Pastoral Letter: Bishops of Malawi

Author: Fr. Gianfranco Grieco, O.F.M. Conv.

Pastoral Letter: Bishops of Malawi

Fr. Gianfranco Grieco, O,F.M, Conv.

Addressing the issues with a prophetic witness

The Pastoral Letter: Renewing Our Lives and Society with the Power of the Holy Spirit, was published by the Bishops of Malawi on the Solemnity of Pentecost 2006. The document consists of six sections: the content of the first four is doctrinal and concerns the action of the Holy Spirit in believers' lives, while the fifth and sixth sections address themes relevant to the social life of the Malawian People.

The document was received positively by the Authorities and has received wide coverage in the media. Indeed, it is an excellent working instrument that accentuates the lights and shadows in Malawian society.

To date, the Malawi Bishops' Conference has published 17 pastoral documents since 1992. In the past 14 years, it has addressed many burning issues. Attentive to the signs of the times, the Bishops have always tried to make the faithful of the Catholic Church and all people of good will face their religious and civil responsibilities.

Their most recent Letter is dated 4 June 2006, Solemnity of Pentecost. It is entitled: Renewing Our Lives and Society with the Power of the Holy Spirit.

"We note with sadness", the Prelates write, "the many times especially in the recent years" that "we have been caught in a food shortage situation. We are just emerging from another such difficult period, when nearly half of our population was affected by famine".

"We acknowledge and thank the Government, the donor-community and nongovernmental organizations for their generous response to the crisis. We note in particular the provision of food items, improved structures and mechanisms for food distribution aiming at ensuring that all the affected are reached without discrimination.

"The Spirit of Truth, knowledge and understanding", the Bishops stress, "should help us discern and come to some understanding on the multiple causes of our somewhat chronic situation. Erratic weather-patterns, over-dependence on rain-fed agriculture, inability to access farm inputs, lack of capacity to adopt modern methods of farming and bad food management practices and policies have often been allowed to undermine food security in our Country.

"In an effort to avert another crisis, we encourage the current efforts of Government and of civil society", to put "more emphasis on agriculture, the revival of subsidized fertilizer programmes, the promotion of irrigation and better methods of farming and improved food management practices in our homes".

"Having produced and harvested their crops", the Bishops warn, "our people should be further sensitized" to "the discipline of family budgeting and planning so that they do not succumb to the temptation of using or selling everything for mere monetary gain. They should be trained to think and plan for the future by preserving some maize and foodstuffs for tomorrow as our ancestors successfully did".

"Business men and women who trade in maize and similar foodstuffs should be dissuaded from the immorality of buying such crops at very low prices and later, in time of scarcity and destitution, selling the same at extraordinarily high prices, thus making glaringly unjust profits.

"National policy and legislation on pricing and selling of essential food commodities with a view to protecting the farmer and the consumer, especially the poor, would be a welcome development" (5.2.1).

Social ills of our times

The Bishops then reflect on various "negative practices" which are on the increase: "threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially the weak and the defenceless: the poor, women and children. Gender-based violence, domestic violence, human trafficking, barbaric body-parts trafficking, child abuse and rape are worrisome moral evils that in the present circumstances really amount to a satanic conspiracy against the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person".

In a Country like Malawi, they note, "where we have since the dawn of multiparty democracy prided ourselves in the respect for human rights and have proclaimed the value of life, it is surprising that these social ills fail to be adequately and decisively addressed".

The Bishops continue: "If no well-thought-out and spirit-filled remedial measures are adopted, a new climate might emerge before us that will give legitimacy to what we have traditionally considered as shameful crimes. With the Spirit of God at work in us we should never come to a point where we lose the sense of being shocked and appalled by such moral evils".

The "lesson" the Prelates impart to the faithful on the "gentle and invisible Guest of the soul" is powerful: "Today, the Holy Spirit invites us to place special focus and to act on the advancement of gender equality by affirmatively promoting the participation of women in public life, especially in decision-making bodies and positions".

And on this subject, the Prelates continue: "Specific efforts and strategies should be made to build the capacity and skills of women and the girl-child through education, training and provision of equal opportunities advocated and stipulated in our Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) Gender Policy.

"We also encourage a spirit of listening, dialogue, understanding and of other means of reconciliation and conflict resolution, including counselling facilities. These necessary initiatives combined with appropriate legislation and law enforcement should assist to provide for equitable advancement of our people irrespective of their gender and should also help to root out social ills such as gender-based violence and gender inequalities" (5.2.2).

Declining norms and values

"The Spirit of God", the Bishops of Malawi recommend, "helps us to reflect on the world around us, on the views, opinions and values we come in contact with.

"The current multiparty democracy, with its emphasis on rights, freedoms and majority rule, has had the effect, in some quarters, of relativizing everything and identifying freedom with merely what pleases people".

Then, the Bishops say, there is a widespread belief that freedom is exercised "when I choose what I like!".

"Democracy has come to mean doing what pleases some selfish individuals and influential people regardless of any sincere consideration for moral truthfulness and the authentic common good.

"Values, moral norms and God himself begin to be viewed as obstacles to human freedom and people are left alone to construct their own value system. Such is the case in our days when family values are being eroded and the true meaning and nature of marriage is being compromised".

The Bishops write: "We are beginning to see sectors of public opinion justify certain traditionally-considered evil behaviour like abortion in the name of the rights and freedoms of the individual. On this basis, some people are beginning to claim not only exemption from punishment but even legal authorization so that pregnancy can be terminated with total freedom and indeed with the assistance of the health-care system.

"The fact that legislation or practice does not punish these practices, and people hope to make them legal without any regard for the law of God, is both a disturbing symptom and a significant sign of moral decline".

They then point out that "the Holy Spirit continues to raise voices in our midst in defence of true family values, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person and for an authentic freedom that is inspired by moral values and moral truth".

Although they encourage the promotion of culture, especially good and commendable cultural practices, the Bishops warn that the Church, society and custodians of Malawi's culture "should study, identify, modify, discourage and sometimes even eliminate certain social or cultural practices".

Some of these, they explain, "contribute to and also perpetuate inequalities, abuses, structural violence and injustices as well as threaten or militate against life and the dignity of the human person: for example, fisi in its various versions, kuchotsa fumbi, polygamy and wife inheritance".

"The process of inculturation encourages a redemptive interaction between faith and culture. In light of our Christian faith and in full awareness of the social consequences of some of these cultural practices, and also in consideration of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, we must urgently allow our culture to be evangelized by Gospel values".

As they wrote in previous Pastoral Letters, the Prelates reassert that the Church believes "that faithfulness to one partner in marriage and abstinence for the unmarried is the best and most sure way of combating and protecting ourselves and others from the HIV and AIDS pandemic" (5.2.4).

Social responsibility

"The Spirit of wisdom", the Bishops further stress, "prompts many of us in our society to address issues with maturity and in view of the common good of the larger community to which members belong.

"So we note with some sense of gratitude that there are various calls to unity, reconciliation, dialogue and understanding at all levels in our society, national, ecclesial, intra- and inter-Church, within associations and other groupings. We see this even in the manner in which the proceedings of the last sitting of Parliament (April 2006) were conducted. All relevant issues of concern were being brought forward for discussion and consensus was reached for the good of the Nation.

"Indeed, it is the Spirit of God", the Bishops conclude, "'who... in the midst of conflict and division turns our minds to thoughts of peace... changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship and nations seek the way to peace together".

"'(God's) Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy and vengeance gives way to forgiveness' (cf. Preface, Mass of Reconciliation II). We encourage our leaders to take this spirit to heart" (5.2.5).

Environmental issues

On the theme of the environment and natural resources, the Bishops write: "The Spirit of God today enlightens and teaches us to be extra sensitive to the environment and to take care of our natural resources. Thus, it is appreciated that some of our people manifest a growing awareness of issues of deforestation, land degradation through erosion and bad farming practices".

Finally, the Bishops urged the faithful to abstain from such irresponsible acts as felling trees, and to assume responsibility for replenishing the environment by planting trees.

The Holy Spirit, they say, "invites us all to a responsive and responsible leadership in exercising accountable stewardship over God's creation and resources in accordance with our social responsibilities and functions. At various levels each and all are to exercise care for the environment and the resources which should also be protected, developed and equitably shared. Families and communities should work hard to fully sustain themselves by engaging in activities which generate the needed resources for their livelihood".

"Since deforestation to a great extent is caused by our people looking for some source of energy, we call upon the Government to reinforce a sound policy on aforestation and intensify the rural electrification programme so that people can also have an alternative source of energy" (5.2.6).

This Letter of the Bishops of Malawi is prophetic. Theirs is a Church which is adult, both in the faith and in her witness to love.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11 October, 2006, page 4

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