In The Midst Of Tears I Found Him
By Fr. Peter Grant
The years leading up to the end of apartheid in South Africa were particularly brutal. Sometimes even church people were no help, forgetting the Gospel and embracing the wisdom of the world. Peter Grant lived through these harrowing times. But the pain and the suffering eventually led him back to Christ. He shares his story with us here.
My parents emigrated from England to South Africa after World War II, having had one child. My mother suffered a series of miscarriages, and the doctors advised that she could not bear more children without risk so they give up trying... until they joined the Catholic Church in 1957. The Irish Dominican Sisters in Cape Town (bless their hearts) informed my parents that “it” was “good” healthy exercise, so keep on trying! “This they duly did resulting in my birth in 1958, followed by two daughters. When I was only a few days old, my parents took me up to the convent to show the sisters what their prayers had wrought. Mother Angelica and her cohorts promptly kidnapped me, whisked me off to the chapel, and dedicated me firmly to our Lady. I blame a lot of things in my life since then on their intervention. (Not that I’m complaining mind you...)
Pres. Nelson Mandela, universally acclaimed for his compassion, courage and wisdom
My journey out of the Catholic Church began with the eruption of widespread civil strife in South Africa in 1976, when black people rose in revolt against the discriminatory and segregationist policies of apartheid. At the time, I was fulfilling my military service obligation. I remember being put on standby to patrol rebellious black townships and thinking to myself, “What am I doing to do if I come across rioters? Can I shoot them, when I know full well that, if I’d been born black, I’d be rioting with them?” this led me to consider entering the seminary, in order to try to make a difference as a priest. Of course, this was the wrong motivation – I should have been focusing on what God wanted from me, rather than what I was prepared to do for God.
Unfortunately, seminary was a rude awakening. I found that any overt enthusiasm for or about the faith was regarded as extremely suspect. I had been involved in the charismatic renewal for some time and was dumbfounded to be asked by the rector of the seminary, “What are you doing praying with people? You’re not ordained!” The influence of liberation theology also was very strong in the Church at that time. My attempt to find greater community spirit with a religious order was derailed when my novice master advised me that “violence can be a just and Christian way to change society.” I remembered reading many sayings of our Lord, but never that one. So in 1981, I abandoned my studies, disillusioned and depressed about the state of the Church.
Struggle for Liberation
My disillusionment was reinforced during the 1980’s numerous clergy and religious had become political and social activists first and men and women of God distant second. During those years, many South Africans, including myself, did their best to help those who had become victims of violence, but our activities, being non-political, often were resented.
A friend of mine was brutally murdered when, because of his faith, he refused to support, a particular political movement, which wanted him to join in an attack on a rival group. When I tried to make arrangements for his funeral I found his pastor unsympathetic. This ‘man of God’ felt that my friend’s death was his own fault for refusing to cooperate with the “liberation struggle.” His conduct had been an example of “selfish refusal to support the oppressed.” His obedience to the Gospel, even unto death, counted for nothing. I’m sure that my friend now wears a martyr’s crown in heaven, despite his pastor’s opinion.
Some clergy and religious even argued that the Bible should be “edited” with books sympathetic to the needs of the oppressed” being replaced by others which “showed solidarity with the proletariat.” Many in the Church – clergy, religious, and laity – under the influence of this and other ideologies supported and even practiced violence as a “justifiable element of the struggle”. Those who objected were vilified indiscriminately as “hidebound reactionaries,” “arch-conservatives,” or “counter-revolutionaries.”
Rebellion Against the Church
After all too many encounters with such altitudes, I stopped practicing my faith. This was, of course, seriously sinful on my part. I failed to recognize that deficiencies in her members were not automatically deficiencies in the church, and that, as Frank Sheed put it, “defects in the Church are not defects in Christ.” I also failed to take into account those holy men and women who, indeed, were trying to exert a godly influence in our tragic situation. (Unfortunately, I met very few such persons.) In my bitterness, I dismissed the Church as having no relevance or meaning. Having rebelled against his Church, it was perhaps inevitable that in due course I also stopped listening to God. I fell into a self-centered and sinful lifestyle, regarding myself as lord or my own universe.
My memories of the 1980s are a curious blend of happiness and horror. My secular career and part time studies afford me great pleasure, and I did well in both. My ongoing efforts to help those trapped in violence and civil unrest were a constant source of fear, pain and interior bitterness. I was injured several times in township violence, but the physical pain was as nothing compared to the mental anguish of witnessing so much savagery and pointless bloodshed. At times, I couldn’t handle it any more and withdrew from the townships. A period of relative personal calm would follow. I inevitably would be drawn back into the thick of things. I had many nightmares during those years, images of the grotesque barbarity that I witnessed. They haunt me still.
Matters came to a head for me in the early 1990s. The conflicting demands of a career, ongoing studies and assisting the victims of violence were overloading me, in addition – as with many white people trying to work in black communities during those years of violence – I was experiencing a “dual rejection”. In the white community, some regarded us as “communist” or “traitors” because we believed and openly proclaimed that apartheid was evil and that skin color was no reason for discrimination. In the black community, we also encountered rejection, because no matter what we did nor said, we had white skins and were thus automatically outsiders – never “one of us.”
Tragic Moment of Truth
At this point, an incident occurred that devastated me and forced me to re-examine the foundations of my life. I was in a black township, trying to help the victims of a violent mob battle the previous day. I was picking up the pieces of the body of an eight-year-old girl who had been hacked to death. Her mother was with me, also picking up lumps of torn and mangled flesh. She was trying to weep, but her anguish had gone on so long, and her despair was so great, that her sobs were now wracking, gut-wrenching explosions of grief. They produced no tears – she had none left. As I helped her, I too was weeping. (There were times, back then, when even without an active faith, I truly understood the biblical injunction to “weep with those who weep.” Sometimes no other prayer is possible, except for tears.) Township dwellers were standing some distance away, armed with spears, clubs, and knives. They watched us, with their faces like stone. They had been part of the mob that had killed the girl. Behind us, three (white) policemen lounged next to their armored personnel carrier, making racist, barbed and grotesque remarks about what we were doing. One of them sneered at me, “What are you crying for? Don’t bother about that girl! After all, she’s only a kaffir (‘nigger’) – she’s an animal, she hasn’t got a soul!”
Realizing My Role in the Calvary
His vicious remark struck me like a bolt of lighting. God used it to open my eyes to the reality of the situation. This policeman was as much a victim of violence and hatred as was the child whose body I was helping to assemble for burial. She was dead, and her sufferings were now over, but he, too, was dead – dead in spirit, dead in soul. He was living out his own private hell, right here and now. For the first time, I realized the true meaning of the cross. Christ was crucified in the death of this young girl; he was crucified in the mourning of her mother; and He was crucified in the bigotry and contempt of that young policeman as well. He even was crucified in the callous disregard of his teachings by so many on his Church. I was sharing in a true Calvary that encompassed all the actors in this tragedy yet I had denied any role for Calvary, both in my own life and in the despair and hatred which was all around me.
Heeding God’s Call
All of my rationalizing an intellectual adjustment had been destroyed, and I knew that only in God would I find peace. I was still rebellious about the state of the Church. I prayed about this for some months and eventually made an appointment to see a bishop in another diocese. He was himself a man of color and had suffered under apartheid; I knew him to be a man of prayer who took God seriously. I described to him what I’d experienced and the conflict and confusion I felt in my mind. Needless to say, he, being outside my situation, could see things more clearly than I, and, being a man of God, he could evaluate the Lord’s work in me, even though I could not identify it all. He worked through a number of issues with me. Through his wise advice, I was able to see that God had been calling me for years. The reason I hadn’t heard Him was that I had closed my ears to His voice, blaming Him for the defects I saw in members of His Church.
I felt as if a constricting, choking cloud had been lifted from me, and, for the first time in years, I could see clearly. Over the next few months, I wound up my personal affairs and in 1992 took up my studies for the priesthood once again. I was ordained on January 1995.
I’m often asked how I see my priesthood – and, indeed, the Christian life in general – in the light of my experiences. They are a very real foundation for my ministry. I still weep, freely and unashamedly, on and around June 16 every year, when I offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the twenty-seven friends I lost in South Africa’s long and tragic conflict and for all the others who died so savagely and so pointlessly.
Long Way to Go
I still have along way to go in growing into Christ. I can only praise and thank Him for leading me with such gentle, loving understanding, out of darkness into His wonderful light. I now understand that His Church, despite the defects of her members – including my own – is, indeed, holy, with a holiness only He can give His Bride. In serving her, I serve Him in failing her, I fail Him. May He grant that I never for-sake her again! Those Irish Dominican Sisters are probably in heaven with our Lord. I’ll bet they’re still praying for me and haven’t finished with me yet!