Talk at the 109 commemoration of the death anniversary of Abbot Francis Pfanner, Servant of God.
Abbot Francis Pfanner, the missionary pioneer
in the last 200 years of the Church’s existence in Southern Africa.
Dear brothers and sisters, I am very happy that as we commemorate the 109 death anniversary of Abbot Francis Pfanner, the Servant of God, we are also celebrating the bicentenary of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa as the Province of Mariannhill. You will agree with me that it is not easy to pay tribute to the member of one’s own family. One is always accused of lack of objectivity and critical analysis. Moreover, the topic that I have been asked to talk about is difficult.
To talk about Abbot Francis as a “pioneer” is very easy because he developed so many projects in various monasteries where he worked, including saving many lives in Tre Fontane, Rome, where he planted Eucalyptus trees to save people from the malaria epidemic.
But to talk of Abbot Francis as a “missionary pioneer” is difficult because we all know that he was a Trappist and died a Trappist. When Abbot Francis and the 30 monks descended in South Africa, Dunbrody, in 1880 their primary task was to introduce the contemplative spirit into the local church. They had to perform this function under the guidance of the strict Benedictine motto of Prayer and Work, “Ora et Labora,” which was accompanied by austere silence and a cloistered life.
As I prepared this reflection I remembered a booklet I had read, called The Bicentennial Celebration of the Church in Southern Africa. This is the booklet the SACBC put together to mark the bi-centennial celebration of the Church in Southern Africa. It describes the difficulties and challenges that Fr. Johannes Lansik, Prefect Apostolic, Bishop Bede Slater, OSB, first Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Patrick Raymund Griffith and many others faced as they tried to establish the Church in the Cape Colony from 1805. It informs us that there was a lot of religious and political intolerance at a time. Strangely the booklet concludes by saying that “It was not until 1880 that the first Southern African Mission in what is today South Africa was successfully established by the Trappists”.
The story of Prior Francis Pfanner began at Dunbrody in the Eastern Cape. That is where our story as Mariannhillers and CPS began! The famous quotations of Abbot Francis, “If no one goes, I will,” “Unload! We stay here. Here we will build the Monastery,” “Run so as to win the prize” all show that he was a man of action. He was not afraid to take risks and to start new things (pioneering spirit). That relentless missionary/pioneering spirit has contributed a lot to make the Church in Southern Africa what She is today!
I was pleased to hear Archbishop Buti Tlhagale O.M.I mentioning Abbot Francis Pfanner as one of the pioneers of evangelization in South Africa during the celebration of bicentenary existence of the Church in Magalliesburg on the 22 April 2018. At the beginning of his homily the Archbishop quoted Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Ecclesia in Africa, Church in Africa, where he says “It is appropriate to pay profound homage to the missionaries, men and women, who devoted themselves without counting the cost, to the task of transmitting the torch of the Christian faith”. He mentioned a few influential individual religious men and women who played a critical role in the establishment of the Church among whom was Abbot Francis Pfanner. I invite you to rise and pray in silence as a way of honouring all those missionaries who gave their lives for the missions!
We are lucky to be the happy inheritors of that marvellous adventure and we joyfully pay our depth of thanks to God. We do that being fully aware of what Bishop Stanley Dziuba, the local ordinary of this diocese, said when reflecting on the role played by missionaries: “We stand on the shoulders of the giants, the many missionaries from Europe whose work can still be seen by the many schools and clinics that bear the names of the saints”.
Indeed, Abbot Francis Pfanner and his companions did contribute to the rapid growth of the Church in the 20th century. They made a major contribution in the area of spiritual development, quality education, health care, agriculture and social welfare. Through their engagement they helped to improve the healthcare and quality of life of our people. They used three tools that are missing so much in our society today: Prayer, Work and Silence/Discernment! In one of his writing Abbot Francis Pfanner wrote “silence is conducive to turning inward….and more surely and easily teaches one to see into the inner-self and to raise one’s heart and mind to God”.
Imagine if the whole world took some quiet time to discern on its action through prayer and meditation! Many atrocities of violence (e.g. in Congo, Israel and Palestine) would be avoided. We live in such a fast moving world which does not accord us time to take stock of our actions. People do not want to work hard or to listen to the views of others. They want fast cash, fast self-enrichment, fast foods, fast Wi-Fi, fast …fast! The spirit of hard labour, commitment and sacrifice has totally diminished as people live on government grants and from bribes and criminality to sustain their lives.
Have we forgotten that through the schools that Abbot Francis and his contemporaries built, many political and social leaders of the time were formed – including in the area of the conscience? Through the foundation of the CPS community and later on of the FSF community of Assisi, the role and dignity of women religious and women in general was acknowledged and upheld.
The missionaries fought the apartheid system by founding multiracial schools whereby black and white children could mingle together as one. They promoted human rights by giving life skills to our people on how to save money, how to grow produce in their fields, etc. The motto and spirit of Fr. Bernard Huss is still valid and a challenge for today “Better fields, better homes and better hearts”.
This motto promoted a holistic development of the person. Abbot Francis and his companions knew that if our people had enough produce and harvest from their fields, decent homes to live in, then their family and society would be at peace! They would be ready to receive the Word of God. Maybe that is why they succeeded to convert the Zulu people as compared to missionaries who had tried before them. As we say, the way to the heart of a Zulu man is through his stomach. Abbot Francis loved the local people he ministered to. Again and again he used to remark about how strong their physique was, their legs and teeth were, as compared to “the wobble legs of a European”.
Abbot Francis wrote one day; “When the heart is at peace, it is easier to pray. Everyone whose heart is at peace can look down to the bottom and can see God Himself in his heart so clearly that it is easy for him to talk with God”.
These and other virtues of Abbot Francis are what made the Church to be what it is today: his strong zeal for mission, readiness for sacrifice, innovative spirit of trying new things, not being afraid to have a different opinion, even against the whole group (he was not a pleaser at all – he believed in his convictions/vision), spirit of service and fortitude. Although he died a monk he longed to do mission in various places and to expand his mission to the other parts of Africa and even to China.
Before his death, when the Zimbabwe mission had just been established, he remarked, “How I wish I was still young….” The ever willing spirit to engage in labour is one of the legacies that Abbot Francis left us and the Church of Southern Africa.
Furthermore, in all he did, Mother Mary and St. Joseph were his pillars of strength!
My dear brothers and sisters, it is not enough to sing the praises of Abbot Francis and of all our pioneers. As we recognize the contributions of our pioneering missionaries, we must feel challenged ourselves to emulate them or to even do better if we can. Many social ills and challenges that people of Abbot Francis time faced have not subsided yet. On the contrary people are more than ever before obsessed with the love of money and material goods.
Even the communities of consecrated life are not immune to these problems. People ask what’s there for me before they participate in any charitable task. This love of money and material things will be the next biggest scandal the Church will have suffered, after that of sexual abuses. Lack of adequate accountability for the donations that were entrusted into the hands of the Church will cause an embarrassing scenario.
In addition, there is an increase of false prophets in our country. They are not only out there. Even in our Church we have people who twist the Gospel values for their own gain. Some of the laws that we make in our parish even contradict the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Miracles are gaining more favour over faith and deep spirituality. We put so much emphasis on physical healing as opposed to deeper faith. As a result the faithful are prepared even to eat snakes and drink paraffin and be sprayed by doom to receive quick physical healing. We are faced with so many inequalities, so much racial divisions, xenophobia and human trafficking in our societies and Church. Our Church is not so keen on engaging openly in the field of these social ills. Racism is a sacred cow: everybody knows deep down that it exists, but nobody wants to talk about it. Instead of being prophetic we have become so repulsive and silent.
Our people are faced with the critical issues of food security and global warming; we must claim our leadership role in these areas. We must be the ones to lead the campaigns for cleaning our environment and filthy cities, roads, etc., as this dirt and pollution cause adverse negative con-sequences to our world. Littering is a big problem in South Africa. I was almost hit by a bottle on N3 because our people still throw garbage from their moving cars.
Finally, do we have to be violent and destructive to infrastructures when we strike or express our grievances? What happened to the peaceful demonstrations? Who burns a library while demonstrating against lack of educational infrastructure? A building that provides services and knowledge to community! Who burns commuter taxis, trains and trucks while complaining about lack of transport? Who burns a University while demonstrating about “fees must fall”? When they fall, where will the students go for their classes? Sick society! How can the Church be so silent when corruption is so rampart in every sphere of our society?
Dear friends, as I conclude this reflection I wish to quote Archbishop Buti Tlhagale O.M.I who, in his homily in Maggaliesburg, said “the giants that we recall today suffered persecution, diseases, poverty, discrimination, rejection, persecution for the sake of the Gospel. Their commitment was their path to holiness. They shared fully in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the example and legacy they have given us.
Pain and suffering, success and failure are an inevitable part of our Christian life. The founders of our Church lived a life of charity to the full. Some never returned home. They taught us the meaning of the Eucharist – the body of Christ himself, the real presence of the resurrected One. Those men and women have shown us the light of Christ.
It is up to us to choose light over darkness. We owe all our missionaries homage and gratitude. “The Catholic church contributed immensely towards the building of this country. We owe those before us a huge debt of gratitude for the quality of life we have now”.
As a sign of honouring these giants, I invite all of us to play our part as prophetic religious missionaries of our time. Let us not sit down lazily while the people of God are yearning for guidance and for good example, for seeing what it means to be true Christians.
Through the intercession of Abbot Francis Pfanner, our missionary pioneer, may God grant us courage to rise and be counted as we fight the religious and social ills of our time!