First Impressions: Archbishop Wells comes to South Africa

Archbishop Peter B. Wells recently arrived in South Africa to take up his role as apostolic nuncio to four countries including South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia. He was appointed on Feb. 6, 2016, and ordained an archbishop on March 19, by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica. Archbishop Wells, a native of Tulsa, Okla., has ministered in the Vatican’s diplomatic service since 1999. In 2009, Pope Benedict named him “assessor for general affairs,” a position in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State that is similar to deputy chief of staff. Shortly after his arrival in South Africa, I went to meet the new nuncio in Pretoria. He greeted me warmly and graciously allowed me to interview him.

Archbishop, thank you for your time and welcome to South Africa! You were not on the ground very long, in fact hours, when you attended the ordination of the new auxiliary bishop of Johannesburg, Duncan Tsoke. What are your first impressions of South Africa?

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Extraordinary, a wonderful experience. One of the things I notice immediately here is the welcoming atmosphere, the lack of pretention and a real familial sense. It is so beautiful being Catholic because no matter where you go you never feel like a stranger. You are always accepted as a member of the family; at the end of the day we are just one big family.

It was interesting because when I left the Secretariat of State, even after so many years, one of the things I said to them was that I had no trepidation because I was just going from one part of my family to another part of my family. That is what I encountered when I was in Nigeria, too. That is what I loved most about being present for the ordination the other day. You walk into a room, you are a newcomer, but everyone treats you as if you are supposed to be there and as if you have always been there.

I also very much appreciated the liturgy, the vitality that you see in African liturgy. I experienced that in Nigeria, and it is wonderful to be back with that same experience again, with people who truly live the liturgy. The liturgy here, I think, is a true expression of people’s life. It’s not a separate moment, it’s an expression of everyday life and that is where I think the vitality comes from. It was a beautiful liturgy—the two-and-a-half hours went by very quickly.

For the last 14 years you have worked in Rome, the so-called center of the church. Now you have come to, perhaps, one of the peripheries of the church on the tip of Southern Africa. This must be quite a change for you?

Well, it is and it isn’t. I think it’s all one’s perspective. I think the real center of the church is here. Rome, or “head office,” as Pope Francis reminded us many times, is there to serve. The Roman Curia [the central administration of the Catholic Church] is at the service of the local church. We are there to serve the local bishops and, in a sense, that means that the Curia is on the periphery. What is going on here every day, what is going on in this diocese, what is going on in this country, what is going on in all of the dioceses of the world, is the center of the church. That is where the church is alive and active and breathing. The point of the Roman Curia is to serve and, by doing so, help foster a more active pastoral and spiritual life on the part of the local churches.

It is different though. The work is different. I think anybody who is working in the Curia must remember first and foremost that it’s a ministry. I always used to say to coworkers that the minute you feel you are here to do bureaucratic work, that’s the minute you need to get out. As priests, and even the lay people, our job is apostolic ministry. This means that we assist the Holy Father in his universal ministry. It is an indirect ministry on my part as a priest. It is not as direct as giving first Communion to children, but it is a ministry, one must always keep that first and foremost in your mind.

What has happened for me is that I am no longer doing an indirect ministry. I have been able to come out and do direct ministry again. I am really happy to be able to have this opportunity because every priest needs this. A lot of the administrative parts of our work can be indirect ministry, but at the end of the day it’s all ministry. Why? Because all we do should be about the salvation of souls.

You have arrived in a country that is politically charged at the moment for many reasons—it’s also an election year. We have an opposition party who recently threatened the president that he would be removed through the “barrel of a gun” if he did not step down. How do you see your role as an ambassador? How do you see the Holy See’s roles in this? Is it simply to observe or do you think there may be times for interventions?

I think the Vatican’s role is always one of trying to lead people to dialogue, reconciliation and peace—whatever character that takes in the process. At times it requires you to listen. At times it requires you to speak. At times it simply requires you to be available. I think that we want people to know that we are always available. We are available to help in any way we can so that we can facilitate dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

It is a tense moment right now and I am new so I am still trying to understand exactly what is going on in the country. Each country has their own dynamics. But one of things I do find comforting is that this is a young democracy, the rhetoric has been hot, but the democratic process is working. I think that this is a very healthy sign because not all young democracies can say that they have had the same experience. Maybe the rhetoric is strong, but people are still working peacefully. All the country’s democratic institutions seem to be working well.

How do you see your role in the local church?

I am here to serve the local church. I am here to help the bishops; I am here to act, I like to think, in a way that builds communion. The nuncio is here to help build communion between the local church and his Holiness, Pope Francis. My role is to take the hopes, the concerns, the aspirations and the sufferings of the local church back to the pope and then to bring back to the local church what the Holy Father has in mind for them: his hopes, his aspirations, his comfort and solidarity.

So you’re an “interlocutor.” I think it’s important for the nuncio to be seen as the person who is sent by the Holy Father to assist local churches, to make sure that we’re all moving toward Christ in the same general way.

You have been close to Pope Francis himself, working as assessor in the Secretariat of State. What is your sense of the Holy Father, your experience of him?

He is a remarkable man. One of the things that is beautiful about this pontificate is that I don’t think there is a Catholic, I don’t think there is a Christian, I don’t think there is a man or woman of goodwill in the world, who has actually listened to his message and who can’t say that they do things a little differently now. They think about other people differently.

When you see, for example, a poor person on the side of the road, when you see someone who is suffering from illness, from H.I.V./AIDS, you cannot comfortably ignore them. We may have in the past, but we cannot now. It’s impossible, if you listen to Francis’ message, not to be aware of others and their plight. He has raised the level of our sensitivity for all people. That’s why I think he is so pertinent for government leaders today. I think they also see him as a voice that everyone is listening to.

How difficult has the transition been between the papacies of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis for the Vatican?

Transition is always difficult. Change is always difficult. You always hear about books and seminars which deal with changes or transitions in management. It doesn’t matter if you are working for a major multinational corporation, if you are working for an N.G.O. or if you are working for the church. When there is a change in management and a change in style it’s always going to be a challenge for some people to adapt.

But as far as the message that Pope Francis offers, his concerns and his hopes, I think that across the board they are all largely shared and valued.

Does the nuncio have a message for the people of Southern Africa?

First of all, thank you for the welcome and hospitality that I have received thus far. It has been beautiful and very warm. I look forward to being with you, sharing life with you. I plan on moving around a lot and being very present to the local churches. I look forward to meeting and ministering to the people of Southern Africa. I look forward to celebrating with you. I am very happy to be here.

Russell Pollitt, S.J., is director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa and one of America's Johannesburg correspondents.

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