Botswana's Bishop Valentine and His Big Heart

Interview With Leader of Diocese of Gaborone

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ROME, MAY 30, 2011 (Zenit.org).- At only 44 and with already two years of episcopal experience, Bishop Valentine Tsamma Seane carries a heavy charge on young shoulders.

But the ordinary of Gaborone in Botswana says that his personality and his heart easily lend themselves to self-giving and serving the Church of Christ.

The television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Bishop Seane about his vocation and the Church in his country, where Catholics are both a minority and a majority.

Q: Botswana is one of Africa's most stable countries and it has the longest continuous multiparty democracy. It is also a large producer of diamonds. What is the situation of Christianity in Botswana?

Bishop Seane: Botswana is known to be a Christian country. Statistically the Catholic Church accounts for 5%-6% and other Christian churches: Protestants, Pentecostals, spirituals and other independent churches represent about 67%. So you can see it is a Christian country.

Q: So the Catholic Church is a minority?

Bishop Seane: Yes in that sense, but if you take the churches individually like the Anglican church, or the Lutheran church, the Catholic Church is the largest single denomination. If you group the other Christian churches together then they make up a larger part of the population.

Q: How did Protestants come to outnumber Catholics?

Bishop Seane: The Protestants were the first ones to enter as missionaries and for many years they convinced the tribal chiefs not to allow the Catholic Church to enter the country. The Catholic Church was allowed to mission only in 1928. By then the Protestant churches were already well established.

Q: You are a new bishop and one of the first things you wrote was: "I'm a Valentine with a big heart." Why?

Bishop Seane: I love working with people and, I suppose, because of my openness and passion for working and serving people. I also discovered that my personality and my heart contribute to that expression: self-giving to others, serving the Church of Christ.

Q: What is your other name?

Bishop Seane: I'm also known as Vala, which is short for Valentine. Many people also know me by Tsamma, which means a staff or walking stick. My grandfather gave this name to me because I used to walk with him and he said that I am his staff. The name stuck with me.

Q: Why did you become a priest?

Bishop Seane: I originally wanted to become a lawyer but when a priest came to my parish to preach I thought that I could also serve the people as a priest. I went to the seminary and I continued to be fulfilled and I discovered that it was my vocation, to serve the people of God as a priest.

Q: The priestly vocation is not easy. You have to live a celibate life.

Bishop Seane: Yes it is very challenging and it is a gift from God. It is not just an individual decision and individual capability. One spends eight years in the seminary and the spiritual life is very important and this is what helps us in this journey, a journey of service. It is difficult and it is not easy and it demands self-giving all the time.

Q: Upon your ordination all the important people of Botswana were present. Why was this such an event?

Bishop Seane: You have to remember that many people, including Catholics, have never witnessed an ordination. My predecessor was a bishop for 27 years, so most people were not [at his ordination]. There were 15,000 people at the city hall including visitors from the neighboring countries like South Africa -- I worked as a priest in Pretoria. Bishops from Botswana and South Africa came as well as many stars, business people and government members. So it was a national event.

Q: It rained during your ordination. It was seen as a special sign. Why is this?

Bishop Seane: Botswana is very arid, so rain is very precious to us. Even our money is called pula (rain). Rain brings life. As rain is very rare, whenever it rains it is precious and it is seen as a blessing. Even in my family during special occasions, when it rains, it is seen as a blessing. On that day it started as a sunny day. There were no clouds present but toward the end it rained and it was seen as a blessing, a special occasion. God was happy. The ancestors were happy, everybody was happy.

Q: You also wrote that you have experienced God's love. How?

Bishop Seane: I have experienced it all my life. We grew up well. We are five siblings: two brothers and three sisters. I have experienced the invisible hand of God all my life from childhood, in high school and throughout the various changes during my growth. As you mentioned, I was ordained a priest when I was 27 years old and people were wondering about my age. It happened again when I was ordained a bishop. When I was ordained a bishop there were only 10 bishops younger than me in the whole world. In our conference I am the youngest bishop. So I still experience today the love of God and this helps me to go on in the service of his church.

Q: What have you chosen as a motto?

Bishop Seane: Deus Caritas Est – God is love. I read the Pope's encyclical, but it just came to me; the love of God is that around which my life centers. The invisible hand of God, that love is what is guiding me. So I keep on appreciating and thanking God for that. I found that it is precious and it helps me to strive to do my work.

Q: You have received so much. What is the first thing you wish to give to your diocese?

Bishop Seane: I want to encourage local vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I want the indigenous people to be able to discern and respond to God's call so that the Church can be in the hands of the local people who understand the culture of the people. So far it is very promising because there are 16 young men in the major seminary, so the future is promising. I have already ordained three priests as the new bishop. The other thing is the promotion of a self-propagating and self-reliant Church.

Q: What does this mean?

Bishop Seane: It means that people should be ready to participate in the building up of the Church -- financially and otherwise. Despite being poor, they can give in some other ways: their time, their skills and resources for the benefit of the Church. People know that for a time they were receiving and now it is time to give. When I see the Church as self-sustaining and self-propagating, then I will be happy.

Q: AIDS is also a problem. What is your answer to this scourge?

Bishop Seane: Botswana was fortunate in that when AIDS was discovered the government stood out and spoke aloud: We have this problem. They wanted the world to know and in that way Botswana received assistance. The government also budgeted and provided free medication as well as AIDS education from primary through to university. Those with the disease received anti-viral ARVS and these were distributed in all the hospitals for free for those people in need. It is good because these people were accepted and the state accepted that it was a problem and the government was able to allocate resources toward that.

However, it is in the educational aspect where we differ. The government, for instance, promotes condoms; "condom sense" instead of common sense. The Church talks about common sense because the Church understands that as human beings we are intellectual beings with the ability to control ourselves and we can do that if we are educated. We stress more the "Education for Life" program. While the government is doing its best to help people with medication, it says that there has to be an attack on all fronts, including of course the distribution of condoms, which is not for us to promote. The Church promotes "Education for Life."

The government and the NGOs missed the point in the beginning. Only now are they turning around and slowly seeing the wisdom of the Church because of the problem of multiple partners. They are seeing the problem and are addressing the issue through education.

Q: By multiple partners, do you mean polygamy?

Bishop Seane: No, polygamy is not a common practice in Botswana. It is in the culture but it is not a common practice. The issue is multiple partners before marriage or even after, and not multiple wives. This is what has contributed to the problem. We hope that the Church's message will be heard and will help the country make the right choices for the good of the country.

Q: Are the young people willing to listen to this message from the Church?

Bishop Seane: Yes, the young people are. It is a question of forming the consciences of people and ultimately the choice belongs to them, but they can only activate their knowledge if they are informed. So what we do is give people knowledge and information, and then they are left to make their choice because the conscience is the "highest court of appeal." Ultimately their conscience will have to choose: We choose what culture says, we choose what the state is promoting, or we choose what the Church says.

Q: The government is seeing the wisdom of the Church with regards to the issue of AIDS?

Bishop Seane: Yes slowly, slowly they are seeing it. You cannot think that by distributing prophylactics to people that you can say that you are doing something. If people are conditioned they become totally dependent and then they lose their ability to contain themselves and you end up behaving on your impulses, feelings and senses and forgetting that you have the ability to say "yes" or "no" and forgetting that you are a responsible person.

Q: How is the relationship between Church and government especially now that you are the bishop?

Bishop Seane: Fortunately the government of Botswana has a history of having good relations with the Church because when the Church began to work [here] in 1928, the government at that time was incapable of building schools and clinics and the missionaries were able to do so. That partnership has always been there. That is why there is this understanding that the Church is there also to help the human person not only spiritually, but also as a whole.

Q: What is your hope for the future of the Catholic Church in Botswana?

Bishop Seane: My hope is that the Church will continue to grow in Botswana -- in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in self-sustainability, and to see more Catholic families, more people marrying in the Church, strengthening the foundations of family life. All this will add to making our nation a better nation and a better country for all.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org

Where God Weeps: www.wheregodweeps.org