Remembering Nelson Mandela

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

As the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, 95, earlier this month, people around the globe expressed their admiration for the South African who, after spending nearly three decades in prison, became his nation’s president and a symbol for peace and reconciliation. For days, the media focused on the impact of the man who inspired millions. Below are comments from Holy Name Province friars and their partners-in-ministry. Though their backgrounds and locations vary, their perspectives are similar. One — who personally experienced racial injustice — said that Mandela’s rise from prison to presidency is one of the most profound proof of the triumphs of the human spirit that he has witnessed. Another concluded, “The world is far from perfect, but it is a better place because of Nelson Mandela.”

Benedict Taylor, OFM, 
Founder of CREATE, New York City

During the time of my life preceding the civil rights era, while experiencing the effects of racism as each person of color did, I was aware of the condition of people of color in South Africa. I learned that the outrages felt by them were comparable to the lynching, Jim Crow and other suffering felt in America. I learned of the imprisonment of a leader, Nelson Mandela. I also saw an independent film of his struggle, shown in a black neighborhood cinema. I knew of him before I knew Dr. King. His freedom became another victory over racism, freedom of a hero I knew something of as a young adult. Mandela’s rise from that prison cell and terror to presidency is one of the most profound proofs of the triumphs of the human spirit that I have been blessed to witness.

David Hyman, OFM
Athens, Ga.

I listened to the BBC at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning — the day of the memorial service — to hear the excitement and commentary as people sang and danced to the stadium in the rain. I then turned on the TV to get it in pictures. I said to myself, “This is momentous!” I was and am grateful to be alive to experience one of the great events of my lifetime. My mind went back to the funeral of Ghandi. I can still picture the fire that quickly consumed his body. Another moment when I knew something big had occurred.

I liked the words of Tony Blair, interviewed that morning. “The forgiveness of Mandela is what has made this country so great.” My mind then went to an African American student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., who, in 1974, when I was debating doing campus ministry at Tennessee State University, said to me: “I think you will find us a very forgiving people. No people, for so long, has ever had so much injustice done to us, and still we forgive.” If only our world leaders could learn from this!

Mandela, for me, is a perfect Advent icon. In prison for 27 years, he believed that this is not for keeps. Justice and goodness triumph over injustice and evil. Its day comes as certain as the rising sun.

Fran Eskin-Royer, Silver Spring, Md.
HNP Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation staff member

Like many, I’ve been drawn to the story of Nelson Mandela in the wake of his death. I’ve sat in my driveway to hear the end of NPR interviews about his life, and I’m sure my husband and I are among many who recently rented Invictus, eager to learn more about Mandela’s dogged pursuit of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. My “on-the-job” Franciscan formation has made me particularly attuned to Mandela’s rare ability to extend a hand to those who would be considered “the enemy” and his commitment to building peace.

I attend St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., and this past Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, spoke of Nelson Mandela in his homily. He described the great reversal that came in his life, from his beginnings as a sheepherder in a remote town in South Africa, to his rise to become the unifier of the nation. Mandela’s life is a profound testament to the potential of any single human heart. Rest in peace Madiba.

Frank Critch, OFM 
Triangle, Va.

Nelson Mandela has always been a symbol of hope and forgiveness expressed in his actions and words. He challenges us as a symbol of non-violence, where change can only happen through peaceful means. Someone who was imprisoned for so many years should only have hatred and contempt for his captors, and he reached out the hand of reconciliation as one who, though oppressed in body, was free in spirit.

The challenge for all of us, Franciscan or not, is to be a symbol of hope in the midst of the despair in which we find ourselves, and to live what we profess. The theme of our upcoming chapter is “Be who you say you are.” Who are we? Are we living what we profess? Do we give into the ideals of a society which prides itself in the individual, in the survival of the strong and the wealthy, or do we live by the ideal professed by another prophet in our midst, Pope Francis, and become a Church of the poor for the poor? Mandela, Pope Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the gospel of Christ, which we profess, continually challenge us to lift up the oppressed in our midst, whoever they may be. We are called to give hope and be symbols of hope. We need only to reflect on the life of Francis, and from here we will find the courage and strength we need to live out our vocation and our calling as true ministers of peace, hope and reconciliation. May there be many Mandelas in our midst.

John Felice, OFM
New York City

The heart of the Gospel message is forgiveness. It is at the very center of the prayer Christ taught us, the only condition for discipleship: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” At the heart of all conflict — political, religious, ethnic or racial — is the inability to forgive one another. Although the Gospel is filled with stories of forgiveness, even as Christ is nailed to the cross, it remains the last lesson learned.

His 27 years in prison gave him plenty of time to consider vengeance for all that he had suffered. But those years taught him something far more important. He came to see that if he could not find forgiveness in his heart, he would not find peace, and his dream for his beloved South Africa would be without hope.

His example of forgiveness made him the moral conscience of the world. He looked through the lens of the Gospel and saw the hard, simple truth that without forgiveness, peace remains forever elusive. He bet against the reality of bitterness and hatred, and won. The world is far from perfect, but it is a better place because of Nelson Mandela.

Joseph Ehrhardt, OFM 
Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa

As someone wisely once said: “saints are made in heaven,” recognizing the power of God’s guiding spirit in a person’s transformational journey. Yet they are also “made here on Mother Earth” in the blazing forge of suffering and struggle undergone in this life to attain the inalienable, full dignity of God’s beloved children.

Nelson Mandela, affectionately called “Madiba,” was to the end, a true and faithful son of Africa at her best. Steeped in the simplicity, wisdom and depth of African values, he became a shining image of Jesus, savior and liberator for his “rainbow people” of all races in South Africa. In the midst of the grueling and, for so long, seemingly hopeless struggle against the heartless oppression of the apartheid regime, he remained passionately committed. In the spirit of our own father Francis, he fulfilled his God-given, peace-building and reconciling mission with the patience, perseverance and unconditional forgiveness that we friars are seriously challenged to emulate and incarnate in our own lives and mission today. I have deep gratitude for “Madiba”s courageous giving of his life for us all.

Lawrence Hayes, OFM
Durham, N.C.

As I reflected upon Nelson Mandela after hearing news of his death, the first thing that crossed my mind was his amazing ability to forgive, even after spending 27 years in prison. He once wrote that “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Working tirelessly to eliminate apartheid and to foster racial reconciliation and an inclusive democracy in South Africa, Mandela helped his country emerge from prison as well.

Last Sunday, a member of our RCIA group, a man from Cameroon who fled his country after being imprisoned and tortured, shared movingly with us how Mandela had served as a strong beacon of hope, love and peace for himself and for all of Africa.

Just as Pope Francis has called us to be joyful proclaimers of the Gospel in his recent apostolic exhortation, Mandela was always able to rise above adversity. He wrote: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Similarly, just as Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium urges politicians to “attack the structural causes of inequality” and to work to provide employment, healthcare and education to all citizens, Mandela fought for economic reform: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Yet even with all his accomplishments, Mandela remained a humble man who knew his flaws: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Reflecting on his life can help us to “keep on trying” as well. May he rest in peace.

Megan Nerz, Raleigh, N.C.
Former member of HNP Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate

I’ve read that Nelson Mandela wasn’t overly religious. There was, however, an unmistakable goodness about him that couldn’t be anything other than God-given.

He was many things: advocate, liberator, peacemaker, hero, leader, humanitarian, visionary, survivor, teacher, rebel, legend.  And good — gifted with the intuitive ability to see the good in others and to help others see the good in themselves, plunging us into the realization that we are all caught up in this thing called life together. What Mandela recognized with such clarity was the value in being “my brother’s keeper.” That it was in those connections that we were most human. That it was in those responsibilities that we could see and generously care about the lives and the circumstances of others — especially those unlike ourselves.

God undoubtedly shaped Mandela’s goodness. May we not only remember it, but also find ways each day to be such goodness for one another.

 Compiled by Jocelyn Thomas