Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Synodal Synthesis

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference noted that the Church in South Africa continues to find itself inserted into a context where relationships continue to be fractured in many ways racially, socially, religiously, economically, and politically.


The Southern African Bishops’ Conference heeded the call of Pope Francis to engage on the Synod on Synodality. Because of the time frames involved, the diversity of the Church across the Conference area and the effects of Covid (which had greatly impacted on the Church) each diocese approached the process in a manner best suited to their situation. The important thing is that every diocese engaged in some way or another with the synodal process.

Here are the variety of responses to the Synod of Synodality in South Africa:

Social context

It is important in the introduction to give a brief outline of the social context of the Synod in Southern Africa. The Conference finds itself encompassing three countries – South Africa, Botswana and eSwatini. What follows is shared to some degree or another by all three.

The Church finds itself inserted into a context where relationships continue to be fractured in many ways racially, socially, religiously, economically, and politically. There are the issues of family breakdown, plurality, radical inequality, human rights, life issues, xenophobia, violence, unrest violence within and without the family, violence against women and children, general criminality, a decline in moral standards, poverty, and access to basic services. These fractures impact on the Church and the way Christian life is lived in context.

Southern Africa is also impacted by the international trends of secularisation, individualisation, and relativism. Issues such as the Church’s teaching on abortion, contraception, ordination of women, married clergy, celibacy, divorce and remarriage, Holy Communion, homosexuality, LGBTQIA+ were raised up across the dioceses both rural an urban.

There were of course differing views on these and it is not possible to give a definitive community stance on any of these issues.


The Synod offered the Church a wonderful opportunity to reconnect and to discover anew a way of being community. The milestones that were achieved in a post Covid19 setting were the coming together for opening ceremonies, as parish groups and other Church groups. These gatherings did not just have the benefit of drawing people together but also provided them with opportunities to pray and worship together. It was evident that there is a great hunger to once again come together to pray together whether that be in the Holy Mass or in more informal settings.

Process for transformation

 We must not assume that communion, Participation and mission are absent from the life the Church. They are lived in various and different ways across the conference region. As a pilgrim people and as a community of believers, the Church, is constantly striving for the ideal. The Synod represents this striving.


Bishops: There is an appreciation of Church leadership and what they do within the Church and in the wider society. However, for some there was a desire for a change in leadership style from the tendency to being autocratic and bureaucratic to being more listening, open and consultative. This was a desire from both lay people and clergy.

Some criticism of leadership included lack of transparency about sexual and financial crises, lack of leadership in terms of international and national events, the way clergy-abuse crisis was handled and a poorly projected public image of the Church. The general feeling was that there was the desire to see more visibility and leadership.

 Priests: In terms of priests in the parishes, many were happy with the ministry that they received but, as far as priests are concerned, issues such as relationship with their bishops, leadership styles, pastoral care, communication from chanceries and the lack of implementation of decisions came up any number of times.

The development of greater priestly fraternity is something that needs attention with certain expressions of difficulty in belonging and building unity being made. There is a desire for pastoral care and outreach between priests. From the side of the laity, a great deal was shared regarding the clergy.

These concerns included financial abuse, low moral standards, lack of liturgical and preaching preparation, apparent poor education and lack of basic pastoral skills, variety of attitudes taken towards women, youth, LGBTQIA+ community, difficulty relating to other men, lay involvement and priests not able to minister in communities they are assigned to, poor example and behaviour of the clergy impacts Church, circumstances, awareness have changed, that there are new realities and it is within these changed realities that we live our faith. There also needs to be a movement away from clericalism and a clergy centered community to greater involvement of all in the life and running of the Church.

Deacons: The role of deacons emerged in those dioceses where the diaconate has been revived. There is deep respect for the sacrifices that they make as married men with families and their ministry is appreciated.

There is a recognised need for deacons and clear guidelines for them. There is a call for the acceptance of women to the diaconate and the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood. Ongoing formation for deacons was requested.

Consecrated persons

 What came through in the diocesan responses was a concern regarding the decline in vocations, the lack of involvement of religious especially women in diocesan structures and the life of the diocese. There was also a call from religious women to be taken more seriously and acknowledged for their contribution to the life of the Church and not to be treated like second class members.


The challenge of communion is the building of more inclusive and welcoming communities open to people on the margins, divorced and remarried, homosexuals and LGBTIQA+, street people, those who do not currently feel welcomed, the deaf and disabled. In many communities there is the desire for an experience of community. In many of the responses this was spoken about but how it is to happen remain a challenge.

In terms of Parishes, while acknowledging a core of committed Catholics, many of the responses indicated a disappointment in the number of people actively involved in the life of the Church community. Those who responded to the synodal process wanted more involvement on their part, but the voice of the non-participant (in terms of synod and Church) was rather silent.

Participation – The Church has the necessary structures to encourage and allow for participation. However, there is the impression that these structures are not properly utilised to allow for full participation. It is perceived that either the priest, certain families or individuals dominate these structures, keeping others out. Small christian communities, pastoral districts, parish councils, finance councils, and diocesan pastoral councils all provide opportunities for involvement. There are seats at the table. It is a matter of getting people to the table.

The kind of participation that is desired is one where the gifts of all members are used e.g. opening preaching to lay people including women, widening involvement in ministries and responsibility etc. In terms of the synodal process, many people were happy to be involved in this process but in some dioceses the participation was very low and while there may be valid reasons for this, it is difficult to judge why. There is the request that lay ministries be developed but sufficient space must be given for the exercise of these ministries. It is also important that people see that they can participate.

The ministry around Justice and Peace and environmental issues did not receive widespread comment as many of the reflections focused strongly on the relationships within the parish or the diocese. This is possibly an area that needs reflection as the context of the Southern African Church remains fertile ground for this ministry. The issue of reconciliation in a region where it is most needed also received scant mention. Just because these were not focused on does not mean that they are unimportant and do not need to be addressed. However, these issues are reflected in the desire for the Church to play a more visible role in the society as was done in the past.

Faith formation

There is a need for faith formation across the different sectors of the Church. The primary place where people get faith formation is through preaching but if that is not good, where is the faith is imparted. There is the need for parents to be involved in the formation of their children. This is an important point to remember as many of the responses indicated the Church’s primary responsibility for this. There is the constant request for better catechesis and ongoing faith formation for all.

Mission of the Church

In terms of the evangelising mission of the Church, the parish has an important role to play and should not just be a place for Mass, with the doors closed for the rest of the time. It needs to reach out to the community and have a mission of welcome to all providing support to the wider community. Mission is sometimes hampered by lack of funds, but fundraising can be used as part of the outreach.

The lack of ongoing formation from priest to lay minister, the shortage of priests, priests who make their own rules and push their own agendas, moral decay amongst the clergy, the lack of respect and participation, ministry to families, the failure to use resources properly, issues around baptism of unmarried mothers, divorced people etc. all hamper the mission of the Church. There is a desire for practical action which makes the spoken word of Jesus Christ real.

Ecumenism There was mention that ecumenism is of increasing importance. However, many of the responses in speaking of ecumenism showed a lack of denominational concern e.g., a desire for an open Eucharistic practice, especially when there is a coming together of various denominations, preaching to be open to lay people as in other Churches, confusion in liturgical celebrations and the idea that all denominations are equal. The ecumenical contacts are generally around weddings, funerals, cultural events, and family events. In some responses it was mentioned that non-Catholics do not experience welcome in Catholic Churches as they cannot receive communion.

A self-supporting Church

This comes out in terms of parish support and of vocations both of which remain challenges in every community across the region.


A great deal of comment was offered on the state of the youth and their presence in the Church. The youth are not the future of the Church they are the present of the Church. They are involved in Church life through varied and different youth structures. In the synod process it was noted that their participation ranged from active participation to near total absence in the process.

There is general concern that many young people leave the Church after Confirmation if they even get there. Some of the reasons given were hostility towards the youth, intergenerational conflict, role of parents, teenage pregnancy, Church’s moral teaching, temptations in the wider world, lifestyle choices and lack of attractiveness of the Church. The relationship between young people and the Church is something that needs reflection and development in the areas of catechetical programs, good preaching, creation of an open environment, good liturgy, and a deeper spirituality.

 Marriage and family life

Many of the responses included practical suggestions in terms of strengthening marriage and family life in the society. There were requests that the Church relook at such matters as divorce, remarriage, contraception, and Canon Law in respect of marriage.

There are misunderstandings regarding divorce and remarriage in the life of the Church. Traditional marriage as an institution was still considered important and desirable. However, there is a strong need to look beyond the ideal of heterosexual marriage to other forms of being family – single parent, LGBTQIA+, multigenerational and blended families, and adoption.

There needs to be more open space for discussion around issues affecting family and marriage without being shut down by the law or morals of the Church. People who suffer the breakdown of their marriage appear to be stigmatised.

(This synthesis was edited for space reasons but stays true to the original).

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