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Cardinal Napier – ‘The Church in Africa has arrived!’

Cardinal Napier has led an extraordinary life.

Born in Swartberg, South Africa in 1941, his generation lived through the rise and fall of apartheid in that country. Ordained a priest in 1970, Napier was named apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Kokstad eight years later, and become a bishop in 1980. In 1992 he became the Archbishop of Durban and was made a cardinal in 2001.

Napier has witnessed a demographic explosion in the Church in Africa over the course of his ministry.

This month, as Cardinal Napier turned 80, he aged out of his appointments in Rome and from any future papal conclave. He remains in the saddle as Durban’s archbishop, at least for now, and his voice in Church affairs looks unlikely to diminish anytime soon. 

Cardinal Napier’s interview with The Pillar has been edited for clarity and length, and is being published in two parts. This is part one:

The Pillar: Your Eminence, happy belated birthday – despite turning 80, you’re still in office as the Archbishop of Durban, though. So no thoughts of slowing down?

Thanks very much – and no, no, I’m not yet. The pope is still holding me in tension for the time being. I think people had anticipated that by the 8th of March, I’d be out of the reckoning — I had done so too, until certain unforeseen events took place.

Of course, Pope Francis is well into his 80s, so there’s no guarantee of retirement.

That’s right. And he’s three years older than I am, I think. I’m busy reading Christus vivat again, and I love the way he talks there about how taking up new things, it restores your youth and your ability to dream and look into the future and your vitality as a result.

The Renewal of the Church

The Pillar: Your Eminence, looking at demographic trends, do you see the Church in Africa becoming a “world builder” in the coming decades? Is that something that you see requiring a cultural shift within the Church itself?

I would say it’s a touch-and-go at the moment, because a lot of leaders in Africa are inclined to stress the material advantages or material progress above the spiritual. 

But I believe that we ourselves need to follow in tune with what Pope Francis has been pushing: That is the renewal of the Church beginning with the family, because I think that’s where the focus must be during this time of COVID, where families have been forced to spend much more time together. It’s an opportunity for us to really emphasize, and popularize maybe, the concept of the domestic Church: that the Church is where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, and what better place than where people who share so much in common can share their life in common?

So, I think it’s an area where we should use the opportunity — and the vaccine is not going to necessarily solve those problems. But relational problems need to be dealt with in a different way. That’s the challenge. 

Read more at The Pillar

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