South Africa


SA’s new Catholic cardinal Stephen Brislin will have to step up to the leadership plate in trying times

SA’s new Catholic cardinal Stephen Brislin will have to step up to the leadership plate in trying times
Retired South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier (left). (Photo: Giulio Origlia / Getty Images) | Newly appointed Catholic Cardinal Stephen Brislin. (Photo: Flickr / Mater Domini Association)

Stephen Brislin will be made a cardinal in the Catholic Church at a very stormy time. He will be in the ‘inner circle’ of advisers to the pope and will face the many challenges confronting the papacy and the church.

Surprisingly, South Africa will have two living Catholic cardinals from next week: the retired 82-year-old Wilfrid Napier and the newly appointed Stephen Brislin of Cape Town. 

What does being a cardinal entail, and how does this benefit South Africa? The Catholic Church is also in a lot of turmoil. What challenges lie before cardinal designate Brislin? 

On Saturday, 30 September, Pope Francis will hold a consistory in which he will create 21 new cardinals in the Catholic Church. Among the 21 the pope named on 9 July 2023 is the Catholic Archbishop of Cape Town, Stephen Brislin. 

He has been Archbishop of Cape Town since 2009. 

After Pope Francis announced his appointment, Brislin said he was surprised and did not know he would be named a cardinal. 

In an interview, he told the South African Catholic magazine, The Southern Cross, that he found out through an SMS from Thailand, congratulating him on his appointment.

Brislin will be the third cardinal South Africa has had. 

The first of his predecessors, Owen McCann (1907-1994) – also Archbishop of Cape Town – was nominated a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1965. 

McCann was followed by Wilfrid Napier, former archbishop of Durban, who was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. 

The 67-year-old Archbishop Brislin hails from Welkom in the Free State. He was ordained a priest in 1983 and named bishop of Kroonstad in 2006. Three years later, he was transferred to Cape Town to be archbishop. 

On hearing the news of his appointment as cardinal, Brislin said his family was shocked as they “know him better than anyone else”. He said his older brother sent him a message congratulating and advising him. He added that his brother has advised him for over 60 years. 

The archbishop says it worries him that people will now treat him differently. 

“It happens when you become a bishop,” he says, “people start treating you differently.” He says he hopes this won’t still be the case.

“I’m still the same person. I’m this little boy from Welkom … I never forgot where I come from, and I’ve never failed to be proud of where I come from in the Free State.” 

Cardinals are primarily the closest advisers to the pope and members of the College of Cardinals. 

Another task of the cardinals is to gather when a pope dies or retires, to elect a new one who is usually one of them. Even though, technically, any Roman Catholic male in good standing with the church can be elected pope, the pope has been selected from the cardinals since 1379. Upon turning 80, cardinals can no longer vote in a conclave.

When asked about being a candidate for the papacy, Brislin told The Southern Cross that “technically speaking”, this was possible. However, he added that he does not have the worldwide experience that others have, and is “really small fry in comparison to some of these real giants, people of great intellect and a lot of experience”. 

Most cardinals lead dioceses – a geographical district under the care of a bishop. Brislin leads the Archdiocese of Cape Town. He will remain the Archbishop of Cape Town, meaning he has the pastoral care of all Catholics in the archdiocese. 

The pope can also ask cardinals to represent him at various meetings and events or play a role in Vatican diplomacy, for example, peace missions and ecumenical or interfaith events. 

When asked about what would change in his new responsibility, Brislin says, “I’ll have to go if there’s a conclave [to elect a new pope]. And that would be both very exhilarating but also rather daunting because it’s such a big responsibility, I think.”

A challenging time 

Brislin will be made a cardinal in the Catholic Church at a very stormy time. He will be in the “inner circle” of advisers to the pope and will consequently face the many challenges confronting the papacy and the church. 

The more inclusive approach of Pope Francis to the challenges facing the church has caused a substantial right-wing backlash among some Catholics, especially in the USA. 

Some church commentators believe that the church could be heading towards a split. 

In an unprecedented move, a handful of bishops in the USA have publicly denounced the pope, some even going so far as to label him a heretic – one of the gravest accusations that can be levelled against a pope. 

In October, Pope Francis will preside over a Synod in Rome. This is a worldwide meeting of the Catholic Church. Several hot-button issues are on the table – women in formal ministry and the church, and LGBTQI+ people, for example. 

A massive backlash from the right has already condemned the Synod, Francis, bishops and others invited to participate.  

A few conservative cardinals, some of whom have held key positions in the Vatican under his administration, have also spoken out against the Synod and the pope. 

Several bishops and cardinals who oppose Francis have been called “culture warriors”. They think the church is under threat of losing some of its traditional values. 

Brislin is not a “culture warrior”, but will have to find his place and make a stand in a college of cardinals divided by ideology. 

The Catholic Church is also suffering a colossal credibility crisis. The sexual abuse scandals that have for decades reverberated around the world are still at the centre of this crisis. Many people remain unconvinced that the church is serious about handling abuse allegations. Archbishop Brislin may be asked to assist in the church’s ongoing response to this scandal. 

There has been a massive decline in church attendance in the Northern Hemisphere. Many churches in Europe, for instance, are empty on Sundays. A few elderly faithful attend, but many younger people do not. They have either found alternatives or simply chosen not to go.

In Africa, the opposite is true. The church is growing. 

However, the African church is under-resourced and often relies on foreign money. Funding from the North is drying up as church attendance in the North wanes. The sustainability of the church’s structures and institutions in Africa is always a concern. 

Archbishop Brislin and other African cardinals will be a voice, bringing the Vatican and the pope’s attention to the Catholic Church and continent’s struggles. 

The South African Catholic Church has decided to work towards becoming a self-sustaining church, both financially and in personnel. Other bishops will look to Brislin for direction and support in attaining these goals. 

There will be increased expectations of him in the archdiocese, the city of Cape Town and South Africa. He will have to balance all these expectations while leading the church in Cape Town. The local is essential in the Catholic Church’s structures, so his presence locally is important.   

What does a cardinal mean for South Africa?

During the apartheid years, the churches had a strong voice for justice in the public sphere. The apartheid regime noted what church leaders said. They even acted against some, like Archbishop Denis Hurley and Dr Beyers Naudé

Hurley was put on trial for treason when he published atrocities committed in Namibia by the South African police’s so-called Koevoet unit. Naudé was banned and placed under house arrest.

Since the dawn of democracy in 1994, the church’s voice has waned in the public sphere. Even when church leaders speak on justice issues, the current political leadership takes no notice, though many were helped and educated by the churches locally and abroad. 

The struggle for justice is not new to Archbishop Brislin. He regularly visits the Holy Land and participates in a group of Catholic bishops called “The Holy Land Coordination”. 

The group periodically visits the Holy Land to show solidarity with the oppressed Christians there. In addition, Brislin has spoken about questions of justice in South Africa for a long time. 

His challenge will be to claim his rightful place in our current public discourse. He must courageously make his voice known, challenging those in political power forthrightly and prophetically, as his predecessors did.

To be prophetic means to critique where necessary and to affirm and console. The Catholic Church must be the voice of the poor and marginalised in all forms. It must also be a place where the poor and marginalised know they can go for support and hospitality. 

A significant number of Catholics in South Africa feel that the Catholic Church’s voice is not being heard at a critical time. 

Many people feel uncertain and anxious about the future of the country. The appointment of Archbishop Brislin as a cardinal is an opportunity for the church to boldly make its voice heard in a decaying society and economy.  

For those who have lost hope when they see infrastructure fail, an increasing murder rate, or cannot get vital medical attention in hospitals, the church’s voice fighting on their behalf is important. People need to be offered hope. Those who can change decaying and failing systems need to be called on.

The usually introverted archbishop will be challenged to take the public stage more than before. He will need to be available to people and to the media to offer commentary, from the church’s perspective, on the issues that affect people’s daily lives. 

Brislin will find that other church leaders will look to him for guidance and leadership – within the Catholic Church and, more broadly, in the Christian community. 

In a multifaith society like South Africa, religious leaders should consciously seek spaces to talk about common concerns and ventures. This is important to Pope Francis, who has chosen Archbishop Brislin to be one of his closest collaborators. 

At this time in South Africa’s history, faith leaders must work together to instil values – like justice – that are being eroded in society.  

Pope Francis has chosen Archbishop Brislin for the universal Catholic Church and, in a sense, elevated him on to the world stage. The pope’s choice is clear: he is confident in Brislin’s leadership ability. 

However, Pope Francis has also given Catholics in the country and the whole of southern Africa someone he believes can make a qualitative difference in the church and the world. 

Catholics and people of other faith communities will look to him for leadership. The weight of responsibility will be heavy on his shoulders. DM

Father Russell Pollitt SJ (entered the Jesuits 2001; ordained 2006) is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.


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