Mission to South Africa: Living in joyful hope

By Bob Armbruster Despite the many difficult tasks of being a missionary—not to mention the elephants and rhinos—Father Dermot Roache sees hope. “We are a people of the Resurrection! Hope is part of our being.”

Image: ONE PLACE missionary Father Dermot Roache, S.M.A. finds God is in the South African love of music.

A PERSONABLE Irish American from Brooklyn, Father Dermot Roache sometimes enjoys a hearty laugh in his South African parish. Take the time he was baptizing 15 children. A boy 4 years old absolutely loved the pouring of the water on his head. As soon as the last child was baptized, the 4-year-old ran from his mother like a bullet, stopped at the baptismal font, and said, “Some more please!”

Thank God Roache has moments of laughter, because a man who joins the Society of African Missions is not in for a soft job or an easy life. And members of the community—popularly known as the SMA Fathers (Societas Missionum ad Afros in Latin) must be prepared for surprises. When he was ordained on December 29, 2007 at his community’s provincial headquarters in Tenafly, New Jersey, the 37-year-old priest expected an assignment to Kenya, where he had prepared for the priesthood. But within a short time plans had changed, and he was assigned to South Africa.

How did he come to be a missionary priest in the first place? He is from a devout Catholic family and had been active in his parish as a CCD teacher. While on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Medjugorje in Bosnia in the 1990s, he felt called to be a priest. He has a strong devotion to Mary and feels she is watching out for him and teaching him to draw more closely to Jesus.

He knew of the SMAs because he has an uncle, Father Patrick Kelly, in the community. “It is often difficult for a spouse to describe in words what attracts him or her to the other,” says Roache. “That is love. It is the same for me. I cannot describe in words what attracts me to the SMA, yet I am at home with the SMA. What you see is what you get when you meet us, and I find that beautiful.”

That Roache became a missionary priest seems fitting to Sister Anne Bernadette, his supervisor when he taught CCD. “He’s very good with youngsters,” she recalls, adding that he never gave up on a difficult pupil but always saw something positive in the child.

60 miles of parish

That persistence serves Roache well in his new ministry. He has found South Africa to be a beautiful place but one with lots of problems. He works in the Diocese of Rustenburg and its village of 2,000 people, Sesobe. Rustenburg, he explains, is the platinum capital of the world and is a rapidly growing area surrounded by vast open territory. Living 15 minutes from a national game park, Roache’s neighbors include elephants, zebra, hippos, rhinos, giraffes, and lots of monkeys.

Father Dermot, who is in demand as a speaker and preacher, proclaims the gospel during Mass.
FATHER DERMOT, who is in demand as a speaker and preacher, proclaims the gospel during Mass.

His parish, Our Lady Star of the Sea, where he serves with Irish SMA Father Freddie Warner, has a radius of well over 60 miles (a size not uncommon in the missionary field) and 14 outstations, or parishes in the making. Each has the potential of becoming self-sufficient and independent if adequate personnel are available. Each outstation’s growth depends on the effort, zeal, and cooperation of the people.

Roache gets around to the outstations in a pickup truck or motorbike. He finds the motorbike more fun. The roads in the villages are made of dirt. Some are good, but others are in desperate condition. Other public services are in bad condition, too. Education is poor, especially in the villages, so people make a living any way they can. “Work is more or less an equal opportunity thing,” he says. “Both men and women work in the mines deep underground. There are women postal, police, fire, and ambulance workers. But jobs are becoming scarce and are demanding more qualified people. Without proper education, how does one become qualified?”

Being part of the community

Personal security is a big concern in South Africa. “We all live under threat on a daily basis,” he says. “I have been the victim of theft three times already, once at gunpoint. No one is an exception here. So it is stressful. You just never know.”

Missionary priests are expected to become part of the lives of the people they serve, entering into their customs and understanding their ways. Roache and Warner work with lay volunteers to provide basic training in catechism. “Without community effort there is no church!” Roache says.

A huge challenge for him is ministry to South Africans with AIDS. This devastating disease has profoundly torn the fabric of South Africa and neighboring countries. With roughly a third of the population HIV-positive, AIDS is cutting down adults in the prime of their lives, orphaning more than a million children, and making funerals unbearably common. “On average I anoint five to ten dying people a week and preside at a funeral every Saturday,” notes Roache. “Saturdays are the funeral days.”

Batswana funerals begin at 6 a.m., because it is a tradition to send off their beloved at sunrise. “It is their understanding of the Resurrection. So depending on the distance, I can be en route to a church or cemetery before 5 a.m.”

Whether at a funeral or a Sunday Mass, Roache takes preaching seriously. “I must be responsible in how I break open the Word of God for the people and be very conscious of what is actually being presented.

“That responsibility is humbling. The realization that you are an instrument of God keeps you grounded. I have found myself more and more sitting before the Blessed Sacrament mulling over scripture in preparation for a homily or workshop. It is then and only then that Jesus gives me what is needed. If I do not spend time with Jesus in the Eucharist, then everything, including preaching, remains meaningless.”

Putting it in God’s hands

While Roache is in increasing demand to teach and give seminars and presentations in two dioceses, he does not think he will ever know the results of his preaching. “True, some people come to me and comment and thank me for my words, but it is the fruit of the reception of the homily that will be proof. That can only come through the grace of God. As a missionary I am called to sow seeds. That sometimes seems thankless and mundane. I may never see the actual growth, but I am certain that the Holy Spirit is doing his part on my behalf. The rest is up to God.”

THE STRIKING South African countryside is the backdrop for an outdoor Stations of the Cross. The Stations resonate for South Africans, who daily struggle with the enormous death toll of AIDS.
THE STRIKING South African countryside is the backdrop for an outdoor Stations of the Cross. The Stations resonate for South Africans, who daily struggle with the enormous death toll of AIDS.

One place he finds God abundantly is the South African love of song. “So much of the Mass is sung. Many places surprisingly do not use instruments. They just burst into song and swaying dance with the deepest passion. My goodness, you can feel their emotions when they sing.” The songs, with their haunting pitch and heavy bass, remind him of African American spirituals.

Only a small number of Catholics attend weekly Mass. But they flock in much greater numbers to be healed by Jesus in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and in eucharistic healing services. “I am amazed at the people’s desire to receive the laying on of hands and their patience in waiting in long lines for confession. The tears that flow are an outward sign of the liberation they receive.”

Hope is who we are

Mission work, though, means building up a faith community where one does not already exist. Setbacks and rejections are part and parcel of the life. “There are frequent temptations of loneliness and distractions from the heart of the matter, and it can overwhelm you if you let it, but I have the rosary as my weapon and source of peace,” says Roache. “It never leaves my hand and really strengthens me on the mission.”

He has very much taken to heart the words of the SMA founder, Bishop Melchior De Marion Brésillac: “If you are seeking comforts and accolades, you are in the wrong place, but if you seek Jesus, Jesus the poor man, Jesus the humiliated, Jesus the crucified, then come.” The SMAs in the region get together every four to six weeks for a break and mutual support.

“You may ask if there is hope,” says Roache. “At the moment, one might seem to think that with the thankless, mundane, isolated kind of work, that all hope is lost, but no, never say that. We are a people of the Resurrection! Hope is part of our being. As we say in the Mass, ‘We live in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.’”

Bob ArmbrusterBob Armbruster, a retired journalist, earned a master’s degree in theology with a specialty in church history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He has a particular interest in American Catholic history and teaches part time in the satellite programs of Jersey City-based Saint Peter’s College.

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