Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, the cool hand cardinal from Africa

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Last October, when English-speaking participants at the extraordinary synod in Rome were reeling on account of a mid-synod report which they said had severely distorted their position, Pope Francis turned to a veteran African prelate to help salve the situation.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, seen by many as the leading advocate for change, had just been captured on tape as downplaying African voices at the synod, adding to a perception in some quarters that one of the Church’s strongest spiritual limbs had been left out in the cold.

Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, arrives for a session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in this October 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa, arrives for a session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in this October 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

But the man Pope Francis appointed, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, is much more than a representative of his home continent.

He is to Pope Francis, and he was to Pope Benedict before him, a secure and capable pair of hands, with a string of senior appointments under this pontificate and the last.

One of four delegate presidents of the upcoming family synod in October, Cardinal Napier is also a member of the Council for the Economy – the body Pope Francis charged with reforming the Roman Curia in the wake of numerous, Vatican banking scandals.

Cardinal Napier’s conversation with The Catholic Weekly followed recent violence in his home city of Durban – attacks on migrant workers which spread to other parts of the country, including Johannesburg, resulting in rioting, looting, and seven deaths.

Given the history of your country, this recent spate of xenophobic attacks on foreign workers must be particularly distressing (sporadic attacks have occurred throughout South Africa following deadly rioting in Johannesburg in 2008).

I was quite distressed for two reasons. First of all, we have had a refugee pastoral care program going in the archdiocese for the past 15 years and I thought we had made some very good strides in integrating the immigrant community; certainly in the parish of Emmanuel Cathedral, where this program has been centred …

But, of course, they were not the totality of the immigrants. They’d be mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda – the French speaking parts – and then from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe …

It was supposed to have started off as an industrial dispute in one of the supermarkets. Workers were on strike and [the employer] took in unofficial labour and the people who took on these jobs were accused of being foreign labourers only, but, in fact, it wasn’t true.

When people’s emotions are up the truth doesn’t really matter. Even if just one was there that would have been enough to say ‘these people are taking our jobs from us’ and that was the source of the uprising.

The next reason why I felt very upset about it was so many of our leaders, national leaders in particular, had been hosted in the countries of Africa [during apartheid] and yet they were not speaking out.

And the most upsetting reason: the king of the Zulus [King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu] – the biggest tribal group in South Africa – gave a speech in which he said something like, “all these foreigners must pack up and leave” …

The reaction was that anyone who was a foreigner was being driven out of their homes, their shops, and business were being looted, and they ended up in camps, in the sports fields, in tents, and that was very distressing.

In fact, on one of the first occasions that I reacted I said ‘I’m just ashamed to call myself a South African with this kind of response’.

What can the Church do in the face of that kind of problem?

We gathered with other churches and made very strong representations to the government, that they must get this thing under control.

We would have advocated for the king to withdraw his remarks but he anticipated us in some sense by calling a meeting at which he instructed people not to carry out his instructions in the way that they were doing them …

But he didn’t retract or acknowledge the reason for this flaring-up of violence …

Still, that is a point that rankles with me; that the king hasn’t said, “Look, I made a mistake. I didn’t mean you to do it like that but I did mean that criminals and others that are causing problems in the community should be dealt with according to the law”.

That’s all he should have said. He shouldn’t have said they should be expelled. That really was very distressing and it’s given South Africa a very bad image at a time when we were having other internal problems that needed to be dealt with. We didn’t need this other one.

You were outspoken at the last synod and a lot of Catholics might have felt somewhat “African” when you were making your comments. Given that the German bishops and others are pushing for change, what are your hopes for this upcoming synod?

When I spoke at that media conference, I was there as the president of a particular English-speaking discussion group, and the views I put forward, while they coincide with what I believe myself, were the views of the group. In fact, they may have even put things a little more strongly than I did.

We were disappointed, actually disconcerted, by the fact that that mid-synod document presented points of view that individuals had made – it could have been one or two or three individuals – but they made them as individuals during the time when each individual was open to speak.

That was the first week of the synod, where people had been told by Pope Francis. “Don’t be afraid of offending the pope, speak openly and honestly,” were his words, “but listen with humility”, meaning “don’t insist on your view; listen to what other people were saying as well”.

The synod document was saying things like “this is what led the synod to maintain that …” as if this is what we had already considered. But we hadn’t seen the document yet.

The second [issue] was that somebody seemed to be informing the media about what was coming out and [saying] that this is what Pope Francis’s position [was].

I remember on that Monday morning listening to BBC radio and it was saying “earth-shattering reforms about to take place in the Catholic Church in regard to gay marriage, communion for divorcees and so on”. And I thought, “how can they be saying the synod is doing this when we haven’t even discussed the document yet?”

The other [issue] was we seemed to be putting forward in a positive light ways of behaviour or relationships that are regarded as sinful, abnormal – perverse even.

Now, how can you in an official document of the Church be giving positive qualities to something that is in direct contradiction to the Church’s teaching – Jesus’s teaching.

For instance, cohabitation was presented as if it was a good kind of preparation for marriage or a good alternative to marriage. No, you can’t do that and be talking about the sacrament of marriage in the same breath.

I know it’s good for individuals to take a strong position but I think it is even better when a group comes together, [and says] “given our circumstances, this is how we believe we should be represented at the synod”.

So, in February of this year some of the African cardinals got together and they decided that for the coming synod we’re going to ask our bishops from Africa, first of all, to take a stance that is positive in support for marriage.

There are millions of good marriages and there are millions of good families. Let’s affirm those.

Secondly, let us look at what are the reasons for these marriages being good and firm and solid and so on, and use that information when we are drafting our preparations for marriage.

Thirdly, our preparation for marriage shouldn’t just be for the wedding day. It should be a preparation that starts from the time the child enters the catechism class; there being prepared for relationships, including marriage, religious life and the priesthood. So marriage preparation for us is an essential thing.

We would try to institute some system of accompanying marriages – for four, five, maybe 10 years – somebody, some programs for accompanying them so that when they hit bad patches they have someone to fall back on. Our thinking is that if we prepare well, if we accompany them, we are going to avoid the pitfalls of broken marriages and divorce and needing to address this question of civilly remarried Catholics being admitted to [reception of] the Eucharist.

As far as people living in irregular situations like single parent families, homosexual couples living together and so on, these are issues that we need to deal with in the local area Church rather than making a public stand at the level of the Universal Church.

We sent [those ideas] to the president of Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM). I spoke to the president about it and he said he would send it out to the different conferences. So I think it depends on the representatives of the bishops of the different African conferences and how they are going to make their presentations during the synod. But our view would be let’s build up marriage and family life rather than trying to patch up where it has gone wrong.

You are also a member of the Council for the Economy, the body Pope Francis created and charged with reforming much of the Roman Curia. A former senior aide to Pope Benedict XVI said recently that he thought reform was unnecessary.

If he said that, he must have been talking about a particular aspect of the reform perhaps.

Everyone knows that the way that the Vatican Bank was being represented in the media, the way it couldn’t account for some of its actions, there was no doubt at all [that reform was necessary].

A person must have come back from living on the moon, maybe, if they think there wasn’t any need for reforms of the Vatican.

In the meetings prior to the conclave, it was repeated so often that “the Church has to be reformed”, beginning at the centre; at the top; right there at the Holy See. And Pope Francis understood that as being the mandate on which he was elected, though the first thing that he did was to continue what Pope Benedict had already put in place. Namely, a group of lay experts engaged to look at all the Vatican finances and to advise the pope on what to do.

I was a member of [the preceding body], the Council of Cardinals for the study of the organisational and economic problems of the Holy See, and that council was to look at budgets, and anything to do with economics and finances. It was supposed to be the watchdog of all that goes on at the Vatican but if you don’t have those expertise and the knowledge, it’s not going to be easy to do that.

So while we tried our best to ask questions about budgeting and finance and so on, we had no clout. There’s no way we could demand those things be done in a particular way or more thoroughly.

So when Pope Francis was elected he clearly understood that his was one of the first things that had to be done. The Vatican Bank had to be tidied up. We were presented with proposals from [a] body of [lay] experts and among those were that [we] be disbanded and that a real council with teeth, with powers to demand accounts and so on, be put in [its] place. That was the Council for the Economy. It should be supported by a secretariat and there should be an auditor general who can demand reports from anybody, and he reports to the pope alone.

A couple of days later [the pope] called a meeting [of the former body] and we went in. It was the shortest meeting we’d ever had with the pope. He came in and he said “we have received your votes. It’s unanimous, you are now disbanded”. And then the council came in to its proper form … something better.

So from my point of view, the reform was not only necessary, but it is taking place as well.

As a Christian person and as a leader, witnessing and living through setbacks, how do you deal with the difficulties of life?

I think there are a number of things that serve as stepping stones, like a good brace to hold you in position.

When I see the xenophobia going on, I know that there are so many people who went out of their way in response to this mindless violence to fellow human beings and expressed their shock in practical terms.

We sent out an appeal for all kinds of things and we were overwhelmed by the response.

And so there’s a lot of good will out there and when you know there’s good will, it’s easier for you to take steps that are very difficult because you know you are being backed by people who appreciate what you are doing and know that what you are doing, you are doing in their name.

The solidarity of faith would be one of the things that supports me.

The second thing is there are a lot of young people affected. Any time I interact with young people, I see the future, but I also see the present working out.

The present that I see is one that doesn’t have this kind of madness – where young people see each other as friends, as companions.

The third thing, I think, is in my personal faith. I believe that God is calling us to give a response that represents how he feels towards people who are affected by this here.

So, I feel for the local people who feel that their job opportunities, their housing opportunities; their education and all these other things that they ardently desire to have in a better way than they may be having at present, that these may be denied them because of foreigners that come in.

But I’d like to ask the question. If a foreigner has come in, did you actually have that job or are you saying you could have had it but you didn’t want to apply for it, or you didn’t try for it? So, I’d like to also challenge our local people and say, “well, are you doing this to these people because you are disappointed in the government that has been promising that it’s going to do all these things – give you jobs, better houses, better schools – and it’s not doing it? And now you’re angry and you are hitting out at the weakest link in society”.

That’s how I would conceive of why xenophobia broke out.

They’ve been promised, for 20 years, a better life and it’s getting worse instead of better.

I’m wondering if you see that as an [inhuman] logic in the market, particularly in the light of the fact that the pope is soon expected to release his first social encyclical, on ecology.

I’ll answer your question by using an example … In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo there’s total chaos.

There’s no government that’s actually in control so in the meantime outside powers are coming in, mining minerals that are rare and are absolutely essential for things like [smart phones].

And because the government isn’t in a position of control, they are just exploiting and destroying and no one can take control of it.

Now what is that doing? That is making the poor people in that area even poorer while someone outside is giving them these rights to come in.

They are reaping the riches of that country and nothing is being done to develop the country or to even maintain the development that was there.

So, I see the ecology question as being, OK, [about] nature and forests and what have you, but there is also [the] impact the destruction of those things is having on poor people and poor communities.

I don’t know what the contents of the encyclical are going to be but I can see a certain logic in Pope Francis: care for the poor, care for the resources that are needed to look after the poor people, and then looking at the economy and the powers that are using those resources.

Are they to the detriment or the benefit of the poor? And I think the Church has to take a very considered stand along those lines.