February/Bishop on the Beat

Bishop Williamson’s reminiscences of his trip to sourthern Africa at the end of 1999. Not the last we hope, My Lord!

The faithful remnant of Catholics is holding its own in southern Africa, and looks likely to do so for the foreseeable future. There as elsewhere, what Archbishop Lefebvre described in 1988 as the “Operation Survival” of the Society of St. Pius X is moving forwards, not spectacularly, but still forwards. That is the conclusion I draw from my recent three-and-a-half week visit to the Society’s main centres in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the Republic of South Africa.

The visit began with three full days in Harare, Zimbabwe. Out handsome church in the Strathaven suburb of the capital city was well filled for the Confirmations on the Sunday morning. Here as elsewhere. I recognized few faces that I could remember from the early 1980’s. Obviously, people have gone, by death or emigration or whatever, but others have come to take their place. Lunch after Confirmations was held beneath a marquee in the Priory garden, and after lunch there was a conference on, amongst other things, the sinking of the “Titanic”! On advantage of touring is that the speaker can ride his favourite hobby horses in one location after another!


To conclude the afternoon, parishioners and children gave a concert in the Conference

Room of the also most handsome Retreat House, built in the Priory grounds since my last visit. How wise to provide for the Ignatian Retreats! The other great instrument of the  apostolate recommended by Archbishop Lefebvre for our difficult times is children’s schools. The children are not lacking in Harare. I was bowled over by some of them performing “Ag. Pleez, deddy, won’t you take us to the drive-in?”, song which I heard for the first time on this visit, and which I never stopped mentioning for the next three weeks — a South African classic! A school for these Harare children may come, perhaps not tomorrow, because there is no room left on Priory grounds, but the day after tomorrow Providence will surely provide. “Ag, pleez, deddy, can you geev us a skool?”

Next stop was Durban in the Republic of South Africa, where the Society is firmly established in the impressive down-town parish church and house set up years ago by Fr. Eldred Leslie and handed over by him to the care of the Society, also since my last visit. Well over 20 confirmations on the Sunday morning testified to the healthy state of the parish. Lunch was again held beneath a marquee set up in the spacious Priory grounds, but there was no conference afterwards. The people had, as Americans say, had it from both barrels in the mornings sermon, one hour in length, despite the heat!

The sultry weather meant a bumpy aeroplane ride that same evening to Johannesburg, where five of the Society’s six priests presently stationed in southern Africa were gathered for a priests’ retreat in the Society’s fortress in Roodepoort. It is obviously a shame when the Church must barricade herself like she must now do in Roodepoort, but it is unavoidable when, as happened once recently, the gentle chant and prayer of Benediction were interrupted by gunshots which killed three criminals and wounded two policemen one block away from the Priory!

That marbled window and the brand new marble altar beneath it make the old Roodepoort school hall into an even more impressive church than it already was. How well-built that hall is, and the whole school building! I had thought it was the work of Afrikaners, but I learnt this time that it was another work of the British Empire. Ah, what a story that is! — “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”, warned Shelley, as the mighty British Empire was rising to its zenith…..

he priests’ retreat went quietly, with no interruption by gunshots, and then took place on the following Sunday the largest number of Confirmations in any one location on this tour, 29. The church was failed with people for the Solemn High Mass, with deacon and sub-deacon thanks to the presence of the priests. Afterwards there was a concert, provided again by parishioners and children of the Society’s Roodepoort school. Highlights were the powerful singing of same Zulu Catholic hymns by Zulu parishioners, and a four-hand rendition on the piano of Rossini’s Overture to “‘The Barber of Seville”. Catholics, bless them, have live music in them. How much preferable to canned music, however professionally the latter may be performed!