Cardinal Napier - ‘We depend on God’

A Pillar interview

As South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier Fox turns 80 years old, he sat down with The Pillar to talk about evangelization, his experiences of the synods on marriage and young people in Rome, and papal conclaves.

Cardinal Napier’s interview with The Pillar has been edited for clarity and length, and is being published in two parts. This is part two, you can read part one here.

The Pillar: You have said that every time the pope comes to Africa, the Church learns something new. What does the Church still have to learn from Africa?

I think the main thing that Europe can learn from us, and America too, is: In Africa the faith is strong, not because we're better people, morally or whatever, but because the people realize that we need God. We haven't got everything available to us, we depend on others for so many things, so depending on God is going to be next in line. 

And I think this realization of the extent to which we really rely on God, we depend on God, makes a difference in the level of faith and the way you relate to God with faith. That, I think is one of the major, major differences [between Africa and the West]. 

I would say, given the economics and the other developmental situations in Africa, that is going to be with us for a while yet. So I don't think we're going to be showing God out the door politely for quite a long time, if ever at all. I think that need and that realization is going to remain very strong and very high.

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What does evangelization look like in Africa?

I would go back to our pastoral plan of 1989, which was “Communities Serving Humanity.” The reason why we chose those words: community, because we came from such a broken background of apartheid, where we were all in different racial pigeonholes, and so evangelization in that context meant for us building up community, getting people to get out of their enclaves and become a Christian community around Christ. 

And the second thing then was when we've developed that community, we must share it with the rest of our citizens. So: community serving humanity. And that's how we saw it as we were benefiting from the experience of community, in our parishes and local communities and diocese. 

We’re trying to share that at the level of society at this time, we're focusing specifically on evangelization, so we're calling our program now an “evangelizing community,” serving God, humanity, and all creation

So you can see how that's including all the various emphases that the different popes have been providing for us: 

The new evangelization, starting with John Paul. Evangelization, making God the center. 

Pope Benedict, when he was giving the reason why he chose the name Benedict, made reference to St. Benedict, who said “let nothing come between you and Christ your Lord.” So the centrality of Christ, of God in our life. 

And then Pope Francis saying “walk with Jesus— a good disciple is one who walks with Jesus.” That means being a witness to Jesus, but one that you know, who you've encountered. So evangelization is serving God, but it's also serving humanity, our brothers and sisters, and then finally keeping touch with creation — pretty much the theme of Pope Francis in Laudato Si. Our stewardship doesn't just stop with God, or with our neighbor, but it goes on into God's world as well. 

So I would say that the way I understand evangelization, the way we're trying to push this evangelization, is first of all to get people to believe that they belong, they belong to a community, an evangelizing community. So it's community that puts value into the teaching, the living of the lifestyle of the Gospel. But it's doing that for a purpose: to get up to God, but also to draw others up and to bring all creation to a better state.

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You were a very active participant in recent meetings of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, both on the family and on young people. 

In the discussion within the universal Church, do the Africa bishops have a unique voice in defending the Church’s teaching in a way which isn’t academic but is rooted in lived experience?

I think so. I think very much so. 

You know, during all of those sessions of the synods, 2014, 2015 and 2018, we [African bishops] made it a practice, nearly every day, to meet. Vatican radio were very gracious in offering us the whole facility of their hall. We'd meet there two, three times in the week, simply just to get together as Africans to discuss how the synod was going; to look at particular issues that were arising and what attitude we would take towards those situations. 

I remember one instance in particular when we were talking a lot about what was going on in the synod, about people just living together, shacking up and not getting married at all. And in our discussion the question came up: well, are we [in African traditions] sharing in that kind of devaluation of marriage? And the answer was quite clear, no. 

People are not getting married in Africa, not because they disparage marriage, but because they are preparing for marriage and they want to do it properly. So unless the bride price has all been done properly, the agreement between the families has been done, the marriage just doesn't take place. In fact, the couple could live together in that, but it's not a testimony against marriage, it's in preparation for the fullness of the marriage. That point was made, and I think it appeared in the final document [of the synod on the family] as well. 

It’s those kinds of presences, those kinds of interventions that do have an impact on the Church where perhaps that thought has never even occurred to them because they are thinking on a very different plane altogether.

I think that same thing comes across when you've got a synod and you have the African bishops together, I think there's a certain camaraderie, a certain brotherhood. I'm not saying others don't have it, but when you think of where we are from — such different backgrounds and Africa being so many countries —  these brothers getting together like this, I think it's a great testimony to how the faith is working. 

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You mention the communion between the African bishops, what about the cardinals? There are 13 voting cardinals from Africa now that you have turned 80. The pope has convened several synods of bishops in recent years but not the ordinary consistories of the College of Cardinals. Has it been hard for the cardinals to get to know each other?

Yes, and if we are in one place together, it's not on an organized level. I think that's the other question. 

I mean, I could go across to the next consistory for the creation of a group of cardinals and I'd stay in the college where I normally stay with the Franciscans, and I’d only bump into another cardinal when I got to St Peter's — there wouldn't be really an opportunity to get together.

So this is certainly a downside to the current pontificate: We have not been having those opportunities to sit and to go through the same exercise that we went through in our preparation for the election of Pope Francis, where those are great deal of sharing about the situations in our various countries, and, I think, a very good amount of positive input as to what the new pope would need to do. And I think Pope Francis has really benefited from knowing that this was the thinking of the College of Cardinals. 

I would suggest that we probably need something like that again, and on a regular basis. Perhaps not each time there's a consistory for creation of cardinals, but special meetings like Pope Benedict did shortly after he was elected. He made an announcement that May that we’d be coming together. He had a very specific agenda for the cardinals to deal with during those two days. Something like that, I think, is of value for the leadership of the Church worldwide.

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How has it been for you, taking more senior status among the African cardinals and bishops, handing on your experiences of Rome to the next generation?

I make the two conclaves [in 2005 and 2013] a reference point for any presentation that I would make. Because it was so important, really key, what Benedict said at the moment of his election, why he chose his name, what Francis said when he chose his name. 

I think these are really key things showing the depth of spirituality that the pope has, even though he may be presented more in the lane of a secular leader or power here and there. That spirituality aspect of the popes must come through very, very strongly.