What do Bishops do for Christmas?
What do bishops do at Christmas? CHRISTEN TORRES spoke to five South African prelates to find out.
Christmas is a day of family, celebration and relaxation, but for bishops, as it is for all clergy, it’s also a time of meeting responsibilities and work before they can take off their mitres and join in the Christmas fun and peace.
Five bishops shared with The Southern Cross what Christmas Day means to them, and what they do over the festive days.
Many bishops spend their Christmas day celebrating Mass in their cathedral or in parish churches in their dioceses.
Bishop Zolile Peter Mpambani of Kokstad will celebrate Mass with the parishioners of Our Lady of Assumption parish at Cedarville in his diocese, followed by Christmas lunch.
“I will also visit a community of Sisters to wish them ‘Merry Christmas’, and go back home for a rest—and that is the end of Christmas Day,” Bishop Mpambani said.
Bishop Joe Sandri of Witbank has a series of liturgical functions planned.
He usually spends the Christmas vigil in one of the parishes of his diocese, joining parishioners in the local celebrations. “This year I will join the cathedral parish for a time of Christmas carol-singing and preside at midnight Mass,” Bishop Sandri told The Southern Cross.
“On Christmas Day I preside at Mass at another parish, and then I celebrate with the local people or share a meal with the elderly at one of our homes for the aged,” he said.
“On Christmas Day or other days near Christmas I have lunch or supper with friends and exchange simple gifts,” said the bishop, who is scheduled to lead The Southern Cross pilgrimage to France in October 2019.
Midnight Mass is not always at midnight, as Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria noted.
“We usually have Midnight Mass, and it is always a beautiful occasion. Generally it’s not at midnight, so it has to be around 19:00 or 20:00 for people’s safety.”
On Christmas Day, “I go to a rural parish that doesn’t usually have a Mass”, he said.
After that, he visits an organisation “which is made up of university students who go out and help the poor”, Archbishop Slattery said.
“On Christmas Day they put on a great party for children. I go there in a red coat and set out to entertain the kids. They think I’m Santa Claus,” Archbishop Slattery said. “I go to the children and pat them on the head and say nice things. I also go around and bless the children.”
Bishop Abel Gabuza of the huge Kimberley diocese will spend a good chunk of his day driving to a rural parish.
“I will have to leave Kimberley early in the morning on Christmas Day and drive for two hours in order to be on time for Christmas Mass at 8:00. The Mass is preceded by the singing of Christmas carols in various languages,” he said.
“I buy some sweets, fruit and toys for the children,” the bishop said. “These are prepared and packed in small parcels for the boys and girls under 12 years old. The parcels are given to the children at the end of Mass.”
Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha will have Mass on Christmas Day, “and after that I will be in my house”.
“I might visit my mother who lives 100km away from Mthatha or accept an invitation for supper from one of the parishes around Mthatha” he added.
Family and friends
Spending time with family and friends is an especially important part of Christmas celebrations. That is true also for the clergy.
“I remind all communities that Christmas is also an occasion for families to come together,” Bishop Gabuza said. “It is important on this day that all members of different families be together.”
For Bishop Sandri, a Comboni missionary, there sometimes is the joy of having family visiting from Italy.
“With them I visit the Kruger Park and other tourist places in Mpumalanga,” he said, adding: “At times I spend a few days in a lonely place or in a lodge.”
Bishop Sandri tries to stay in contact with friends and family, even those who might be far away.
“I write a Christmas greetings circular to send by post and e-mail to my fellow bishops, to priests, religious and faithful of the diocese of Witbank, as well as to family members, friends, benefactors and my Comboni Missionaries confreres”, he said.
“A few days before Christmas I spend time phoning my family members and some good friends.”
Archbishop Slattery noted how his Christmas in South Africa differs greatly from what he knew in his native Ireland.
“It is very much about family there. My mother used to cry for me because I wasn’t in Ireland,” the Franciscan missionary said, adding: “She didn’t know that the last thing I wanted was to be in Ireland in the cold!”
Christmas is a time of calm and some leisure.
“The bishops’ offices are closed, the employees are at home. It is a time of quiet”, explained Bishop Sandri.
“I also slow down a little. I have time to evaluate the past year and plan for the year to come. I visit friends and take some walks. I read and update myself on Church documents, books, magazines and so on. I pray a little more,” he said.
Bishop Sipuka noted that “the focus of Christmas is not on Church but family”.
“This is the time when family members return home from various parts of the country where they work. It is often at this time that family rituals and other functions are done,” the Mthatha bishop said.
“So when December comes, people switch off about the Church. They close at work and they close at Church, and focus on being with family and extended family members, inclusive of those who believe differently in terms of Church denomination or who don’t belong to any Church,” he observed.
However, sometimes Christmas doesn’t go quite as planned, as Archbishop Slattery pointed out.
“One Christmas I was in an out- station when I locked my keys in the boot of the car and couldn’t get back in. I got home only at 21:00 that night. I could only chew a bone while I was waiting for help,” he recalled.
“Another Christmas I ate only a chicken head that was boiled in oil!” he said.
The archbishop noted: “I have had many different Christmases, but they have always been joyous and filled with love.”
And, of course, for the bishops and for us, Christmas is the time when we gaze with joy, wonder and gratitude at the Incarnation in the Manger.