The parish in the crossfire

The Saturday Star published the following piece by Fr Anthony Egan SJ of the Jesuit Institute on page 15 in their section Insight. It is reproduced below:

IT’S NOT easy being a parish on the edge of a battle zone. The Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the edge of the University of the Witwatersrand, run by the Jesuit Order since the 1970s, has long been in the firing line when demonstrations on campus have led students there to seek refuge from riot police. It happened in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and this week it happened again.

On Monday, the parish priest, Father Graham Pugin SJ, was wounded in the face by a rubber bullet fired at close range from a police armoured personnel vehicle. Earlier in the day he’d stood in the front grate of the church, blocking another police vehicle from entering the grounds in pursuit of students. When police fired in the direction of Trinity, a rubber bullet clipped his leg, but caused no damage since its impact was largely deflected by the cassock he was wearing.

The shot that caused the damage, which went viral on social media and was picked up on local and international media, was more dangerous. Had the round fired been a few centimetres in either direction it could have been lethal, making Pugin the latest in a long list of Jesuits killed in countries over the last century, ranging from Nazi Germany to El Salvador, China and Syria.

The irony is that since the beginning of the current crisis Pugin and his team have made the church a safe and sacred space for anyone wishing to be there. He and his team have been an integral part of sectors of civil society attempting to resolve the dispute between Wits and the #FeesMustFall movement. The single common theme that the parish has held to throughout is that no one is permitted on its grounds armed. No guns, no stones, no tear gas, no stun grenades. No sticks or batons. All are welcome so long as they are unarmed. Though not all Jesuits are pacifists, Pugin is a pacifist. One of the first generation of conscientious objectors during the apartheid era, he has made this fundamental to his ministry. As pastor of Trinity he continues to insist upon this.

Trinity is literally a neutral ground. Whatever the personal opinions of its members – clergy, parish staff and congregation – this is rigorously adhered to in times of peace and conflict.

What Trinity has tried to do in this conflict is revive an ancient Christian tradition. At a time when bandits and robber barons ravaged Europe, monasteries and churches inspired by the principle of hospitality provided places of safety for people. Fugitives were given refuge. Warring factions were disarmed and invited to resolve disputes without violence.

The parish, which also serves as the Catholic chaplaincy to both Wits and the University of Johannesburg, has long been a place where diverse groups could meet. It also runs a daily soup kitchen and clinic for the homeless.

For those who know the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, none of this should be surprising. It is our charism to go out to the margins. If this makes us controversial, so be it.

Fr Anthony Egan is a member of the Jesuit Institute SA. He is also a part-time lecturer at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits, a chaplain to university students and a regular priest assisting at Holy Trinity. At the time of writing he is acting local superior of the Jesuit community in Joburg.