Bishop Abel Gabuza: The Past and New Challenges
On February 10, Bishop Abel Gabuza will take possession of his office as the coadjutor archbishop of Durban. CHRISTEN TORRES asked him about the diocese he is leaving behind and the archdiocese he is coming to.
On February 10, Bishop Abel Gabuza, currently of Kimberley, will be received as the new coadjutor archbishop of Durban, in the presence of the bishops of Southern Africa, who will gather that week in Mariannhill for their biannual plenary session.
The Mass of Reception will be held at 10:00 on the grounds of St Henry’s Marist College in Glenville.
Pope Francis appointed the outgoing bishop of Kimberley as coadjutor of Durban in December. This position means that he will run the archdiocese with its incumbent archbishop, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, with the right to succeed him.
Cardinal Napier, who will turn 78 in March, submitted his resignation to Pope Francis in 2016 on turning 75, but the pope asked him to stay on. When the pope does accept the resignation, Bishop Gabuza will automatically succeed Cardinal Napier.
Born on March 23, 1955 in Alexandra, Johannesburg, Bishop Gabuza was ordained a priest in the archdiocese of Pretoria on December 15, 1984, and served his archdiocese as a parish priest in several communities.
He also lectured at three seminaries, and served South Africa’s orientation seminaries in Pretoria and Cape Town as rector from 1991-94.
In the early 2000s, Bishop Gabuza was one of the leading forces in the African Catholic Priests’ Solidarity Movement.
He became vicar-general of Pretoria in 1999.
He was appointed bishop of Kimberley on December 23, 2010. He was ordained a bishop on March 19, 2011—the first of three successive vicars-general of Pretoria to be made bishops.
His successors, Bishops Dabula Mpako and Victor Phalana were appointed to Queenstown and Kimberley respectively in 2011 and 2014.
Bishop Gabuza is the present chair of the Justice & Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, a position in which he has made several forthright statements on matters as diverse as corruption and the tragic deaths of pupils in latrines.
Having served two terms as J&P chair, he will not be eligible for re-election in the February plenary session of the SACBC in Mariannhill.
We asked Bishop Gabuza about his time in Kimberley, and what he expects in Durban.
What was it like when you were told you’d become the coadjutor archbishop of Durban? Were you surprised?
I was stunned when [the apostolic nuncio] Archbishop Peter Wells called me and told me that Pope Francis is appointing me to the archdiocese of Durban as the coadjutor.
It never dawned on me that my name would interest those who make decisions regarding the appointment of bishops throughout the world. I was happy as bishop of Kimberley. It is a small diocese which is manageable. There are 31 priests, three deacons and 15 religious, women and men.
I have recently celebrated 34 years since my ordination and I have always considered myself an obedient son of the Church.
Yes, it was a great surprise for me when I was told that I have to uproot myself and go to Durban. I will always be conscious that I am a servant. I will go where the Church wishes me to serve.
Coadjutor-archbishop is not a common thing, is it?
This has never happened before in the history of the Catholic Church in South Africa. Being something new, this will confuse a lot of people.
I will work with Cardinal Napier for some time. He will guide me, show me the ropes, until further notice.
Who shaped you?
There are people who contributed to who I am. My family, Holy Cross Sisters at Holy Cross Convent School in Alexandra township, teachers at St Paul’s Minor Seminary and so many others I have met in my life.
As you are preparing to leave for Durban, what is going to be your memory of Kimberley diocese?
Kimberley diocese is in the main a rural place. There are about 180000 Catholics, and to the credit of the missionaries, almost in all the villages there is a Catholic structure in the form of a big building used for worship, a hall, a preschool and a small prayer house.
There is a lot of travelling and I did my best to visit all the communities in the diocese.
Something that will always remain with me is the generosity of many Catholics.
In the villages one is always confronted by the state of poverty of many people. People struggle to have access to water. The roads are not tarred and the clinics (mobile) are not readily available and with not enough medication.
Yet, our Catholics still give what they have. In the last few years we had managed to raise funds for the education of our seminarians.
The concept of ownership of the Church has been accepted by many Catholics as the way to make the local Church self-supporting.
Together with my co-workers, the priests and deacons, I tried to promote a life of responsible consciousness among Catholics in the diocese.
I believe that the best way of expressing our gratitude to the missionaries of yesterday is to build on what they did and move beyond being Catholics who simply maintain the structures we have inherited.
There is a need to be creative and allow the Word of God to influence us and energise us. See Ephesians 2:19-22.
What do you see as your challenge in Durban?
The archdiocese of Durban is part of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In the conference we are aware of the many challenges we face as a Church in this part of the world.
One way of responding to these challenges is the production of the Pastoral Plan for our conference area.
There are new questions that need new answers in these challenging times we face as Catholics. The Pastoral Plan is a way of being willing to embrace our troubled history and taking responsibility for the present and future.
We are now in the final stages of producing the Pastoral Plan. It has taken many years of reflection and prayer to have this plan.
Do you think that it might create certain challenges in Durban that you are not Zulu?
I am a South African. I was raised in the cosmopolitan township of Alexandra, Gauteng. There were all kinds of people who spoke different languages. We even had several people of Chinese descent who had shops in various parts of the township. They lived in the township.
We had to learn and speak several languages spoken in South Africa.
As long I work and live in South Africa, I will attempt to speak whatever language is spoken in any part of our country.
This is my privileged inheritance from the Alexandra township.
And do you have any words of advice for your eventual successor in Kimberley?
There will be storms and waves, but as someone said: “At times the storms are not meant to disrupt one’s life but are meant to clear the path for one.”