The celebrations of beatifications and canonizations are important moments in the life of the Church. Many Catholics, however, are often unaware that these events have taken place unless the venerated person was someone of universal renown (such as St. John Paul II or Bl. Teresa of Calcutta) or someone from their own nation.
On Sunday, September 13, the Universal Church joined with the people of South Africa in giving thanks for the life and witness of Benedict Daswa. Bishop Joao Noe Rodriguez of the Diocese of Tzaneen, which includes Daswa’s home, sees the beatification as a truly important event in the life of the Church in South Africa, but as having universal significance as well. “Benedict Daswa was really an ordinary man and we are not celebrating him for national achievement, but he was a man of great faith. And that is the wonderful thing… he was one of us but deeply committed to Jesus Christ, deeply committed in his family life, in his work life, in his community life. A man who was serving, helping, educating: an overall inspiration of faith for anyone.”
Benedict Daswa: Husband, Father, and Teacher
Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa was born in the village of Mbahe, Limpopo, South Africa, on June 16, 1946. His family formed part of the Lemba Tribe, a religious and ethnic group who observed traditional Jewish rituals and laws, and he was raised according to the traditions of his people.
When Daswa was a boy he worked as a herder before beginning his formal education in 1957. Following his father’s untimely death, Samuel assumed financial responsibility for his family, working to support his three brothers and sister as they continued their education. During school holidays, he would travel to Johannesburg to find work and, while there, he became acquainted with a young white Catholic; several of his peers were also Catholics.
After returning to Mbahe, Samuel began receiving catechetical instruction from a lay catechist, Benedict Risimati, who offered weekly instruction and a Sunday service under a fig tree in the village; Mass was celebrated only once each month. Risimati had a strong influence over the young Daswa and, after receiving instruction for two years, he was baptized on April 21, 1963, receiving the Christian name “Benedict.” For the rest of his life, he was inspired by the motto of St. Benedict: ora et labora—prayer and work. He was confirmed three months later.
Benedict was able to continue his education and began attending the Vendaland Training Institute, earning a Primary Teacher’s Certificate. His first teaching appointment was at the Tshilivho Primary School in Ha-Damasi Village. He completed his studies via correspondence.
Benedict served his students and the broader community as a teacher and catechist and he began working with poor families. He was highly regarded within the village and was remembered for his honesty and integrity, as well as his dedication as a teacher. He would eventually help build the first church in village of Nweli and became the principal of the village’s school on January 1, 1979. As principal, he worked to support his teachers and protect his students. When students were absent from school, he would reach out to the families to see if he could be of assistance, and a story is recounted that he convinced a father to allow his young daughter to finish her education rather than marry her off to an older man. Students unable to pay their school fees were allowed to earn money by working in his garden, raising food that was often given to struggling families in the village.
In 1980, Benedict married Shadi Eveline Monyai. The couple had eight children. He was known for breaking Venda tradition by helping his wife with the household chores. His behavior was so shocking that some in the village believed that he was bewitched.
A Martyr for the Faith
In November 1989, heavy rains and lightning storms caused severe damage in the region. When the storms struck again in January 1990, the village leaders decided that the severe weather was being caused by dark magic. They demanded that villagers pay a fee so that a traditional healer could be hired to identify the witch responsible. Benedict, who had not been part of the discussion and decision, refused to pay, observing that the weather was a natural phenomenon. He was particularly concerned by their quick embrace of the old traditions and belief that a witch caused the lightning strikes. He also acknowledged that his Catholic faith prevented him from taking part in anything connected with witchcraft and in acts of violence.
Many in the village saw his unwillingness to cooperate with their plan as an attack on the traditional beliefs of the community and decided that Benedict should be killed.
On February 2, 1990, Benedict drove his sister-in-law and her sick child to see a doctor in Thohoyandou. As they returned home, he picked up a man asking for assistance in transporting a sack of mealie meal (course maize flour) to his home in the next town. After leaving his sister-in-law and her child at home, he drove the stranger to the next village.
As he returned home, Benedict found the road blocked by a fallen tree. As he attempted to clear a path, he was attacked by a group of young men throwing stones. Bleeding and injured, he left his damaged car, and ran for help to a nearby hut. When the mob arrived at the hut, they threatened to kill the women if she did not reveal where Benedict was hiding. Hearing the threat, Benedict showed himself and asked why they wanted to kill him. Without answering, they attacked Benedict and beat him to death. His final words were “God, into your hands receive my spirit.”
The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on February 10. The procession wound its way from Benedict’s home in Mbahe to the church he had helped build in Nweli. By agreement, all the priests wore red vestments, demonstrating their belief that Benedict had died as a martyr. A decade later, on November 27, 2000, a tombstone (paid for by Benedict’s mother) was placed on his grave.
The cause for the beatification of Benedict Daswa was opened on June 10, 2008. This past January 22, Pope Francis recognized Benedict as a martyr for the Faith and cleared the way for his beatification.
In keeping with the longstanding tradition of the Church, Benedict’s remains were removed from his grave on August 24 in anticipation of his beatification. All of Benedict’s children were present and, at their request, his coffin was first carried to the grave of his beloved wife (who had died in 2008). There his physical remains were examined and a small particle of bone and strips of cloth were removed (to be venerated as relics). Afterward, the casket was resealed and covered with the traditional brightly colored Venda cloth. His casket was carried by his children to a newly constructed shrine in the parish church of Mbahe.
Blessed Benedict: Our Companion Along the Way
Saint Jerome once wrote: “Martyrdom does not consist only in dying for one’s faith. Martyrdom also consists in serving God with one’s love and purity of heart every day of one’s life.” Blessed Benedict Daswa is one of those graced souls who lived this mystery in a particularly effective way in his own life. This was echoed by Pope Francis in his September 13 Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square: “[Blessed Benedict] always showed great consistency, courageously taking on Christian attitudes and refusing worldly and pagan habits. His testimony helps especially families to spread the truth and charity of Christ.”
In many ways, Benedict Daswa is like any one of us. A man committed to his family and his vocation as a teacher and catechist, he made his Catholic faith the primary point of reference in every aspect of his life.
In an interview given in the days prior to the beatification, Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria, South Africa, reflected that Blessed Benedict Daswa is honored as a martyr not only as an example for the people of South Africa, but also for the whole world: “The Pope is saying—People of the world, here is an ancestor, a spiritual ancestor… an example for the whole world… and also our companion on the road towards God because we are all a family; living and dead, we are all moving towards God.” The Archbishop concluded by simply stating: “Saints and Blesseds are God’s gift to us, an example of God’s grace at work in his people.”
Blessed Benedict Daswa, pray for us!
Silas Hendersonis a catechist, retreat director, and the author of numerous books and articles. The managing editor of Abbey Press Publications and Deacon Digest Magazine, you can find him at www.fromseason2season.blogspot.com, and www.facebook.com/SilasSHenderson.