The usually quiet, Southern African, small Kingdom nation of eSwatini has been shaken in recent weeks by unprecedented protests that have led to violence, property damage, death and injuries.
The Argentinian-born, Consolata Missionary Bishop of the only diocese in the country, based in Manzini, José Luís Gerardo Ponce de León, spoke to Agenzia Fides.
Vatican News: Your Excellency, what are the causes that have led to this crisis and what hope is there for the future?
Bishop Ponce de León: I think the answer to this question is precisely the one that will guide the future. The Swaziland Council of Christian Churches, created in 1976 and of which we are founders together with the Anglican and Lutheran churches, in its document delivered to the Prime Minister, specifically asked us to reflect on what has led us to this crisis. Some may choose to blame a small group of people (local or foreign) for generating this violence, others to the social crisis caused by COVID-19, others to the contrast between the lifestyle of the royal family and that of the rest of the population, others to police violence or the lack of freedom to express opinions … There is a combination of elements that have led to this crisis. Although I have been the Bishop of Manzini for seven and a half years, which is not a long time, I understand that this is the most serious crisis that one can remember, and no one should expect quick answers.
The word chosen to express the way forward has been “Dialogue”. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Council of Christian Churches has met with different groups to understand how this dialogue can take place, who should facilitate it, what the different preconditions are. A mission sent by SADC has also arrived, but so far, we do not know what their plan of action is.
Vatican News: Can you tell us about the reality of the Catholic Church in eSwatini, its commitment and its missionary dimension?
Bishop Ponce de León: The first four Catholic missionaries arrived in Swaziland in 1914. We are a small presence of about 5% of the population with 17 parishes and more than 100 chapels. We are well known for our social service to this nation with 60 schools, a hospital, a hospice, 7 clinics, for our commitment against human trafficking and for being a safe space for dialogue, among other initiatives. When Pope Francis invited us to celebrate an Extraordinary Missionary Month in October 2019, we chose to carry it out throughout the year in order to deepen the missionary dimension of our local Church.
I accepted with great joy Pope Francis’ invitation to listen to everyone in preparation for the 2023 Synod because it is exactly what we need now. We want to reflect together on how to be Church here, in this context, where we are the only Catholic diocese of this nation.
Vatican News: What role can the Church play in this crisis?
Bishop Ponce de León: The country has three Christian organisations that bring together the Christian Churches: the League, the Conference and the Council of Churches. Even before this crisis began, the Swaziland Council of Churches made an appointment with the Prime Minister to present our concerns to him. We feared that violence would soon break out.
In fact, we met him on the day the riots occurred, and we offered to get in touch with all possible stakeholders and to help the government understand what is needed right now. As a Council, we want to remain an independent body, capable of listening to everyone in order to build bridges. We are grateful to Pope Francis that he prayed for us at the Angelus on Sunday, 4 July, before going into surgery. Ours is a small nation between two great countries, South Africa and Mozambique, which is little known. We need everyone’s prayers to be able to discern God’s will in this time of national crisis.
With thanks to Vatican News and Agenzia Fides, where this article originally appeared.