Bishop Kevin Dowling: South Africa’s “voice of the voiceless”

Redemptorist bishop of Rustenburg, South Africa, Kevin Dowling, C.Ss.R., celebrated his silver jubilee of ordination earlier this week. Bishop Dowling is well-known for his unwavering prophetic stand and option for the poor. He is co-president (with American Marie Dennis) of Pax Christi International—the Catholic peace movement working in over 50 countries.

Speaking at the silver jubilee Mass, on behalf of the bishops’ conference, the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale, O.M.I., said “An outstanding quality that has penetrated and shaped the attitude of Bishop Kevin, his work and contribution for many years, is his preferential option for the poor. He has been an unwavering voice of the voiceless, he has always urged the bishops not to interpret the traditions of the church in such a way that the poor are made to feel guilty and burdened and suffocated instead of experiencing through the church God's mercy.”

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Kevin Dowling was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1944. After completing school, he entered the Redemptorist Novitiate in Cape Town. He studied at Hawkstone in England and was ordained a priest in 1967. At the age of 32 then-Father Dowling was elected vice-provincial of the Redemptorists in South Africa. In this regard he was not much different to his kinsman, Archbishop Denis Hurley, O.M.I., of Durban, who had been made a bishop at the age of 31. Archbishop Hurley, first cousin to Kevin Dowling’s mother, ordained him to the priesthood.

After serving for 12 years as vice-provincial, Father Dowling was elected as a consulter to the Redemptorist General in Rome. After five years in that role he returned to South Africa—hoping to minister to young adults. This was short lived, as in 1990 Kevin Dowling was named Bishop of Rustenburg, which is situated in South Africa’s platinum belt.  

Bishop Dowling has served the church in many different roles over his 25 years as bishop. He was chair of the Bishop’s Conference Justice and Peace Department for 12 years. From the Justice and Peace Department he began an “outreach” to other African countries, like Sudan, and made many solidarity visits and advocated for peace. This continues.

In the early 90s he was instrumental in setting up the Bishops’ Conference Professional Conduct Committee and in developing protocols on child abuse.

Bishop Dowling, together with a priest from the Archdiocese of Cape Town, Fr. Peter-John Pearson, set-up the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office and has served as the liaison bishop to the office for 16 years. The office has been an important instrument in the church’s advocacy work in South Africa’s parliament.

When asked what 25 years as a bishop has taught him, Bishop Dowling responded, “That I need to be a humble and serving disciple of Jesus in the midst of my people, and especially those who are most vulnerable, especially migrant and refugee women and single mothers, AIDS orphans and child-headed households as well as hurting families.”

Bishop Dowling said that his most consoling times in ministry as a bishop were when he saw “more and more of my people experience that they are personally called by Jesus to build the Reign of God in our diocese and society through sharing their gifts, talents, and time in collaborative ministry with others.”

In the height of the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic in South Africa, Bishop Dowling worked to set up the Bishops’ Conference Aids Office. At the same time, he built a hospice—on the mission where he lives and where the diocesan administration is housed—for those affected by the pandemic in the area.

In 2001, Bishop Dowling, during a visit to New York, was asked by a reporter from Catholic News Agency what position the bishops in South Africa had taken in regard to condom usage for the those infected with H.I.V./AIDS. He said that he believed that condoms should be used to prevent the spread of H.I.V. Bishop Dowling was accused of contradicting church teaching and, unfortunately, was not supported by other bishops whose own dioceses were being ravaged by H.I.V. The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (S.A.C.B.C.) described condoms as an “immoral and misguided weapon.”

This was a difficult time for Bishop Dowling. Some bishops criticized him publicly, others suggested that he resign. Speaking at the jubilee Mass Archbishop Tlhagale—no doubt referring to this painful time in Bishop Dowling’s life—said: “I have no doubt in my mind it has been years of challenge, years of frustration, pain and suffering but also of overcoming obstacles, years of giving hope to many people, years of humble victories and of personal fulfilment.”

A representative of the laity, told the bishop before a 2,000-strong gathering: “People come to you. You share their pain; you have become their father. You always have time to listen and encourage. You encourage us to look at the bigger picture. You make the social teaching of the church a working document.”

It is not uncommon to see Bishop Dowling walking amongst the shanty towns that surround the mines in his diocese, visiting those who live there, listening to their stories and praying with them for their sick. 

When many people in South Africa were upset by the revisions to the English speaking translation of the Mass, which was implemented prematurely by the liturgy department of the S.A.C.B.C., Bishop Dowling spoke out against the revision. He said that he was concerned that the new translation would be perceived as yet another systematic and well-managed dismantling of the vision, theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II.

Many English-speakers, reading his column in the local Catholic newspaper, the Southern Cross, felt that he had listened to their concerns—something that many other bishops at the time had not done.

Bishop Dowling did not, however, refer to these painful experiences when asked what the most difficult part of his ministry has been. Instead he said that the most challenging thing for him in his ministry as a bishop, was to achieve consensus on pastoral policy and programs with priests who come from different cultures and countries. He said that it was really hard to develop a truly collaborative ministry between priests, religious and lay faithful. Bishop Dowling has been a strong voice in the bishops’ conference, calling for better empowerment of the lay faithful in the church. 

The booklet that was printed for the jubilee Mass contained a reflection by the bishop himself. In the reflection, the bishop described himself as having “failed as a bishop and therefore there is little to celebrate after 25 years—except, perhaps, that I have tried to be faithful to my calling to serve the diocese, its personnel and its people. I have had many painful experiences, disappointments and setbacks over the years—but, that is to be expected for anyone who is tasked with a serious responsibility in the church or society.”

After the Mass we discovered that this reflection was a letter sent to his diocese last year. He had prepared a new one for the occasion that, somehow, never found its way into the Mass booklet. The people of the diocese—and many others in the South African Church—would not agree with Bishop Dowling that he has failed as a bishop. He was told, by the people of Rustenburg, “You are a person of the people and no matter where you are, you are following everything and you ask us to help people. Thanks for being there for us! If our thanksgiving could be turned into flowers you would have your own flower garden.”

When asked what advice he would give to a new bishop, he said, “Start off very slowly, listen deeply to your people. Allow them to teach you how to be a bishop who serves in humility and love for his people. Be patient, do not have unrealistic expectations of your people. Always encourage and support everyone in your diocese. ‘Be’ with them!”

For many in South Africa, Bishop Kevin Dowling has been the kind of bishop he describes. The South African Church has, over the past 25 years, been all the richer for the life, ministry, courage and vision of Bishop Dowling.

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