Pope Francis with Cardinal Wilfrid Napier. Picture: Archives
Pope Francis with Cardinal Wilfrid Napier. Picture: Archives

Eighty and still going strong

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Aug 1, 2020

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Durban - The city’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has been a “man of the cloth” for 50 years.

He said that although he was supposed to have retired four years ago, his future remains “in God’s hands”. He turns 80 this month.

“I am regarding it as a last push that God has given me an opportunity to do more,” he said, reflecting on his journey through political, cultural, racial, corruption and virus challenges he has been tackling and continues to do so during the Covid-19 crisis.

“My health is fine.”

Perhaps that has something to do with the Napiers living to healthy old ages in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

“My mom and dad lived until 84. I had uncles and aunts who went on into their nineties. One relative passed on at 102.”

While maintaining social distancing by conducting a telephone rather than a face-to-face interview, the line suddenly went dead as he referred to the apartheid days.

“In tackling the coronavirus we are very much, as church ecumenical leaders, co-operating closely with the government. That’s very different to the apartheid days,” he said.

In the next call that immediately followed, the cardinal reminisced about how, back then, “Big Brother” listening in, often cut off conversations when the topic became too hot.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier.

Then he switched to talking about another big brother. His older brother, Peter, who had inspired him when he joined Franciscan brothers building a hospital at Bizana, in the Eastern Cape, before studying for the priesthood.

The younger Napier, who was a matriculant at Little Flower High School in Ixopo, had otherwise considered studying natural sciences at a Catholic university in Lesotho.

The pair headed off to Ireland to become Franciscans, but only Wilfred saw it through, returning home 10years later to a posting in a political backwater that would be more impacted on the independence of the Transkei homeland than the Soweto Riots of 1976.

With his appointment as Bishop of Kokstad in 1981, came his partici- pation in a meeting in Hammans- kraal, in Gauteng, to take the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa in a new direction, “out of our different compartments - in racial, language and tribal pigeon holes”.

“It took us in a new direction.”

Durban, with five times more parishes under him as archbishop, came at about the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and with it an era of intense political negotiation.

“The churches played a really crucial part in negotiation between the government and the liberation movements.”

Napier recalls the era of the HIV/Aids pandemic as a time when it was recognised that South Africa needed a lot of help.

This, the cardinal said regretfully, had been jeopardised by national projects such as the arms deal and wasteful expenditure, making donors believe that if the government was pulling this off, the country’s basic needs were being met as well.

“It’s gone on the back burner. Funding is down badly but the numbers (of cases) are starting to come up again.”

Napier said wasteful expenditure was something the present government and the apartheid regime had in common.

“Only the apartheid regime wasted so much money implementing its ideology whereas the present government wastes money on personal aggregation rather than for ideology.”

In more recent years, Durban’s drug scourge - whoonga - has kept the cardinal busy after investigations revealed that addicts were being prejudiced at clinics because the drug causes their skin to be sensitive to water and so they tend to wash less often.

“That year was the Year of Mercy and (Pope) Francis asked that projects we come up with should not be in place for the year but into the future.”

Hence, the Napier Centre for Healing at Inanda was born.

Acknowledging that whoonga recovery did not have a high success rate, Napier said it was rewarding “to see guys get a spark of life back”.

A highlight in Napier’s career was being part of the conclave that elected Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Of the present state of South Africa, Napier said he was disappointed for the sake of the country’s people whose hopes were so high.

“Mine were not. I do not place faith too strongly in politicians.”

He said the biggest challenge South Africans faced was learning to accept one another as human beings, to respect everyone as having equal rights and being worthy of dignity.

“In some ways we have succeeded, in others we have failed.”

He said it was worrying to read recently about the racism in private and former Model C schools.

“It’s like, okay, an elephant tramps on some ants. But what about the ants that have not been trampled on?”

On domestic violence, Napier said that because it took place in family environments, curing the scourge had to start by healing families.

“If the Church is going to have an impact on society, it has to have a good strong community and there- fore good, strong families and therefore good, strong marriages. And, therefore, very good marriage preparation.”

Napier said his clerical career had made him a member of three families - his birth family in Swartberg, his vocational family - the Franciscan Order - and his mission family in Durban.

The Independent on Saturday

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