God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

Rome is always listening

Stefan Hippler

Rome is always listening – Why the German bishops’ visit left a sour taste


This chapter brought to me the allegation of disloyalty by my superiors and a strong reprimand. It was indeed also the most difficult chapter I have written in this book and the most prayed over. This chapter is not meant to attack any of the bishops personally, but it reflects in a very open and honest way my feelings during and after the visit. To be fair to all concerned I offered to re-write the chapter together with the relevant persons to bring all different experiences on board. The offer was not taken. I once again want to state that there is no intention of disloyalty or personal attack,. To be open and outspoken means to be vulnerable to criticism but I still hope that this chapter is an honest but subjective, and not infallible reflection from my side, meant to stir a debate within the church, but not to hurt a single person.


There’s always the same pattern: visitors from Europe, politicians, ecclesiastics or students come to South Africa and at HOPE Cape Town experience the realities of a very different life – and they are deeply touched by it. Their direct encounter with people in the townships, the sensory observation of suffering and deprivation, the apparent hopelessness, all leave a profound impression. Feedback from these visitors, comprehensive e-mails, international telephone calls – sometimes months or even years later – show that for the first time in their lives they were confronted with an existential extreme. These reactions show that it is possible to build bridges between the worlds which needn’t be so far apart. People in the North become aware of the human situation in the South, they sense the suffering and that in turn finds expression in concerned messages and solidarity.
In the past few years, there was only one group of visitors from which I did not perceive as strong a reaction – the delegation of the German bishops’ conference. I was confused by that and thought a lot about it. I can’t imagine that the bishops – spiritual leaders and officials of Catholic charities – were left cold by the deprivations they saw. One would have to possess a very crusty soul not to be affected by the poverty of a corrugated iron shack, to return to the cold routines of life untouched after observing the sad fate of others. Could it be, I wondered, that after all these years of seeing so much poverty, injustice and despondency our Church delegates have become used to it, or even become desensitized?

Whatever the case, that official visit left a sour aftertaste. Why did these dignitaries react so business-like, so detached, as if everything they had seen didn’t especially moved them?

Of course, I supposed that it was my fault. I can’t deny that my diplomatic dexterity is flawed at times and that my convictions don’t always conform to the Church’s official teachings. Was that it? Was I the wrong man at the wrong time to facilitate an open and unguarded reflection? Did my critical comments about the Church’s inadequate response to HIV/Aids and my challenges on moral theology and ethics perhaps undermine their trust in me?
On the other hand, I recall some conversations which indicated that, behind the cautious and unemotional façade, my visitors were certainly thinking about solutions which did not necessarily accord with official Church line. At the same time I believe that human beings turn into administrators when they are on a leash, always taking care to avoid making themselves vulnerable. They must always say the correct things and sail with the currents in the increasingly centralised Catholic Church. Rome is always listening.
But doesn’t a bishop who is carefully follows the party line and always weighs his words carefully not at risk of losing some of his powers of empathy? Did his ascent up the hierarchy perhaps remove him too far from pastoral realities? I sometimes wonder how a bishop copes. Does he still distinguish between his official and his private self? Is it a case of not just clothes but also titles making the man? But it would also be unfair to tar them all with the same brush, and I most certainly don’t make any claims of my own analysis being infallible. I am rather expressing a concern about the present structure of the Church hierarchy, the criteria governing the selection of new bishops, the packed diaries of these dignitaries, their loneliness (even though they meet so many people), the pressure of always having to keep up appearances… I am concerned about all of this, and with that I return to my earlier question: Why did the high-ranking delegation which visited our projects in April 2006 react with such detachment?

One bishop wrote to me after his return home, saying I had put the delegation “in a difficult position”. A difficult position? But all I had tried to do was to show and tell them the unvarnished truth – which, according to John’s Gospel, is supposed to set us free. The letter made me think deeply about the visit, its prequel and its consequences.

I proposed the visit of the German dignitaries precisely because working in the area of HIV/Aids throws up many moral and ethical questions, so that they might get a realistic picture about the situation in South Africa. To my surprise, it was soon announced that a delegation from the international department of the bishops’ conference was going to travel to South Africa. It was emphasised that the trip was not intended to be linked to the German-speaking chaplaincy or HOPE Cape Town, but to visit the Southern African sister Church with a special reference to HIV/Aids. And, just like in real life, the jockeying for position began: Who would be with the bishops when? Which projects would be visited? When can who decide what about the itinerary? Yes, the Church is just like any other enterprise: when the bosses come, everything goes topsy-turvy. Besides, German bishops are seen through the prism of Euro signs – they have a big influence over the allocation of funding. After much hassle, an itinerary was finalised.
The delegation arrived in Cape Town on Easter Monday. The next day, the visit to our projects at Tygerberg Hospital and to the townships was scheduled. Then a meeting with Desmond Tutu and a reception hosted by the German ambassador. For the rest of the week the visitors would travel to various dioceses throughout South Africa, and in encounters with selected projects learn more about the multi-faceted efforts made in addressing HIV/Aids. Before their departure they were to gather for a collegial reflection at the headquarters of the Southern African bishops’ conference in Pretoria. That was going to round off their fact-finding mission.

I was honoured to open the itinerary that Tuesday morning at Mfuleni’s day clinic, and was quite amazed at the open discussions that ensued about controversial topics in moral theology. But in my discourse I also pointed out that the local Church was not always very helpful when it came to projects, especially if these were too independent. The local Church can sometimes be more destructive than constructive. Hidden jealousy, envy, the fear of losing funds – there are many reasons for that, human reasons, all too human…
And it was exactly that topic, which I had addressed candidly and matter-of-factly, that had created the “difficult situation”. I had dared to touch upon a taboo subject and contrived to breach the sensitive etiquette governing relations between Church officials. Within the context of the already sensitive question of Aids, my infraction of the protocol must have been particularly precarious. Maybe it was that combination which made my guests react as they did.

After their visit, I carefully read all the statements issued by members of the delegation and media reports concerning their visit in South Africa. Nowhere did I find the people the bishops encountered, or their abject shacks, their hunger for justice, their hopes for God’s comfort and human aid. The indigence of millions of South Africans, countless Christians, who are marginalised and die by their hundreds every day – all that was covered only peripherally in these reports. The people’s cries for help, their laments, their appeals, their courage and endurance became an abstract dimension, peripheral within the framework of internal Church diplomacy.
I want to state it more clearly: The press coverage and the statements shocked me. It showed me how compassion, the search for truth and all good intentions for the good of people can be subordinated to institutional structures and codes. And yet I am convinced that the bishops and other dignitaries only want the best for our Church and the faithful. And because of that conviction I am not entitled to pass judgment. However, words like “institutional deficiency”, or, in theological terms, “structural sin” do come to mind. I suppose that by articulating my thoughts I have broken another Church taboo. But I understand myself as being part of that structure, and therefore see it as my priestly duty to break that rule.

Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HIV, Development and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and social development in Africa has its challenges. You will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa, about politics and whatever triggers my interest. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me. Blogging means to initiate thoughts and discussions and for the writer to formulate what is loosely running around in the heart and mind in need of being sorted and spoken out.

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