Brief history of the Comboni Missionaries’ presence in South Africa.
A pontifical decree of the 12th of June 1923 established the Prefecture Apostolic of Lydenburg in what was then the Eastern Transvaal, an area which now includes parts of the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo. In July 1923 the Holy See finalized the division of the Comboni Institute of the Sons of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (FSCJ). The German-speaking Institute was given the name of Missionaries Sons of the Sacred Heart (MFSC) and it was entrusted with the new Prefecture in South Africa. Until then the only ongoing pastoral work in the area of this Prefecture consisted of sporadic visits of travelling priests to local white Catholics who were mostly recent immigrants. This was the situation that the first German-speaking Comboni missionaries coming from the Sudan found when they arrived in South Africa in 1924. The experienced missionaries who came to South Africa from Sudan were joined by others who were making their first missionary experience.
All started working with enthusiasm. After they had been present for twenty-five years the Prefecture was elevated to a Vicariate Apostolic and in 1951 it became the Lydenburg-Witbank Diocese. Mgr. Johann Riegler became the bishop of the Diocese, succeeding the first two Prefects Apostolic, Fr. Daniel Kauczor (1923-1926) and Fr. Alois Mohn (1927-1938). Bishop Riegler died in 1955. His successor was Bishop Anton Reiterer, who led the Diocese until 1983. In 1959 he opened a hostel in Pretoria for Catholic students from the Diocese of Lydenburg-Witbank attending schools there. This hostel closed in 1969 and then the Comboni Missionaries assumed responsibility for St. Augustine Parish in Silverton, a suburb of the same city. In 1967 some members of the other Comboni Missionary Institute (FSCJ) arrived in South Africa. Following Vatican Council II there was a growing desire to seek the reunion of the two Comboni Institutes. South Africa was one of the countries where the members of the two Institutes began working together. Indeed, in 1977, two years before the official reunion was sanctioned, the members of the two Institutes in South Africa elected a single provincial superior for all. The ordination of Bishop Mogale Paul Nkhumishe, a local South African, in 1982 and his subsequent appointment as Bishop of Lydenburg-Witbank, succeeding a missionary Bishop, was a sign that the missionary work done by the Comboni Missionaries was successful.
New commitments were taken up. A Comboni Missionary is a professor in the major national seminaries. The decision to start full-time vocation promotion for the Institute in 1988 led to the opening of the postulancy in the Archdiocese of Pretoria. Now there are five South African Comboni Missionary Priests. The Provincialate was transferred from Maria Trost near Lydenburg, first to Bronkhorstspruit in the Archdiocese of Pretoria, and then in 1991 to the new residence in Johannesburg. Towards the end of 1990 the mission magazine orldwide (2.500 copies) was started as a commitment to intensify mission promotion in the Church and in South African society.
Race-based exploitation of the local people, ever present in South Africa, became government policy, known as “Apartheid” in 1948 and from then on determined the social, political and religious history of South Africa. The government of the day considered the Catholic Church a threat since it denounced any form of racism and discrimination. The national and local governments often tolerated the many activities of the Catholic Church among the African people, but at times they refused to cooperate and even suppressed Church activities. Sadly the majority of white Catholics accepted the unjust dispensation and very few opposed it. Nevertheless the hierarchy and clergy of the Catholic Church favoured social and political change and enthusiastically endorsed the first free election in South Africa in 1994. The Comboni Missionaries contributed to the birth of a new South Africa through their presence in parishes, schools, hospitals and pastoral centres, providing bursaries for poor students, supporting family members of political prisoners and exiles, and participating in demonstrations and marches against situations of injustice. Young people’s organisations and trade unions were allowed to meet in our buildings in spite of the ever-present threat of violent police intervention.
To diversify the Comboni Missionaries’ presence in South Africa, there was an exchange of commitments and personnel with the Franciscans of the Diocese of Kokstad. After handing over the parishes of Belfast and Middleburg in Witbank Diocese, the Comboni Missionaries took charge of the parishes of Mount Frere (1990) and Mount Ayliff (1995) in the Eastern Cape. Comboni Missionaries from many different countries came to work in South Africa, making the Province’s personnel ever more international. Commitments in the Diocese of Lydenburg-Witbank, that in the meantime had become the Diocese of Witbank, were reduced; parishes run by the Comboni Missionaries were handed over to the local diocesan priests, to Fidei Donum priests from different African countries and to other religious Institutes.
The Comboni Missionary Brothers are involved in projects whose aim is the holistic development of people. In the field of justice, peace and integrity of creation the Comboni Missionaries cooperate with other Christian churches, with organizations of other religions and with secular organizations. A Comboni Missionary has worked in the field of JPIC for many years with the Southern African Bishops Conference. In recent years the presence of the Comboni Year of Ongoing Formation in South Africa gives the Province the opportunity to have a mutually beneficial contact with what is happening in the Institute in other parts of the world. Another interesting aspect of the Comboni Missionaries’ presence in South Africa has been the many Lay Comboni Missionaries from Germany and the North American Province who for many years have offered their missionary service in some parishes. Hopefully such a presence will soon recommence.
The international scholasticate of Pietermaritzburg in the Archdiocese of Durban began with the arrival of the first six Comboni Missionary students in the middle of 2002. This scholasticate is inserted into the life of St. Joan of Arc Parish. South Africa is recognized as an important and meaningful field of missionary work for the Comboni Missionaries, some of whom are prepared here and then sent to all parts of the world.
In 2008 a Comboni Missionary started teaching at St. Joseph’s Theological Institute at Cedara where our scholastics study theology together with students of ten other religious Institutes. At the beginning of October 2008 the Comboni Missionaries assumed responsibility for pastoral ministry in three Soweto parishes in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg.
Unemployment, especially of very many young people, poverty, violence, crime, homelessness, corruption and HIV/AIDS are everyday challenges. To these must be added the arrival of thousands of refugees and immigrants from all parts of Africa, from Eastern Europe and even from India, Pakistan and China, resulting from time to time in violent xenophobic attacks against foreigners.
The Province carries on its commitments of mission promotion, especially through Worldwide, and vocation promotion, of formation (with the postulancy and the scholasticate), of first Evangelization and pastoral ministry in rural area and urban townships, of ecumenical dialogue and of promoting justice and peace in a society that is becoming more and more diverse.