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

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

Ricardo da Silva, S.J. |

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.”

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

You can Zoom a Mass, but Confirmation will have to wait

Ricardo da Silva, S.J. |

Rev. Paul Rospond presides at the Good Friday liturgy from the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, New York, streamed online.

Since the beginning of February, a small group of Roman Catholic young adults has been meeting at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, to prepare for the rite of Confirmation which they were to receive this Easter.

For the past three years, Emily da Silva-Prado, 25, had not managed to organize herself to attend Confirmation classes. When she enrolled this January, she was determined that by Easter 2020 she would be Confirmed.

But only a few weeks into da Silva-Prado’s instruction, the coronavirus would strike New York, shutting down all non-essential services in the city. Among these, religious institutions like St. Paul’s.

“To be honest with you, I just didn’t take it seriously for quite a while,” da Silva-Prado said, remembering her initial reaction to the public health crisis that has, now, crippled New York and much of the world.

But the unreality of the situation would quickly change for her.

“It got really real for me when we canceled class.”

Suddenly, the Sacrament da Silva-Prado had put off for three years, now deeply desired and had finally been preparing to receive, was left in the balance.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that during the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, believers are “enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit” and become “true witnesses of Christ,” completing the grace they received during the Sacrament of Baptism, which most receive as a child.

Confirmation has its roots in both the Christian and Jewish traditions.

In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible, the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem during Pentecost, a word that stems from the Greek for “fifty.”

The scripture recounts how 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and 50 days after the Jewish celebration of Passover — “a noise like a strong driving wind” entered the room where they were gathered and with it, “tongues as of fire which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” When this happened, the disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

It is from this collective experience that the Christian community is said to have been born. In that instant — even though they spoke different languages — their common experience united them in understanding. That experience, Catholics say, is much like the status of their church today, a church that is spread across the world yet follows the same liturgical ritual and offers the same Sacraments to believers everywhere.

A first-generation American Brazilian, da Silva-Prado was raised Catholic. But as a teenager, when the time came for her to be confirmed, she had other things on her mind.

“This is full disclosure,” she said, looking down, her cheeks growing redder and redder. “It was more for a boy.”

She left the Catholic Church so that she could spend more time with her high school sweetheart.

As a young high schooler at the time, she reckoned she could fulfill both her desire to go to church and to be with her boyfriend, by going to his Brazilian Baptist church instead. Not long after, she encouraged her mother to join her — leaving her father to attend Catholic Mass on his own.

But two years ago, following a “conversion” trip to Italy, da Silva-Prado, who is an art historian and educator of ancient religious works at The Frick Collection, decided it was time to return to the church of her childhood.

“I don’t know,” she said, “When I was at the different churches; when I was in Rome; when I went to the Vatican — something happened where it just all made sense.” It was then that da Silva-Prado decided to begin Confirmation classes. But, short of two months in, with the coronavirus taking hold in New York, her class was quickly forced to find a new way to meet.

After the citywide shutdown, the priest teaching the class, the Rev. Paul Rospond, was determined to continue the program he began teaching at the parish center. “I can actually see the people’s faces on Zoom,” he said, laughing at a discovery that now seemed silly to him. “It took me a week to figure it out!”

Before the coronavirus hit — a time now jokingly referred to as time B.C. — the priest, who is 68 years old, had never taught a class on Zoom, the online video conferencing platform that allows people from all over to meet in a virtual room. “It’s a little more difficult,” he said. “You don’t get the same kind of rapport or feedback.” But, “I’m grateful that I have a way to continue, that gives me some hope that we’re finding ways to continue our ministry. That’s very important. Now, when people will get confirmed, who knows.”

“It’s a time where we really have no precedent,” said da Silva-Prado as she tried to make sense of the shape her faith would take in forced isolation from her community. “It’s been odd doing it through Zoom. It’s not like in-person where you can kind of be, ‘Oh wait, I didn’t quite get that’ or ‘Could you repeat that?’ or ‘Can we go a little bit further in-depth?’.

The new and somewhat stilted format of the class is proving especially difficult because this time has forced da Silva-Prado to think deeply and differently about her life, without the reassuring security net of personal face-to-face contact with a priest or her friends. “I think that this is a time where we’re being asked to take stock of our lives and really evaluate what’s important; what is not,” she said.

“What is that life in the church when we don’t have the physical building anymore?’”

She took a second to digest her question.

“I’ve never lived in a time where Church has been canceled — ever,” she added. “That’s just so scary and very frightening. You don’t know when it’s gonna come back.”

“We are participating through watching Mass online; watching Mass on television,” da Silva-Prado said. “But the physical Mass, I thought that I could attend forever and ever and ever — till kingdom come — is canceled.”

This time of forced introspection and self-quarantining is testing, but da Silva-Prado is confident “there will be an end to this,” she said. “It will be like the raising of Lazarus, that will be amazing and wonderful and miraculous.”

Still, she doesn’t want to avoid the pain nor lose sight of the seriousness this moment has called her to recognize. “There needs to be this death first,” she said, recalling the present unabating cycle of death taking place in New York. “There needs to be the weeping. And Jesus will weep with us and he’s there in our suffering as well. And I’m positive and I’m confident in that. I just think that it’s going to be longer than we expect.”

The prolonged wait to return to her church is only exacerbated by the indefinite wait to be Confirmed.

The Confirmation ceremony is usually presided over by the local bishop and involves an elaborate set of rituals. It is not something that can be done on Zoom.

In the traditional Confirmation ceremony, the bishop smears oil on the foreheads of those being confirmed and lays his hands on their heads. The ritual is meant as a sign that strengthens the faithful to persevere in the Catholic life and to serve as full-fledged members of the church. A strength upon which many now rely.

“The touch is important,” said Rospond. “The anointing with the oil is important; gathering together for the sacrament is important; the connection with a bishop is also important.”

For da Silva-Prado, her classmates and many who were expecting to be received formally into the Catholic Church this Easter — which last year in the United States were more than 37,000 people — they will have to wait indefinitely for a time when they can, again, gather inside churches. No date has been set for this year’s Confirmation.

But when it does come, da Silva-Prado said she will be ready. “I think that Confirmation is going to mean a lot more when this is all over.”