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​Head and heart

· Sr Hermenegild Makoro, since 2012 Secretary of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference ·

Since March 2012 the Secretary General of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference has been Sr Hermenegild Makoro, an extremely rare case of a woman appointed by a male college and in charge of it. Energetic and determined, Hermenegild retraces her own private and public history, immediately stressing that she has been used since childhood to being “in a minority”, since she grew up in a family that was predominantly male.

Born on 7 December 1951 in Koeqana, a rural locality in the district of Mount Fletcher in Eastern Cape Province, Hermenegild is the second of four children, the only girl with three brothers and as though that were not enough, “my cousins were male too, so I was surrounded by boys”, she added ironically. Yet while she was growing up she suffered no different treatment because “we were all brought up in an atmosphere of freedom, in which all of us were always encouraged to be ourselves”.

Hermenegild’s family was deeply religious. In it “There was trust, in the sense that our parents trusted us”. The greatest and most difficult gift that parents can make to their children is to bet on them, accepting them as they are, loving their uniqueness and supporting and helping their diversity to flourish: “My parents’ approach instilled this same spirit in me just as in the people with whom I work”, Sr Makoro commented proudly, identifying her childhood as the period that was decisive for the formation of her sense of freedom and independence.

Changing people, making them responsible and aware of their rights is what is asked of a Church like the African Church, whose passwords, according to what Benedict xvi wrote in his Africae munus, are “justice”, “reconciliation” and “peace”: all these, in Hermenegild Makoro’s story, were learned within the walls of her home, imbued with an authentic and heart-felt Catholicism.

Her drawing close to God thus happened in an absolutely personal way, without any external pressures: “I gradually discovered what I was seeking in my life. Then one day I took part in a sister’s profession of faith and the fact that I wanted to follow the religious life became very clear within me. From that moment I never looked back”. In this case too the family supported their daughter’s decision, even though “the greatest support came from my mother, while my father would have liked me to be at home studying”. It was not by chance that Hermenegild stressed that her mother and her grandmother “were deeply spiritual people with healthy principles who prayed every day for a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life for the members of the family”.

Therefore her decision to take the veil germinated almost exclusively in this fertile humus of her family. “Surprisingly I had never been in touch with any sister of my parish, apart from the sisters who prepared me for First Communion and Confirmation. Even so I remember that one sister made a deep impression on me and this may have influenced me, even indirectly”. Thus it was two women, Hermenegild’s mother and grandmother, who were the people crucial to her decision to take the veil which culminated in 1976 in her profession of religious life with the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood: a spirituality corroborated by an intense pastoral and academic activity which led to a degree in education and formation at the University of Transkei and a diploma in theology at the University of Natal-Pietermaritzburg. Sr Makoro then taught at the senior school in Mariazell and for years was coordinator of the pastoral group for catechesis: she worked as the head of the diocesan group for the Umtata and she also worked for a while as Provincial Superior of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood. Hence she had an active life with commitments in full swing and concrete and pressing responsibilities.

Before the conferral on her of the office of Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference Sr Hermenegild worked in the Bishops’ Conference for six years. For this reason she evaluates pragmatically the reasons for her nomination: “I believe the bishops appointed me because they believed in me and knew what I was capable of doing. They recognized my qualities as a person”. However, in spite of their recognition of her qualities and merits as a person Sr Makoro is keen to emphasize her specific contribution as a woman. “I believe that the specific qualities which a woman can contribute to an organization managed essentially by men are compassion, understanding and feeling. It is a way of acting dictated by the heart and not by the head”.

However, men too did their part, in this case by courageously opening new paths. According to Sr Makoro her appointment is in fact to be attributed “to the progressivism of the bishops of our Conference, aware that in the Church a look based on a vision of gender is not enough. If the Church wishes to move ahead she must change her attitude. And this result must be a very strong message even in the ecumenical movements”.

The example of the African Church, with trust and recognition granted to new energies, in which women play leading roles at last, could serve as a beacon to the Church throughout the world: “At our meeting of SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) I was accepted as an equal among all the men”, continued Sr Makoro. “It is important that women accept the challenge when it appears and I hope that before the end of my mandate, which ends in two years’ time, some other conferences will have learned from the South African Conference of Catholic Bishops”.

Accepting the challenge means being ready to act rapidly and directly in a society “which has become so selfish that the other person does not count as long as I am happy”. Therefore the fundamental mission of the Church remains that “of evangelizing globally or locally”, Sr Makoro explained, precisely where critical problems emerge, constituted by “individualism, spiritual emptiness, materialism, the dissolution of family bonds, financial and spiritual poverty and problems concerning the environment, migrants and refugees”.

Thus it entails taking up the challenge launched by Pope Francis who expressed his hope for a Church which would venture out, a community of believers urged to go out in both the geographical and the existential sense; to go out to others, to other cultures, to different peoples, to the geographical and existential peripheries: that is to the poor, the rejected, the desperate and the failed, abandoning every self-referential reference that prevents authentic proclamation.

In March 2014 Sr Makoro received in addition another nomination in a another trench, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, where Pope Francis’ Church intends to fight a battle that is sorrowful but at the same time is only right. The commission, guided by the American Cardinal Sean O’Malley, is playing a role of consultancy for national episcopacies to prevent the sexual abuse of minors by clerics.

“The Commission works in different groups”, Sr Makoro explained. “Our responsibility is to advise the Pope, his collaborators and the local Churches concerning the safeguard of minors. The groups work on different topics which the Commission deems crucial”. The effective protection of minors and the commitment to guarantee them the human and spiritual development which is consonant with the dignity of the human person are an integral part of the Church’s evangelical message. “The work groups cover the following areas: guidelines for the safeguard and protection of minors; healing and treating the victims, the survivors and their families; formation of candidates to the priesthood and to the religious life, education of ecclesial summits; education of families and communities; theology and spirituality; canon and civil laws. I am personally involved in the group for the education of families and communities”.

Sr Hermenegild has a life of service and in the front line. With docile modesty, as well as complaining that she works in “too many meetings which subsequently have little impact on my work”, she unexpectedly confesses a strange personal challenge: “I am a timid person and my work always puts me on stage. This is a challenge, given that I prefer working in the wings”.

Elena Buia Rutt

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