Benedict Samuel Daswa South Africa’s first saint. He was born in the Limpopo region on the 16th June 1946. His mother describes him as a child as obedient and hard-working. His brother explains that he took his first-born responsibilities seriously, and that he became big brother, father and friend to him. From a traditional religion, his family moved into a “black Israelite” religion. While studying to be a teacher, Tshimangadzo became a Catholic and, inspired by the parish priest, Fr Benedict Retismata, he took as his baptism name, the name of the great St Benedict. He espoused the two principles of St Benedict “ora et labora” (“pray and work”) into a way of life: prayer and the will of God – expressed in all he did.

He was known as a diligent teacher who encouraged others in humility to respect every person and child. Benedict had great concern for the children and for the youth. He started a youth club involved in sports (tennis, soccer, etc). He would not allow muti to be used or any witchcraft – no accrediting of power from spiritual sources. Prayer was the provider of their spiritual strength.

He built a church for his Catholic community, choosing the stones for the lower wall himself and transporting them and bricks in his own car. Although extremely generous to those in need, yet he saved money to build a good house for his wife and children. As principal of the primary school, he commenced building two class rooms. Benedict loved sharing with others in thought, faith and in material goods. He was a gifted and ardent gardener who provided mealie meal and other goods to those in need, always ready to drive someone to the local clinic or hospital refusing to accept their money. He paid the school fees of some unable to and started gardens for others to grow and sell produce in order to raise the money. He would personally make the tea when entertaining or meeting with colleagues. Benedict was loved and respected and sought out for advice and guidance.

In all areas of life, in the Church at school, and at the meetings of the village elders, he always introduced prayer, and while upholding all that was good in the Venda culture, and spoke up against  bad elements, including witchcraft, for, as he said, he did not want to be responsible for the death of an innocent person. Against great opposition, he encouraged the men to help their women with cooking or washing or taking care of the children, especially when their wives were ill. Toilsome manual and domestic work was considered a woman’s job, and if a man engaged in them it was presumed that he was under the spell of muti administered by the wife.

Benedict would hold Church services and teach catechism when the priest or catechists were not available. His adult children recall their childish irritation at times at the many hours their father spent with the priest after Mass. At home Benedict gathered the family together for prayer and scripture reading each night before bed. He had eight children, four boys and three girls, the youngest of which his wife was carrying in pregnancy at the time of his death.

His death was occasioned by the striking by lightning of a hut. The village asked everyone to contribute money for the inyanga to determine which person had bewitched the house, which person had “controlled the lightning”. Benedict refused to contribute money for this as he explained the lightning as an act of nature and he could not implicate himself in an innocent person being killed or driven away. A couple of days later, on the way home from dropping someone off with their bag of mealie meal, he was forcibly stopped by a tree trunk on the road. Ambushed from both sides, avoiding a hail of stones, he ran from them into a shebeen. The patrons quickly left as two young men entered and stoned and beat him. He asked if he could pray first, and while so doing, they completed their deadly task, burning him to make sure he was dead. They had explained to him his execution was because of his Christian opposition to certain matters of their cultural life.

A normal balanced person, Benedict had a fondness for human nature, always concerned to hear all sides of a situation before making a judgment or decision – radiating love and respect for all and a special concern for those in need. He carried out his family, community and Church responsibilities  with an ardent joy and gentle peace.

Benedict was killed on the. Beatified 13 September 2015, his feast day is celebrated on the 1st of February as the following day – the day of his death (in 1990) is the Feast of the Annunciation.

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Our Lady of Gaudelupe

At a time when the richer nations of Europe were shedding the garment of the Catholic faith, a Heavenly “maiden” appeared to a 57 year old Chicemeca Indian peasant, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoa, a recent convert, on Tepeyac Hill, today’s Mexico City, on December the 9th, 10th and 12th in 1531, and was to bring into the Catholic Church from the poor folk the same number that were leaving. The bishop of the city, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga, had been intently praying to Our Lady. The indigenous Indians were on a point of rebellion against the oppressive superiorly armed Spanish and the Franciscan bishop was afraid of their demise. The immense scale of human sacrifice that was part of the sophisticated Indian Aztec religion did not help increase them in estimation in the eyes of the newly arrived Europeans.

Our Lady appeared as a 14-15 year old teenage Indian princess and addressed the humble Juan in the Indian tongue in a most exquisitely intimate motherly way. “My dear child. Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms?” She asked him to tell the bishop to build a church on the barren hill of Tepeyac that is now part of Mexico City. At the cautious bishop’s request for a sign, on the third occasion of her visit, the Virgin directed Juan to climb the top of the hill and to gather up the strikingly scented roses he found there – they were a type from Castile Spain which do not grow in Mexico and especially in winter! She herself arranged them in Juan’s cactus cloak and sent him on his way. At the opening of the tilma, upon the  roses falling out, the bishop was doubly amazed: not only had he received the sign he had asked of Our Lady but her image miraculously appeared on the inside of the cloak.

Jose Aste Tonsmann, a Peruvian ophthalmologist, examining the eyes on the tilma at 2,500 times magnification, found they reflect all 13 individuals in the room, including the interpreter, Juan Gonzales – the reflection, belonging to the type which are on the back surface of the cornea and at the centre of the lens, have the quality of natural changing proportion-distortion-roundedness which is not possible for a two-dimensional picture. In the 1970s, a Japanese optician who was examining the eyes fainted. Upon recovering he stated: “The eyes were alive and looking at him.” Incredibly, when Our Lady’s eyes are exposed to light, the retinas contract. When the light is withdrawn, they return to a dilated state.

The image cannot be scientifically explained – there is no pigment of any kind on the cloak nor brush strokes, nor under-sketch. It was fully projected onto the tilma in a single moment. The pigment combines with the rough surface of the cloth to impart alternating colorations as we find in nature and cannot duplicate. While the cloak remains coarse the surface of the image is like silk to touch. By slowly backing away from the painting, to a distance where the picture and surface sculpturing blend together, the overwhelming beauty of the olive-coloured Madonna emerges.

The bishop built the requested church. The image on the tilma is an Indian pictogram and was immediately understood by the people. They found themselves invited to surrender their religious constructions to Christ as their God and Saviour. Within seven years over nine million persons were converted – under the instruction of Juan Diego. Seen from a particular distance the Virgin appears European rather than Indian. Upon the conversion of the Indians, a natural integration of the Spanish and Indians took place. (At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards the Aztecs were expecting the arrival of a kind of incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the serpent feathered god often represented as a light complexioned man.)

Our Lady stands in front of the sun – she is greater than Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Her foot rests on the crescent moon – showing she has crushed the moon god. Other constellations like the serpent on her mantle representing gods are subject to her. The astronomically keen Aztecs quickly realized that the stars on her mantle portray the actual arrangement of the heavens at the time of the cloth’s  creation (10.30am 12 Dec 1531- but seen from Our Lady’s point of view): Mary is the queen of Heaven. The constellation of Virgo rests over the pure heart of the Virgin with the northern crown constellation on her head. The constellation Leo (the Lion of Judah) with its main star, Regulus (“King,” and stands for Jesus) is upon her womb. The blue-green colour of her mantle reveals to the Indians royalty and the black Aztec maternity belt that she is pregnant; the four-petal flower symbol Nahui Ollin (representing movement, centrality and deity) over her womb, that the child she carries is God. She is herself not God: her head is bowed and her hands are joined in prayer and point to the cross (of Jesus Christ) at her throat. She is also queen of the earth (and is superior to their earth god) as she wears in the flower-pattern of her mantle the contour map of Mexico City. The red border of the whole picture indicates a new dawn.

There are many other enlightening and amazing things about the image of our Lady of Gaudelupe (“Crusher of the stone serpent” – a shrine of Our Lady in Spain). The actual Indian word that Our Lady used, from which the Spanish word is transliterated, means “The river (the One who directs) of the life of love”. After 450 years this simple cactus divinely-imprinted coat shows no deterioration, even though for 116 years it was not protected from the greasy smoke and damaging rays of candles and the humid and salty heat of the summer, and despite an acid spill on it and a bombing attack against it (which destroyed everything around it)! During all kinds of weather, the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as the body heat of a living person. The dimensions of Our Lady’s body in the image are that of a pregnant mother with a close due date. And indeed in a couple of weeks would be Christmas.

Our Lady of Gaudelupe is very suitably the patron saint of both the Americas. And is for us all today, the patron of aborted  babies.

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