The bishops of Southern Africa have appointed Sister Hermenegild Makoro as the new Secretary- General of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference.
She will replace Fr Vincent Brennan SMA who is to retire in March.
Linda Bordoni spoke to Sr. Hermenegild by telephone and asked her about her background, how she views her appointment, and what issues are currently on the table in the SACBC.
First of all, very modestly, she points out that although her nomination is a first for Southern Africa, she is not the only woman Secretary-Gereral of a Bishops Conference because “there is one sister in the Nordic countries who also is Secretary-General of a Bishops Conference… she sent me a congratulations note, and also in New Zealand – if I'm not mistaken there is another woman”.
Sr. Hermenegild says she sees her appointment as recognition from the bishops of the work that women are doing in this part of the world. “I really look at it like that because the women are doing great work in this part of the country. Even here in the Conference, most of our offices are headed by women, and in education women are in leadership, in health women have been in leadership, so I think and I do believe that the bishops do realise that women are doing a great job. You go to the parishes: who do you find? You find women in leadership”.
Commenting on the fact that last year saw two Nobel Peace Prizes going to African women, Sr. Hermenegild acknowledged that that is because women are doing a lot of work “and for me that's why the bishops are recognising and acknowledging the work women are doing in the Church. I think we play a leadership role and for me it's very important and fulfilling. I myself have been involved since my early years as a religious, fully involved in the pastoral work in our diocese, so I'm sure that the bishops looked at this and they do appreciate it. And they do recognise the qualities that women have in places of leadership.
To the question “What would you say are these qualities?”, Sr. Hermenegild said that when a woman takes a responsibility upon herself, she does not pull out, she puts the whole of herself into it and just gets on with the work.
Regarding her background, Sr. Hermenegild says she comes from a very rural background. “My parents have very little education and I went to school and they tried hard to educate me, and then when I wanted to join religious life, they encouraged me, they said: you follow your heart. So I followed my heart and I joined the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood in 1970, and made my first profession in 1976. And all along I have been doing ordinary work, in pastoral work and in education. But most of the time I've been involved in pastoral work in our diocese, the diocese of Umtata. So after school I went to the parish, during holidays I worked in the parish, and then at one point I was fully employed by the diocese, in the catechetical branch of the diocese as a coordinator. So I have been involved in pastoral work. And then I was appointed the Provincial Superior of my congregation. That's where I came to meet some of the bishops, in meetings and so on. But how, really, they came to know about me, I don't know!… but when my community was asked, my superiors were asked whether they could make me available, they agreed and they made me available six years ago to come and work here at the conference. So for the last six years I have been working here at Khanya House at the bishops conference as associate secretary-general.
Sr. Hermenegild says she was doing ordinary work during those years, but South Africa was no ordinary place during many of those years…. She agrees “It wasn't. For me it was the ordinary work that the Church is supposed to be doing to empower people to do their work, to help the rural people at a grass-roots level, to stand on their own, to lead in the community services, so when I say ordinary it was ordinary because this is what is required of the Church: to change people, to empower people.
As regards the people ruling the South African government today, Sr. Hermenegild points out that the ANC has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. “that celebration also looks back to those years during which it has not been easy for the political situation, it was not easy for the Church, the Church was fully involved. That's why I'm talking about empowering people to stand on their own and to know who they are”.
As regards the work and the aims of the SACBC she says “Our conference is really fully involved. We look at the core missions of the Church, looking at formation… looking at justice and peace issues, for instance we have a department for Justice and Peace which is looking at the internal issues in the country. We have the Dennis Hurley Peace Institute which is a body that was founded by the bishops to see how we can influence, how can we assist countries outside our own Conference. So our Conference is fully involved and working also with other faith-based communities. Very much involved in fighting Aids. We have a big office here where we try to fight Aids and help people to understand and to make them not to feel that suffering from Aids is not the end of the world. So there is a lot also happening in development and in education, in health. Our Conference has many, many facets that we are working on.
Sr. Hermenegild explains that the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference extends to Botswana and Swaziland as well, whilst Zimbabwe, Angola, Lesotho and Namibia come under the SACBC's regional sector.
As regards the issues the Conference is set to tackle in the near future, she explains that “There are quite a number of things on the table that are ongoing, that we need to carry on as a Conference. Next week our bishops are meeting in plenary, the whole of next week, and one of the issues that will have to be taken up is our forecast for the coming years. And then the Apostolic Exhortation, “Africae Munus” because it talks to us as an African Continent. Our commitment as a Church to issues of justice, reconciliation and peace. And so we as a Conference are going to look at this and see how do we break it down for people, our own people so they can deal with it. And for instance now our President, Archbishop Buti asked us, when we were preparing the timetable, he said: would you please give us a slot because we need to look at this Exhortation as a Conference – how do we go about putting it into practice… And this is a very challenging document that the Holy Father has presented to us. And we look at it as a basic working document to look at ourselves and at how committed we are. You know when we received our independence, our democracy in 1994, so many things were tried here: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission… Then we need to look at how is it in the Church – how do our people feel” The document says “that the peace that comes from Christ needs to be experienced by our people… The reconciliation… this is what we need to do. And we also want to look at how we can work on the very document with the ecumenical bodies.
Talking about the main personal challenges she sees ahead, Sr. Hermengild reiterates there are things on the table that have to continue their ongoing process. At the moment, she says, we are busy as a Conference with something called system consultation in which we look at what we are as Church and what are the teachings of the Church. “This document will also be basis of our discussions with the different groups that exist in our Church and also what is on the table, we have been working hard to put up means and ways of a self-reliant Church, we are establishing a foundation for the Conference. And then from there, I think most of the time in the coming year, apart from what is already being done and what is ongoing – this document is for me the priority which we need to look at as a Conference. But we will continue to do the things that we have been doing, strengthening our relationship with other Conferences, neighbouring Conferences, with faith-based communities in our Conference.
To the question “Will you be bringing a feminine touch?” Sister Hermenegild assures that “I am sure it is there. Somebody told me that even the way we talk to each other has changed. So it is there. I'm sure the bishops will feel – they already feel – because as I said, we are many women leading certain posts in the Conference. So it's something that will have to be there and to be felt.
Finally she highlights the important role women in South Africa are playing and points out that the government really is trying hard for 50/50 representation everywhere, in the government and in society.
“But at the same time” she says” I wouldn't like people to think the bishops have appointed me as a Secretary-General just because I am a woman! I do hope they have appointed me because they believe that I am capable of doing the work that is expected of me”.