Centenary of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, 1879-1979
8 April 1979
. On August 23, 1979, it will be exactly one hundred years since Roman Catholic missionaries came into this country and brought with them the most precious gift, the gift of faith. It is this faith on which we can build our lives and which, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, “guarantees the blessings that we hope for (Hebr. 11:1).
When the missionaries arrived in 1879, they re-started the missionary work first begun by the Jesuit Father Gonzalo da Silveira who was martyred in 1561. Intermittent missionary work went on throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These new missionaries, when they reached Matebeleland in August 1879, intended to go on to the Zambezi River and to settle wherever they could hope to preach the Christian message. They faced opposition, loneliness, disease and starvation. Many lost their lives. They gave all they had to give, in order to hand on that ‘inexpressible gift of God’ (2 Cor. 9: 15).
In difficult times, we all look for something to strengthen and support us. It was faith that the early missionaries courage and strength to establish the beginnings of the early Catholic Church in this country: it is that same faith which they handed on that gives all of us the inspiration, courage and strength to continue this work in our no less difficult times.
The Seed of Faith
Jesus compared the gift of faith to a small seed (Lk. 17:6, 13:18-19). No wonder then that this gift at first looked small and insignificant to our forefathers. This responded only slowly to this offer. Some missionaries may have been slow, and many parents have been reluctant, to prepare children for God’s gift of vocation. But gradually they began to realise the value of this gift. Now, after a hundred years we have reason to look back with gratitude to see how this seed has grown. We have indeed good reason to give thanks to Almighty God for this gift which has brought us into loving relationship with Him whom we dare to call our Father. The faith has blossomed with 3 African Bishops, 63 African priests, 21 African Brothers, 534 African Sisters, 1 064 Catechists and 619 537 Catholic living today. In the past hundred years missions have established all over the country, and much pioneering work was done by the Church – especially in the field of education and health.
The shedding of the blood of 22 missionaries and of an unknown but considerable number of Christians who have been done to death for their faith, has further brought about the flowering of the Faith. They are the greatest glory of the Church in the past hundred years.
During this centenary year we want to thank God
for the lay apostles who are today giving the example of faith in their families, in school, in public life;
for the priests and religious from our own midst who are responding to the call of God;
for the many local catechists and teachers who handed on and continue to hand on this gift;
for the priests, Brothers and Sisters and lay people from foreign countries who were the first messengers of the faith in this country, and those who still carry on this work.
A Shona proverb says, “Totenda maruva tadya chakata” (We give thanks to the blossoms when we have eaten the fruits). In the warlike situation of these last years many Christians have realized what strength and hope the gift of faith can give and how it transforms our lives. In these sad circumstances, missionaries, catechists and lay apostles have lost their lives; Christian communities have found it difficult to meet for Sunday service and worship; people have to go for long periods of time without the healing strength of the sacraments: - but in all these difficulties their faith and confidence in God the Father and our Saviour Jesus Christ has remained unshaken. What a wonderful way of giving thanks for the ‘blossoms’ of the faith which we have received and which strengthens us in our present tribulations and sufferings! From the earliest times of Christianity, the blood of martyrs has been called the seed of Christians – and so it will be now!
The Seed In The Soil
Although the missionaries eagerly planted the seed of faith in this country, they were also children of their own time and culture and so “the announcement of the authentic Gospel and message was inevitably affected by the ways of thinking and acting which were characteristic of their home country” (Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, Nr. 12). They therefore often brought not only the seed of faith but also some of the soil in which to plant the seed!
As we are celebrating this first one hundred years of the Catholic Church in this country, we must make sure that the Faith takes ever-deeper roots in the life, customs and traditions of the local people. Then the Faith will be firmly established and bring abundant local fruit. Since the Second Vatican Council many steps have been taken to make the expression of Christian faith truly indigenous and part of our life. This centenary should inspire us even more to think and plan how to make the Christian message truly incarnate in the life of our people.
The Seed and its Fruit
Our faith is not only a gift from God but also a commitment to God. The seed of faith that has been planted and has grown over the last hundred years must go on to produce ever more abundant fruit among the people of this country. Jesus warned us that if the tree does not produce fruit it would be cut down (Lk. 13: 6-9). Faith must produce fruit in our individual lives, in our families, in the community in which we live and in the nation as a whole. Otherwise we shall only be faithful only by name. The fruits of our Christian Faith must be shown in our way of life: in the home, it means kindness and fidelity; in business, honesty; in society, justice; towards the unfortunate, assistance, towards the poor, help; to sinners, forgiveness; to enemies, reconciliation; to all men, brotherhood in the Fatherhood of God; to God, submission to His will in reverence and love.
We must realize more and more that our Christian faith should be an actual living union with Christ and with all the members of His Body. Our faith can and must be lived among the people with whom we spend our daily life. If the Church is to be a living reality, we must live our faith in our daily life as a community and must make it Christian. Each and every Christian is responsible at his place of life and work for building up the kingdom of Christ.
If this is true for the community that is coming together for worship on Sundays and other occasions, it is even truer for the community of the family at home. The family is itself the first church in which prayers are offered together to God. The family is the place where parents fulfil their duty of teaching their children the Faith by word and example. Greater efforts ought to be made by the Church to help families fulfil this mission of living and handing of the faith.
Our full life in the fellowship of faith, truth and charity must transcend all human and social barriers. Such a life will urge us to share our faith, and to promote the freedom of and integral development of all our brothers and sisters in the society and nation in which we live.
“Faith comes from what is preached, and what is preached comes from the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So that our faith may be sustained and give life, we must gain a better understanding of the word of God as it is found in the books of the Bible, and in the teaching of the Church.
We call on God to grant that this centenary year leads us all to a deepening of our faith and the courage to spread it.
We also call on the Mother of God and our Mother.
We find in her the perfect model of Faith. Her whole life was guided and supported by faith; in faith she accepted God’s message at the Annunciation; in total faithfulness she obeyed the inspirations of the Holy Spirit during her entire life; in joyful faithfulness she adored and loved Christ her Son. Her faith led her to offer her Son, and herself with Him at Mount Calvary. Her life of faith was inspired by love beyond compare. The sacrifice of the cross is the supreme expression of hers and her Son’s love for us sinners. Her faith was anchored in hope: - hope, and joy shown in the victory of the Resurrection and the expectation of the world to come.
We commend our country to the Mother of God.
We implore Mary, Mother of the Church, to lead us in faith to Christ her Son. We implore Mary, our sorrowful Mother, to comfort us her children in the sorrows and trials that the Church has to suffer these days in our country. We implore Mary our Mother to grant us her children in hope. We implore Mary, Queen of Peace, to grant our tormented country the reconciliation and peace that our people so badly need.
We, your Bishops encourage you to mark with gratitude the hundred years of the Catholic faith in this country:
by recalling the heroic lives and examples of the early missionaries and local Christians in your own area,
by giving thanks to God in your parishes for having sent us the greatest of all His gifts, our faith,
by considering in the light of the teaching of the Church how we can make the faith a yeast which leavens our whole life (cf Lk. 13: 20), a support for us in the present difficulties, and a light to guide into the next hundred years.
“You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received- Jesus the Lord: you must be rooted in Him and built on Him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving.” (Col. 2: 6-7).
Archbishop of Salisbury
Henry Karlen, CMM,
Bishop of Bulawayo
Bishop of Gwelo
Auxiliary Bishop of Umtali
Ignatius Prieto, SMI,
Bishop of Wankie
Helmut Reckter, SJ,
Prefect Apostolic of Sinoia