Care for your priest

by Peter Knox SJ


Last Tuesday, we were shocked to hear about the murder of three Coptic Orthodox monks in Cullinan. And on Wednesday, to hear about the fatal shooting of a young Zambian Kiltegan missionary priest in Tzaneen. A few days earlier, a priest had been stabbed in Soweto, losing an eye.


All four of the murdered priests were missionaries from other African countries, which led one automatically to speculate that there might have been some xenophobic excuse for their murders. But that line of thought was quickly retired when the police took an Egyptian man into custody the day after the monks’ murder. 


An Egyptian friend had previously mentioned to me that the monastery is really poor and that the monks live from hand to mouth, with very little outside financial support. So, the theory of robbery being a motive for the murders was soon laid to rest. Similarly, in the case of the young Zambian missionary, nothing was taken from the scene of the revolting crime. 


One colleague remembered the archbishop’s words when Fr Louis Blondel, a Missionary of Africa,  was killed in 2009: to “take care of our priests.” …. (or was it when Fr Lionel Sham was killed, also in 2009?). A colleague observed that for many people, “take care of our priests” means giving them a superior brand of whisky. What a scandal, if you think of it! Another asked why priests need special care when they are educated, employed, and men. There are many more vulnerable people in the country who can be robbed, raped, killed or injured. Is this clericalism at play: that the priest’s life is more precious than anyone else’s?


Do we give the impression that the church has lots of money and valuables? Or perhaps the point is that most priests live alone in a presbytery, often on large parish properties, and are sometimes perceived as a “soft touch.” Obviously, this doesn’t apply to our three Coptic monks or Fr Blondel, who all lived in communities. In 2013, Archbishop Tlhagale urged parishes to step up their security. But priests also have to be available to help poor people who approach them, and this occasionally leaves them vulnerable. 


This morning, I chatted with a friend who left South Africa to raise his family in Britain. He sent a message of condolences and prayer for my safety, praying that God grants all priests adequate protection. My immediate, appreciative reply was: “Thank you so much… We are all stunned. It is really sad.”


But on reflection, I realise that we are not all stunned: Tragically, murder has become one of the day-to-day facts of life in South Africa, the murder capital of the world. To protect ourselves from the shock, we play guessing games about what happened and why. Even when four priests are killed in two days.





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