How 'saintly' was Mandela?

John Paul II with Mandela

The Pope and Christian leaders have praised Nelson Mandela. He will be buried on Sunday, at his boyhood home of Qunu in South Africa's  Eastern Cape province.

- By Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela was. He set aside the bitterness of enduring 27 years in apartheid prisons - and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression - to personify the spirit and practice of ubuntu, or human kindness. He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper.

That was his dream for South Africa and the hope that he represented the world over. If it was possible in South Africa, it was possible in Ireland, it was possible in Bosnia and Rwanda, in Colombia, it is possible in Israel and Palestine.

Of course, in the spirit of ubuntu, Madiba (his tribal name) was quick to point out that he alone could not take credit for the many accolades that came his way and that he was surrounded by people of integrity who were brighter and more youthful than himself.

That is only partially true. The truth is that the 27 years Madiba spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathise with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up, and his developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, prison seemed to add an understanding of the human condition.

Like a most precious diamond formed deep beneath the surface of the Earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless. Instead of calling for his pound of flesh, he proclaimed the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, inspiring others by his example to extraordinary acts of nobility of spirit.

He embodied what he proclaimed - he walked the talk. He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest, and he invited the man who led the state's case against him at the Rivonia Trial, calling for the imposition of the death penalty, to lunch at his presidential office. He visited the widow of the high priest of apartheid, Betsy Verwoerd, in the white Afrikaner-only enclave of Orania.

He had a unique flair for spectacular, hugely symbolic acts of human greatness that would be gauche if carried out by most others. Who will forget the electrifying moment in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final when he stepped out on the Ellis Park pitch with captain Francois Pienaar's No. 6 on the Springbok jersey he was wearing? It was a gesture that did more for nation building and reconciliation than any number of preacher's sermons or politician's speeches.

Can you imagine what would have happened to South Africa had Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 bristling with resentment at the gross miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Rivonia Trial?

Instead, the world was amazed, indeed awed, by the unexpectedly peaceful transition of 1994, followed not by an orgy of revenge and retribution but by the wonder of forgiveness and reconciliation epitomised in the Truth and Reconciliation Council.

Did he have weaknesses? Of course he did. His chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organisation and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent, ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.

Was he a saint? Not if a saint is entirely flawless. I believe he was saintly because he inspired others powerfully and revealed in his character, transparently, many of God's attributes of goodness: compassion, concern for others, desire for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation...

Image: Pope John Paul II with Nelson Mandela.

READ FULL ARTICLE: Thank God for this unique gift to the world (The Age)


Cardinal Pell on Mandela: One of the Greatest Men of the 20th Century - Mandela (Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese)

South Africa's Cardinal Wilfrid Napier on Mandela: South African cardinal says iconic Mandela had touch of humanity (Catholic News Service)

90th birthday tribue by Gilbert Mardai SJ: It is in our hands (Thinking Faith)

On Mandela's Christian faith: Remembering Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013 (United Methodist Church)

Watch: The most touching Mandela tribute came from the least expected place (Yahoo! South Africa)

Watch: The Pope Pays Tribute to Nelson Mandela (Reuters)

Watch: Tutu: Mandela a 'flawless' diamond (CNN)

Listen: Cardinal Napier: Mandela a lesson and a building block for the future (Vatican Radio)

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