On May 6 the Vatican announced that Fr. Zolile Peter Mpambani, SCJ, will be the next bishop of Kokstad, a small diocese near Durban, South Africa. Fr. Zolile, currently provincial superior of the South African Province, is 56. He is pictured above, right, with Fr. Sylvester David, OMI, president of St. Joseph Theological Institute in Cedara. Soon after completing his term on General Council in 2003, Fr. Zolile reflected on his vocation and his service to the congregation. Many of the quotes below are from that interview.
Dehonians were the Church
For the young Zolile, the Priests of the Sacred Heart were synonymous with the Catholic Church.
“I didn’t know that there were different kinds of priests,” said Fr. Zolile. As a boy growing up in Umliali, in the Diocese of Aliwal North, South Africa, his primary experience of the Church was through the German Dehonians who served his family parish.
It is no surprise that when he felt a vocational call that he decided that he also wanted to be a Dehonian. “When my pastor [a German SCJ missionary] asked me what kind of priest I wanted to be I told him that ‘I want to be like you!‘”
Fr. Zolile was the first in his family to pursue a religious vocation, and also one of the first South Africans. Since what he knew of the priesthood and SCJ religious life was from what he saw in his parish pastor, he assumed that he would be a parish priest as well.
But much of his life has been spent saying “yes” to many other calls.
Fr. Zolile made his first vows in 1982 and was ordained in 1987. He did his theology studies at St. Joseph Theological Institute in Cedara (near Pietermaritzburg). Initially after ordination, he was doing what he expected: parish ministry. He even spent several years back at the home parish were his vocation took root.
At the same time the two regions of South Africa, one dependent on the U.S. Province and the other on the German, was preparing to become a province. The new province needed a formation team. Only a few years out of formation himself, Fr. Zolile returned to school to prepare to work with the postulants, and later as novice master.
When the South African Province was established, Fr. Zolile was named its vicar provincial.
“Who me? Zolile?”
In 1997, there were no novices for South Africa, so Fr. Zolile went back into parish ministry, filling in for a priest on sabbatical. And that’s where he was when the South African Provincial Council received a request from the Generalate. General Councilor Tomé Makhwéliha, SCJ, had been named as a bishop in Mozambique and the African provinces and regions were asked to suggest a replacement for him on the General Council in Rome.
“I was on the Provincial Council and when we discussed it, we agreed that either a missionary who had been in Africa for a long time, or an African SCJ would be the logical replacement,” said Fr. Zolile. “I never considered myself for the role.”
But others did. His provincial superior, as well as provincial councilors, said that his name should be submitted. “I told them not to waste their time,” he said. “I had no experience; I had never even been a superior. I didn’t know many languages.”
Other councilors ignored his protests and sent Fr. Zolile’s name to Rome.
“And then I forgot about it,” he said. “Until the provincial told me that there was a call from Rome. I remember it well — November 17. Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, called. He told me that they wanted me to come to the General Council. I tried to give him every excuse that I could think of but he was persistent.”
He later laughs when asked what his first reaction was to the request. “Who me? Zolile? I could not believe it,” he said.
Fr. Zolile said that it was important for an African to remain on the formation team in South Africa, but Fr. Tom made the point that the experience Fr. Zolile would gain in Rome would make him a greater help to his South African Province in years ahead. The superior general, Fr. Virginio Bressanelli (now bishop of Neuquén, Argentina), got on the line as well to emphasize the importance of having an African SCJ on council.
“They gave me a few days to decide and I finally said yes,” said Fr. Zolile. “I didn’t know what it would involve; I didn’t know how I would represent the needs and views of Africa. I didn’t know how to actually be a general councilor. You know, there isn’t a rulebook or guide.”
For just about anyone, the move to Rome to serve on the council is a difficult one. Not only does the new councilor leave friends, family and ministries behind, but generally, he also leaves behind a cultural familiarity. Many, like Fr. Zolile, don’t know Italian. A day after he arrived in Rome, he was off for a month to language school. “Then I came back to Rome and felt like a stranger in what was supposed to be my home,” he said.
Heart always in Africa
He joined an informal group of Africans who were also serving their communities in Rome. Many felt as Fr. Zolile did — that they would rather be back in Africa than doing administrative work in Rome. “But we finally agreed that we were there to serve our congregations and that as long as our hearts were in Africa we would never be effective in Rome,” he said. “Once I accepted that I was there in service to the congregation, it was much easier for me.”
Although he often felt like a fish out of water, Fr. Zolile was very appreciative for his years with the council. “I’m not much for pushing papers around Rome, but I am grateful for my time on the council because it opened my eyes to the congregation. All I really knew was South Africa. I knew that there were SCJs in Mozambique — okay, but how did they affect what I was doing? Now, they are my confreres, now I see a connection that I did not see before.”
The connection is one that he sees many in the congregation now making.
“While I was on the council, I saw provinces and regions beginning to open their eyes just as I had. Many SCJs worked in isolation for so many years. Provinces were primarily concerned with what was going on at home. Now, there seems to be greater collaboration and sharing. In Africa, the provinces are working together in formation, and talking about other possibilities.” He sees the same thing in other areas as well. “We are beginning to see ourselves as one.”
Fr. Zolile completed his term on the general administration in 2003 and after a sabbatical returned to South Africa to continue in formation and administration. In February he succeeded Fr. Peter Surdel, SCJ, as provincial superior of the South African Province. In doing so, he became the first South African to lead the province.
And now history repeats itself. In 1997 Fr. Zolile was called to Rome to fill the vacancy left when Fr. Tomé Makhwéliha was named bishop of Pemba (he is now archbishop of Nampula).
Sixteen years later the South African Province seeks to fill the vacancy left as Fr. Zolile prepares to serve as a bishop himself.
The Diocese of Kokstad is 17,655 square kilometers (6,819 miles). It has a population of 1.7 million; about 4.5% are Catholic.