A blast from the past…

I was intrigued to see an interview with Bishop Emmanuel Lafont in La Croix International this week. Originally from Tours in France, he is now bishop of the diocese of Cayenne in French Guyana.

Lafont was a missionary in South Africa from 1983-96. He ministered in Soweto in the most turbulent times at the height of apartheid.

He is also a scripture scholar and taught at both St Peter’s and St John Vianney Seminaries. That’s where I met him ­­in the 90’s. He was the priest-formator in charge of the formation group I was in at the seminary. I got to know him quite well, as we had many conversations about ministry, justice and scripture.

I have many memories. He was one of the best preachers I have ever heard. He took us – as students – to Soweto to meet families who had lost loved ones in the violence of the time. We went with him to give blankets to homeless in the Pretoria CBD (where he insisted that we get to know the person and not just give them a blanket!). My abiding memory of him though is that he would be in the chapel every morning of the week in prayer long before anyone else.

In La Croix, Lafont talks about the situation in his diocese during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked about how parishes functioned during the pandemic he explains that for some not much has changed. “We have only one village… which sees a priest only once a year,” he says. “Everywhere else… the priest comes once a month. On other Sundays, a lay man or woman leads a prayer service”.

When asked for his thoughts about the anxiety to resume public Masses in France, Lafont, in his wise way, says: “The fixation does not seem healthy to me; I even find it a little immature”. He goes on to explain that he sees this as a time of being in the desert, recalling the Babylonian exile when the Israelites lost the temple, sacrifices and the work of priests. “The people had only the Word and the prophets (such as Ezekiel, Jeremiah and second Isaiah…) and they were the ones who helped them experience this time of exile spiritually, as a time of conversion.”

The bishop also says that celebrating Mass for families does not allow as much exchange as sharing around the Bible. “This period of confinement is the time to enter more deeply into the Scriptures. So it’s an opportunity,” he says.

Some families have begun to spend time sharing and discussing God’s Word. “We have never done this before,” a mother recently wrote to me. “We looked all over for help to see how best we could read the Bible and talk about what we read with the children. It is like we discovered something new!”

In this time when there are no public Masses, it’s good for us to be conscious of our Christian brothers and sisters for whom this is “normal”. They teach us an invaluable lesson: God’s Word will nourish us as it did for the exiles in Babylon. Perhaps, at this time, we need little more than to help people live from God’s Word alone.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

director@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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