Archbishop Slattery Speaks on his Years in South Africa
While on an extended holiday in Ireland, Archbishop Emeritus William Slattery of Pretoria told that country’s national Catholic newspaper about his experiences during apartheid, and gave the Church in the country of his birth some advice as well.
In his interview with The Irish Catholic weekly, Archbishop Slattery, who was succeeded as head of Pretoria archdiocese by Archbishop Dabula Mpako in June, recalled his experience of apartheid in broad strokes, and recounted personal anecdotes as a missionary Franciscan priest and as rector of St John Vianney Seminary during the height of the struggle.
The archbishop remembered how two weeks after arriving in South Africa in 1971, the year after his ordination, he was asked to do a funeral. As he went to collect the coffin of the deceased, he noticed that the morgue had two racially-divided sections. “Even in death they were separated,” he told interviewer Chai Brady.
Although he tried to stay out of a situation in which he would be advantaged because of his colour, it was difficult because of segregation in almost everything.
Archbishop Slattery also recalled the differences between black and white seminarians at St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria during his term as rector there, noting that while the black 75% of students were mostly engaged in the struggle, most of the white 25% feared the prospect of communism.
He noted that in the 1980s, St John Vianney received several threats of closure from the government because the institution admitted both black and white students.
Archbishop Slattery said he was embarrassed to be ordained bishop of Kokstad in 1994, feeling that it was time for black bishops to be appointed.
“I said no, I came out her to be a missionary, I’m a Franciscan, I came out to serve the people and do the work of the poor really,” he told The Irish Catholic.
“So they went off, I gave them other names, but they came back three months later and… they insisted.”
The appointment came shortly after he had survived a random knife attack.
After being stabbed in the back, “I drove myself to the hospital about 40km on a bad road and I fainted when I got in there.”
An hour later the whole congregation of about 120 people for whom he had just celebrated Mass arrived in the back of a lorry, “all roaring and crying and lifting up my jacket and my bloodstained vest”.
Archbishop Slattery said the Catholic Church has delivered “a fantastic service in South Africa as regards schooling, getting people into schools, social services”.
“All the first rural clinics in South Africa were built by the Church,” he added.
The archbishop, who grew up in County Tipperary, offered some advice to the Irish Church, which has declined rapidly over the past couple of decades.
The Irish Church, he said, should be more “forceful, more self-confident” in spreading the Good News, as it had shifted away from “being close to people”.
He said sexual abuse by Church personnel has been “absolutely devastating”, noting that in South Africa the scandal has not been as extensive as in Ireland.
“It’s not so much child-centred [abuse] in South Africa; here [in Ireland] it was child-centred.”
“This is totally hitting at the very meaning of Christianity which is care, blessing, hope, a healing,” Archbishop Slattery said.
“I think the Church has to do that: it has to be courageous and imaginative [in] responding to people, helping people to heal; go out there and talk to people even though you will get criticism,” he said.
“The Church depends on community; when community gets weak, churches get weak because we grow strong not only through knowledge but you meet God through belonging. Where there is a strong sense of belonging, God is not far away,” the archbishop said.