Four SA Catholics: Understanding God in African Cultural Tradition
A group of South African women took part in an international pilgrimage to Greece. CHRISTINE SCHENK spoke to four of them on their experience of being women in the Catholic Church.
Two months ago—just before the Covid-19 pandemic made travel impossible—I was part of a remarkable international group of people touring ancient Christian sites in Greece.
While our focus was on women leaders in early Christianity, I could not help but notice some impressive female leaders travelling right alongside us.
The witness of four of the women from South Africa was especially compelling. They helped our group appreciate diverse understandings of God in an African cultural context.
At a pilgrimage prayer service dedicated to the “God Beyond all Names”, Dr Nontando Hadebe reflected that in most African languages there are no pronouns. “So for our understanding of God, it is more the mystery, the greatness of God,” said the theologian of St Augustine College in Johannesburg, the country’s only Catholic university.
“The gendering or masculinisation of God is not something that you find in African traditional religions,” she explained.
Regarding traditional African religions, which are diverse and communal in origin, Dr Hadebe explained that “they don’t have a founder such as Mohammed or Moses or Jesus”.
African traditional religious “emerged over centuries from communities gathering together, acquiring wisdom and reflecting on life”.
For Africans, said Dr Hadebe, “you express your faith in God in the way you treat your fellow human beings. “The understanding of what it means to be human is, you are human in your relationship with others.” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, but African traditional religions say, “I relate, therefore I am”, she explained.
The outcome of the first Synod of Bishops on Africa, Ecclesia in Africa (1995), and the work of African theologians greatly benefited inculturation and evangelisation, she said. Cultural values from African traditional religions have been appropriated and reflected in African Christianity “so that Christianity has an African face”.
For example, the idea of the Church “as the extended family of God” incorporates African communal values.
Born into a Catholic family in Zimbabwe, Dr Hadebe teaches systematic theology, pastoral ministry and African spirituality at St Augustine College.
A member of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, she is passionate about gender equality, Africanisation and social justice.
These she brings to her weekly programme on Radio Veritas. Thanks to Dr Hadebe’s initiative and encouragement, three other South African women—including two millennials—joined our pilgrimage.
Women in Church
Annastacia Mphuthi heads the Office of Divine Worship and Liturgy in the archdiocese of Johannesburg. In this capacity, she gives workshops in faith communities throughout the archdiocese, training people to be communion ministers and lectors, and in other liturgical ministries.
Because of traditional beliefs about female menstruation, one problem Ms Mphuthi frequently faces is that parish leaders—including priests and pastoral council members—sometimes resist permitting women to distribute Communion or proclaim the Word.
“They believe the women are not supposed to be entering the sanctuary,” she said. With the support of Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, Ms Mphuthi works with communities, telling them they “need to respect women”.
While inculturation is a value, “they must understand the Church culture as well”, and the Church culture is to include women.
Other liturgical elements that sometimes require education and intervention include appropriate times for dancing and drumming in Mass—fine at the Gloria, but not at the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).
The Dan Brown code
Two millennial women, Sagoema Maredi and Pride Makgato, offered youthful energy and fresh vision. Ms Maredi describes herself as a “born and bred” Catholic.
She studied theology with Dr Hadebe, an unusual choice for a millennial woman. “It’s a very embarrassing story,” she laughs.
The impetus came from reading “the buzz book” at the time, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. “I went to watch the movie Angels and Demons with my sister, and there was Tom Hanks in the Vatican, able to interpret all those ancient languages and statues and history,” she recalled.
“I decided, ‘He’s very smart, I want to be able to do that.’ I guess I’ve lived my life wanting to be like Tom Hanks.”
After majoring in the Old Testament and Hebrew, Ms Maredi had an opportunity to continue postgraduate studies but chose to enter the workforce instead.
She now works at Baptist Theological College in Johannesburg, where she was recently promoted to academic programme administrator, the first black woman to hold that position.
Ms Maredi hopes to expand awareness of the need for pastors to address social ills which she finds “too rarely thought of” in South African seminaries.
The Beauty of Faith
Pride Makgato describes herself as “a 24-year-old proud black woman” and cradle Catholic who “did all my sacraments”, until her mother gave her the option of waiting to be confirmed.
After having a spiritual experience one Christmas, Ms Makgato departed from her initial career path as a beautician. “I don’t know if I can call it a religious experience, but I think I had one.
And being a beautician or becoming a makeup artist just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”
Her grandmother had asked the family to attend Mass together before Christmas dinner. “And just being in a church after I hadn’t been to church in so long, really moved me,” said Ms Makgato.
“It changed me, I guess. I don’t know, maybe it was the service that was held, but it evoked something in me.”
After the meal, Ms Makgato found information about St Augustine College in her grandmother’s Catholic newspaper.
She is now pursuing a bachelor of theology degree, an experience she says is “quite amazing”. One of the things Ms Makgato loves about the Catholic Church is that it is different from other churches in her culture.
These do not allow women to be in a room with men or with the elders without a head covering and a long skirt.
“So I think I also love the Roman Catholic Church because I’m allowed to be myself. And although it has not progressed to what we want it to be, I’m not told what I should wear.”
Ms Makgato was finally confirmed last November.
Two Months Later
Since returning home in midMarch I have been in regular communication with each of the four woman. Thankfully all are healthy, though also anxious about their families and worried about the poverty-stricken.
After a generous benefactor helped with her fees, Ms Makgato is thrilled that she will be able to continue theology studies in June, if Covid-19 restrictions allow.
She is worried because classes will be online and her Internet access is unreliable. She is also dismayed that so many government officials are “stealing food parcels that are meant to be given to the poor”.
Because of the quarantine, neither Ms Mphuthi nor her husband are working, so they are struggling financially. They are also concerned about their son who is frustrated by the pace of online classes and poor Internet access.
“But we give it all to God,” she writes.
The peripatetic Dr Hadebe is up to her usual good works, including joining with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians “to respond to gendered aspects [of Covid-19], such as the rise in domestic violence”.
She is aiding an ecumenical effort to help grassroots pastors who have lost income due to church closures.
Earlier this month, she joined a panel of religious leaders on Soweto TV, addressing domestic violence through the story of the biblical Tamar.
Dr Hadebe’s reflection on Covid-19 is inspiring. “It challenges us to answer the call that we are each other’s keepers, the pain of the other is my pain—reflected in the African teaching of ubuntu—I am because we are, my humanity is tied up with yours,” she said.
“Covid-19 calls us to renew our commitment to each other for the common good.”
This article was originally published by Global Sisters Report at www.globalsistersreport.org.