On the occasion of the inauguration of the Southern Africa Province, Fr Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), preached this homily. A translation was also given by Fr Virgílio Costa SJ, Socius to the new Provincial, Fr Leonard Chiti SJ, and is available here and at the bottom of the page.
Homily on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Province of Southern Africa
Feast of the Annunciation 2021
“The thing that a child climbs a tree to see is what the elder sees from the bottom of the tree.” Why? Because the elder stands closer to the roots; and, as the Argentine poet, Francisco Luis Bernárdez, wrote: “… what the tree has visibly in bloom/Thrives of what is buried beneath.”
Forty-five years ago, the African American writer, Alex Haley, published the epic novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley composed his narrative from the stories told by his grandmother. Her stories transported Haley back to his past, to his roots, stretched over several generations. What Haley discovered in his roots changed his life and transformed the future of his society.
Today, the 25 of March 2021, The Province of Southern Africa is born in the Society of Jesus. How did we get to this place? What made it possible for us to stand in this moment in history? The simple answer is one word: roots – our roots. Today is the fruit of our roots.
The province that we inaugurate today has long roots – roots that stretch back in time, so long that some of it is entangled and mystifying; the province that we inaugurate today has roots in historic dates, in colourful personalities and peoples, in diverse nationalities and in enchanted places.
Think of the year 1541, when Francis Xavier, one of the founding fathers of the Society reached the Island of Mozambique … or 1561 when Gonzalo da Silveira became the proto-martyr in Southern Africa … or the invitation in 1875 from Bishop Richards to Jesuits to come to Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape … or the visit of Chief Chinamora to Chishawasha in 1892.
Speaking of personalities and peoples who colour our roots, think of the intrepid Augustus Law, the imaginative Henri Depelchin, the saintly Francis Richartz, the indomitable Peter Prestage, the invincible Domingos Mlauzi….
Remember King Lobengula Khumalo, Chief Sitcheraba, Lozi Litunga Lewanika…. Catechist Regis Chigwedere and Titus Munyaradzi, the first black student to walk through the doors of St Georges College….
And remember the “Laughing Hunter” Brother Louis de Vylder, the creative Joseph Moreau, the wisely Cardinal Adam Kozlowiecki and Ezekiel Gwembe; the ebullient Xolile Keteyi and Joachim Chisemphere; the innovative Michael J. Kelly and Charles Chilinda; the indefatigable Fidelis Mukonori, Pete Henriot, Mike Lewis….
Or imagine the enchanted places where our roots were planted in Southern Africa … in the Court of Monomotapa Negomo Mapunzaguto, Gorongosa, Lufidzi, Graaf Reinet, Empandeni, Kachebere, Old Tati, Boroma … all historic landmarks of the Zambezi Mission.
These are the roots that brought us to this place and to this moment.
South African reggae musician Lucky Dube waxed melodiously about “Going back to my roots….” Going back to our roots is a risky enterprise. Alex Haley’s Roots unleashed tragic and traumatic memories of slavery, cruelty and inhumanity.
There is tragedy and trauma, too, in the story of the Society of Jesus in Southern Africa. For over a century, our ancestors endured long journeys by foot, by boat and by ox-wagon; some were expelled multiple times and separated from one another; others were martyred for taking the side of the weak and oppressed people; and many were decimated by diseases. And, we must not evade the culpability of our ancestors who were infected by and spread the viruses of colonialism, apartheid and racism.
Still our roots – troubled though at times – held us close and strong and our ancestors pressed on – creating grammars and dictionaries; opening schools and designing curricula; building churches and health facilities; establishing missions, farms and agricultural projects, communication projects, spirituality centres and all manner of apostolates. By their labour, they nourished and tended our roots.
No matter how glorious or inglorious our past, our roots are neither a graveyard nor a museum of memories; our roots contain an inexhaustible fount of creativity, innovation and opportunities. That is why today we are opening a new page in our story because God assures us that, like Mary, whose annunciation we heard about in the Gospel, while the future of the Southern Africa Province may be unfamiliar and unpredictable, it is pregnant with God’s dreams and promises.
Like Mary, every Jesuit – novice, scholastic, father or brother – and every collaborator – woman or man – of this new province now becomes a bearer and sower of the livings seeds of the future – sent to grow new trees of faith and spread new roots of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today, as we heard in the first and second readings, God is announcing something new, even in the midst of a pandemic that has shaken our lives severely. We are witnesses and architects of this new story. There will be many others who will come after us; whose lives will be shaped by what we make of the mission of the Society from this moment onward; women and men for whom, from this moment, we too shall become roots and ancestors.
To “work the redemption of the human race,” as Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises (no. 107), God solicited the consent and cooperation of a Galilean teenager, Mary. To work the inauguration, growth and progress of this new enterprise, God is soliciting in like manner our collaboration and inviting us to show “great spirit and generosity” (Spiritual Exercises, no. 5). When the story of the Southern Africa Province is told 145 years from today, it will be a story written with our lives and our mission.
Just like our ancestors, whole new apostolic “frontiers and boundaries” now unfold before us across Southern Africa and beyond; they call us to embrace “obstacles or ends” as “new challenges to be faced, new opportunities to be welcomed” with “a holy boldness, [and] ‘a certain apostolic aggressivity’” (GC 34, d. 26, no. 27). Instead of ox-wagon we will ply the roads with Amarok; instead of telegraph, we are armed with smartphones; and, instead of negotiating treaties with kings and chiefs, we will discern, network and collaborate with partners in the mission of Christ to build up the Reign of God in Southern Africa.
Our roots are deep, resilient and prosperous. But today is not only “the story of how we begin to remember” (Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”). The same glowing moon and stars of Southern Africa that shone on the faces of our ancestors decades ago now mark and shine brightly on our paths. The same waters of the Zambezi that nourished the journeys and “Faith of our fathers and brothers” now surges with a new rhythm carrying forward our apostolic enterprise.
As we row together into deep water, towards new frontiers and horizons (see logo of GC 36, logo of SAP and Luke 5:4),
May God steady our faith, lift our hope and expand our love to fill the sails of our apostolic dreams and visions in the Province of Southern Africa.
May we be emboldened by the prophecy of Isaiah and energised by the announcement of angel Gabriel that, in the Province of Southern Africa, “God is with us,” “nothing is impossible for God.”