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Future Cardinal Stephen Brislin: a discreet but active pastor

Cape Town, South Africa

Deyan Denchev | Shutterstock

I.Media - published on 09/16/23

Stephen Brislin, the South African archbishop of Cape Town, was taken by surprise by the nomination and asks for prayers as he takes on this role of service.

“I was surprised that the Pope knew of my existence.” That’s what Stephen Brislin, Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa (pictured above), said after learning on July 9 that Pope Francis had chosen to create him a cardinal.

A mission of service

“The position of a cardinal is not meant to be an honor,” he then added. This new mission, he said, should enable him to “serve people, serve the Church, serve society” and “provide support to the Holy Father.”

When asked in an interview how the people of South Africa could support him, he replied, “I would certainly ask all Christians to pray for me.” It’s a measured and humble statement, and one that suits Cardinal-Designate Brislin well. This discreet but devoted pastor is known for his attention to the “least of these” and for being an active voice in southern Africa on social and political issues.

Stephen Brislin was born on September 24, 1956, into a family of Scottish and Irish origin living in Welkom, a town in the north-west of South Africa. Before entering the seminary, he studied psychology at the University of Cape Town. He then went on to study in Pretoria, London, and Louvain, before being ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kroonstad on November 19, 1983, at the age of 27. After various pastoral experiences, notably as parish priest in his home diocese, he was appointed bishop in 2007 by Benedict XVI. Two years later, he was promoted to Archbishop of Cape Town by the German pontiff.

Episcopal ministry

From 2013 to 2019, he was president of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) — which groups together the bishops of South Africa, Eswatini and Botswana — and is today its spokesman. This conference is very active on social and political issues in the countries it represents, taking a stand on complex subjects. For instance, in 2023 the SACBC brought a lawsuit on behalf of coal miners who developed lung disease as a result of their work. The Church is ready to “help where we can to ensure that the rights of vulnerable people are respected,” said Archbishop Brislin at the time.

As president of the SACBC, Archbishop Brislin also participated in the Synod on the Family in 2014 and 2015. In line with the thinking of Pope Francis, Archbishop Brislin stressed in an interview at the time that the Church’s priority is to be a “home for all,” especially for those who have been wounded, and that the Synod was “in search of a truth that expresses itself with mercy.” This convergence with the Argentine pontiff is surely one of the reasons for his entry into the College of Cardinals.

The legacy of apartheid

The future cardinal is also marked by the wounds that still affect his nation. They are the consequences of the former apartheid regime, repealed in 1991, which advocated racial segregation. In an interview shortly after his promotion to cardinal, Archbishop Brislin said he hoped to see “the Church working much more intensely for healing and reconciliation” in his country. In particular, he hopes that South Africans “can get over our apartheid past and get over classifying people as black or white or coloured or Indian and just to see ourselves as being South Africans.”

“The Catholic Church’s stand against apartheid and its courage have never been sufficiently recognized,” he said on receiving an honorary doctorate in pastoral leadership from the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, USA, in 2023.

A minority in a Christian nation

In South Africa, considered to be one of the rising political and economic powers of the African continent, Catholicism is still very much in the minority. It represents just 5% of the population in a country where Christian churches are nonetheless very numerous and dominant. Nearly 80% of the population claim to be Christian, but the various Protestant denominations are in the majority as a result of Dutch and British colonization.

According to statistics from the Pontifical Yearbook, the city of Cape Town has only 5% Catholics served by 66 diocesan priests. It’s a modest figure for a city of almost five million inhabitants.

Archbishop Brislin notes that minority status has accustomed South African Catholic leaders to working with representatives of other religions to promote common values such as a just and peaceful society.

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