About 4 million southern African Catholics will celebrate the 200th anniversary of their freedom of religion in the country in June.
The Archdiocese of Joburg will mark the occasion with a pilgrimage on Saturday to a new shrine which is under construction in the Magaliesberg. It is set to accommodate about 5000 people, the largest gathering space for Catholics in the country.
Speaking at the launch of the event at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Doornfontein yesterday, the Archbishop for the Johannesburg diocese, Buti Tlhagale, said the event was being conducted to celebrate the work the church had done over the past 200 years.
The Catholic Church had done a lot in the fight against apartheid, which included the opening of many schools and hospitals accommodating blacks, which was against the laws of the day, he said.
The church had defied many government instructions to close them down and had fought hard to keep their doors open, Tlhagale said.
The church had also been a strong proponent of equal rights.
“Although, as the Catholics, we are a few steps behind in terms of equality between men and women, we have always fought for equality.”
Tlhagale said it was difficult to estimate the number of Catholics in the country because the census no longer included the category of religion.
“There are also thousands of Catholics from other African countries, but it is difficult to keep track of numbers, as people move around,” he said.
The church had been dealing with the challenges of inter-culturalisation and was often criticised for being perceived as trying to instil Christianity above traditional religions.
“We have not done enough in this regard. However, half of the Catholic priests in this country still maintain their culture of respect for the ancestors and actively practise their traditional rites. In fact, many priests are openly traditional healers,” Tlhagale said, joking that they were taking out “double insurance”.
One of the main reasons the church existed today, added Tlhagale, was the instilling of values and morals and to change the lifestyle of people to “imbue virtues of honesty and service to those in need”.
The Catholic Church started in South Africa in 1804 when Jacob Abraham de Mist, commissioner- general of the Cape Colony, decided that “all religious societies which for the furtherance of virtue and good morals worship an Almighty Being, are to enjoy in this Colony equal protection from the laws”.
In June 1818, Pope Pius Vll established the Vicariate Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope and adjacent territories. Subsequently the island of Mauritius was added, and so were New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land (effectively, modern day Australia).
“While initially interested in serving the white settlers, the church started evangelising black people,” Tlhagale said.
The church began openly opposing the apartheid regime in the second half of the last century. The ecclesiastical province of Johannesburg was created in 2007.