projects, where “we do not have a distinct perspective that marks us as a Church.”

While some laity are involved in leadership roles in his own diocese of Mthatha, including presiding over funerals, Bishop Sipuka bemoaned the reluctance of many Catholics to take up leadership roles saying, “My problem is the lack of willing and able lay leaders that you find yourself with the same people doing many ministerial task and recycling the same people for leadership because the others are not willing to offer themselves; they are only happy to be serviced and content to be in the state of being uninformed.”

“This Pastoral Plan was born out of this realization that a big portion of our Catholic community have not yet come to a realization that as Pope Francis recently reminded us recently, “We are all baptized and we are all sent”, not just some,” the Bishop of Mthatha noted.

Besides the inability of the Church in Southern Africa to impact the people and society, Bishop Sipuka revealed that the pastoral plan is important as it will fill a gap that exists in the SACBC region due to “changed cultural and social context which no longer provides an advantageous platform for the propagation of faith as it was done in the past.”

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While noting that the “culture today does not serve the living and the propagation of faith,” the South African Prelate lamented, “Gone are the days when learners cued in straight and neat lines of morning and afternoon school assemblies to sing a Christian song, have Bible read to them and a prayer said. Gone are the days when application forms for work and CVs for employment had a place for Denomination. Gone are the days when shops were closed on Sundays because everybody was expected to be in Church.”

“Gone are the days when children were expected to be at the parish on Saturdays for catechism class and in Church on Sundays, today they are expected to be at school. Gone are the days when Parliamentary gatherings and local government structures gave prominence to the opening prayer, the most that is done now is to have one minute of silence,” the Bishop further lamented. 

According to the SACBC President the pastoral plan is instrumental as it is “a recognition that in this context of changed culture we can no longer continue to do Church services the way we used to do it before without wanting to change what the Church and its message is.” 

“This Pastoral Plan seeks to change the way of being Church, to change the system of being Church so that it responds effectively to the changed situations of our time,” Bishop Sipuka added.

In the Prelate’s view, the Pastoral Plan will help the Church in the region “move from a maintenance Church to a Missionary Church, from a Church that services those who come to Church to a Church that goes forth,”  as envisioned by Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium where he desired a “missionary option, a missionary impulse transforming everything.”


Acknowledging that it will not be easy to change how people have been doing things in the Church, Bishop Sipuka said, “Even as we feel anxious because we are asked to let go of what we have known, in faith like Abraham we must “go from your country, your people, your father’s household to the land I will show you” Gen 12:1 and embrace this Pastoral Plan.”

“We are invited “to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘we have always done it this way’. We are invited through this Pastoral Plan to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in our Conference,” the SACBC President quoted Evangelii Gaudium.

While appreciating the efforts that have been put in developing the Pastoral Plan, a process that began “almost 10 years ago,” the SACBC President highlighted some gaps saying, “One part that has been left out in the Pastoral Plan are the agents, structures and programmes of implementing the Pastoral plan, and I believe that they will be added as appendix.”

“One other area that got lost in the discussion and finalization of the Pastoral Plan was the area of self-sustainability. I guess this is something that we need to take up now in a big way because if this pastoral plan is to be successful, it needs resources in the form of trained and skilled personnel and finances. We need to have a planned way of sustaining ourselves as a Church in the SACBC region,” the Ordinary of Mthatha highlighted.

Bishop Sipuka who is also the First Vice President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) also hoped that  “When the Inter-Regional Meeting of Bishops of Southern Africa (IMBISA) and SECAM Plenary documents eventually come out, they will form part of the implementation tools of our Pastoral Plan.” 

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