They Closed his Church and Took Away his Priest, so he Became his own

Ricardo da Silva, S.J. | rd2920@columbia.edu

Church is a vital part of the life of 15-year-old Sandile Manyike of Soweto, Johannesburg. He goes every week with his family to St. Martin de Porres, a vibrant 800-member Roman Catholic Church in Orlando West, the South African township where Nelson Mandela lived before he was imprisoned for 27 years.

But when the Covid-19 quarantine began, and his school and his church were closed, Manyike came up with an unusual solution. As he put it, “I think I became a priest this Easter.”

“‘Will I be able to go to church again?’” Manyike asked himself, three weeks before Easter, when his president announced a strict lockdown, forbidding anyone from leaving their homes — not even to exercise, walk the dog or pray in a church.

Sandile Manyike reads a homily in his home in Soweto, South Africa/Photo by Sandile Manyike

For weeks, he had rehearsed his parts in the Holy Week liturgies, expecting to sing in the choir and serve the priest at the altar. He planned to celebrate Easter in the usual way: with his mother, brother, grandmother, grandaunt and his hundreds-strong congregation. Anyone who knows the spirit of song, dance and worship that inhabits South Africa’s township liturgies — with its joyful ululations, vigorous clapping, energetic beating of drums, melodic tapping of marimbas and hundreds in the pews, singing in more vocal parts than most accomplished professional choirs can manage — understands the impact such absence is having on churchgoers.

St. Martin’s is not able to livestream any of its liturgies — unlike many parishes around the world at this time — because Internet data costs are prohibitive, and the racial and poor-rich divide of the past still plagues the country.

Only 62 percent of South Africans have internet access, according to the We Are Social Digital 2020 report released at the beginning of this year, compared to the United States, where 90 percent of its population is online. The high cost of data affected the article you’re reading now, where I had to make expensive, pay-per-minute, cellphone calls and communicate only via Whatsapp.

Rev. Bruce Botha, S.J., kisses the bare cross, a familiar gesture for most Catholics on Good Friday./Photo by Tebogo Petja

Still, Manyike decided that even though he wasn’t able to worship inside the church building, he and his family wouldn’t be starved of their regular Sunday practice of Mass.

“‘We’ll be praising God! We’ll be praising God!’” he pleaded with his grandmother, attempting to convince her to celebrate the Easter liturgies under his direction. “I want you to feel like you’re at church.”

Before coming to his decision, Manyike prayed to God. “I found myself asking God for forgiveness and asking God to let me do this sacrifice,” he said. “I know that I am not anointed in my hands yet, but please let me do it,” he begged God. “Something in my heart said, ‘Sandile, this is what you’re born to do.’”

Though reluctant, Manyike’s family agreed to celebrate together. But he struggled to convince his brother, he said. “I had to force him.”

Manyike prepares to celebrate the liturgy, a bowl to wash his hands and a purple plastic chalice./Photo by Sandile Manyike

Days later, Manyike donned a smart pair of blue jeans, a white t-shirt with a black-and-white print of the Blessed Benedict Daswa — a South African schoolteacher being advanced for sainthood in the Catholic Church, after he was clubbed to death and had boiling water poured over him in 1990 for opposing witchcraft — and draped a chain with a crucifix around his neck. He arranged a small, squared coffee-table in the middle of the lounge, dressed it in a white crochet tablecloth and lit a white candle. “The Lord be with you,” he said, his hands outstretched toward his family as he began the liturgy of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday.

After reading the Gospel, Manyike did what most Catholic priests were prevented from doing this year because of social distancing guidelines. He wrapped a towel around his waist, and kneeling over a large bowl on the floor, beside his grandmother, he poured warm water on her feet, washing them as Jesus had the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Then, with another towel, he dried her feet and kissed them, before repeating the ritual on his mother.

“It was such a wonderful moment,” Manyike said, “I felt like I was at church.”

What happened next, Catholics who are not ordained to the priesthood are not permitted to do. By church law, “a person who attempts the liturgical action of the Eucharistic sacrifice, though not promoted to the sacerdotal [priestly] order,” incurs ex-communication.

From behind the altar, Manyike proceeded with the liturgy of the Eucharist. Saying the usual prayers, he held up a hot-cross bun — traditional cinnamon and raisin tea cake, widely sold in supermarkets at Easter — saying aloud, “This is my body.” He then poured “just a sip or so of red wine,” into a purple plastic chalice; for which he, quickly added, “I asked my mother for permission.” Lifting the cup again, he proclaimed, “This is my blood.” He continued with the prayers. Together, the family said the Our Father together. Then, Manyike tore the tea cake apart handing a piece to his grandmother and mother, along with a sip of the wine. Afterward, he led his family in the Prayer of Spiritual Communion.

“Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally,” the prayer reads, “Come at least spiritually into my heart.” By doing this, Manyike recognized that though he had said the prayers and performed the accompanying actions, he was not yet an ordained priest. The transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ did not take place.

Manyike stands behind his homemade altar, with his grandmother to the side, seen in the foreground./Photo by Sandile Manyike

“He had no intention of simulating,” the Rev. Bruce Botha, a Jesuit priest, wrote in a WhatsApp message, “in the sense of pretending to be something which he is not.” When asked about Manyike’s home liturgy, Botha said, “It was done in private for personal spiritual reasons, and in the company of family who knew he was not a priest and could not and did not intend to consecrate the precious body and blood.”

Lerato Manyike, his 36-year-old mother, was greatly encouraged by her son’s initiative. “Every time we have a mass at home feels like I’m in church,” she shared in a WhatsApp message. “He always reminds me how important it is to have faith.”

More than his mother’s faith was reinforced. “At this time of pandemic, we need to pray,” said Sibongile Manyike, his grandaunt, who is 56 years old, a lifelong parishioner of St Martin’s and a registered nurse working with Covid-19. Though she follows the Catholic Masses on the radio and television, there’s something special about having her grandnephew leading them, she said, on a telephone call. “The way he did it — to me — he was just like an adult.” It was as if, she said, “he’s been all through the seminary. It’s like he’s a priest already.”

Reflecting on his newfound ministry Manyike said, “I learned that you don’t have to go to church to love and praise God.”

But Manyike was not the only one to bring church activities into his home during the holiest time of the Christian year.

Social media was awash with photographs and videos of people, waving their natural or paper-made palm fronds on Palm Sunday and with bowls of water at their feet on Holy Thursday. To replace the Good Friday custom in churches, before Covid-19, where life-sized crosses were kissed, the faithful kissed the crosses in their own homes.

The Rev. Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu, the parish priest of Our Lady of Peace in Western Johannesburg, shared one such photograph posted to social media. A family is seen praying the traditional Stations of the Cross kneeling on the concrete paving in their yard, bare-kneed.

Ndlovu, then shared a telephone conversation with his mother this past Good Friday. “Even in the middle of apartheid, and all that mess, we still went to church,” his mother told him. “Now we have this invisible enemy and we’re housebound,” she said, And, for the 57th year of my life, I’m not in a church.” It was then that Ndlovu said he encouraged his mother to do the readings and prayers as if she were in church on Good Friday.

“The church in South Africa, still, is rooted in the Mass experience,” said Ndlovu, who also teaches pastoral theology and Scripture at St. Augustine College, “which is a good thing because that’s what the Church teaches.” But, with the lockdown, isolated from the community, “the person’s faith experience begins to shake and become unsteady,” he said. “People struggled with the meaning and the sustenance of their own religious experience.”

Manyike raises the chalice, at his grandaunt’s house this past Sunday./Photo by Sandile Manyike

Manyike continues to lead his family in prayer at home. He reads the Gospel — sometimes in English and at others in his native Zulu — preaches and breaks bread. On Holy Saturday, the hot cross bun was substituted with “a piece of brown bread,” he said. And, with his mother’s permission, he still drinks a sip of red wine.

Coming to the end of the celebration on Easter Sunday morning, Manyike looked up at his mother and grandmother and spoke a phrase often heard in Catholic Churches.

“Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life, alleluia, alleluia.”