Blessed Benedict Daswa, Martyr (1946 – 1990)
Angelo Cardinal Amato, S.D.B.
Today is a festival day for the diocese of Tzaneen and for all the faithful of the Church in South Africa. It is also a day of great joy here at Thohoyandou for the Beatification of Tshimangadzo Samuel Benedict Daswa Bakali, martyr of the Faith, apostle of peace and of fraternity and benefactor of his people.
In the Letter of Beatification Pope Francis exalts the figure of Benedict Daswa, missionary of Christ in the land of Africa, “layman, father of a family, martyr, diligent catechist, considerate teacher, witness of the Gospel until the shedding of blood”.
It is the complete picture of Blessed Benedict, whose traditional name Tshimangadzo means wonder, miracle. And Benedict Daswa was an authentic wonder of God, a true miracle of grace. The Holy Spirit had transformed this young South African into an authentic hero of the Gospel. His heart was full of love for God and neighbor.
Benedict resembles the first martyrs of the Church which, at the time of the persecutions of the Roman emperors, defended their faith with prayer, courage and forgiveness of their enemies. In this way they transformed their apparent defeat into victory because their blood became the fruitful seed of generations of Christians. Even in Africa, as in many parts of the world, young and adult Catholics, men and women, testify to the Faith with courage in the face of unjust oppression and persecutions.
The entire Catholic Church is today present in Thohoyandou in order to celebrate the memory of this young and heroic father of a family. The Beatification of Benedict is a blessing for the whole Church, for you community, for Africa. It is the absolutely first ceremony in the history of the Diocese of Tzaneen and of the Church in South Africa.
By honoring the martyr Benedict the Church invites Catholics to nurture only sentiments of charity, of fraternity, of concord and of solidarity above and beyond ethnic, social and religious differences. The Catholic Church exalts her Martyrs and her Saints because they are messengers of peace and of goodness. Their lives are effective medicine to heal hearts of the wounds of hatred, of division and of disregard of neighbor.
Africa has always generously responded to the call of Christ with a long tradition of saints and martyrs. Let us recall only Saint Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of Christianity, Saint Anthony the Abbott, founder of monasticism, the young martyrs Felicity and Perpetua, Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, the Holy Martyrs of Uganda, Blessed Clementine Anwarite of the Congo, Blessed Victoria Ramoamanarivo, of Madagascar, Saint Josephine Bakhita of Sudan, Blessed Isidore Bakanja of the Congo. And today the African Church adds another glorious page to its martyrology with the Beatification of Benedict Daswa, singing with the psalmist: “Behold the work of the Lord, a marvel to our eyes” (Ps 118: 23).
Who was Benedict Daswa? He was born on June 16, 1946 in the rural village of Mbahe in the region of Transvaal. His family, of modest economic condition, was not Christian. He followed the traditional African religion that, among other things, cultivated some praiseworthy human values, such as respect for life and for nature, familial cult of the dead, honest morals, commitment to the common good and solidarity towards the most needy neighbor. All were welcome into Benedict’s family, above all guests.
These values constituted the basis of his conversion to Catholicism, ratified with Baptism received at the age of 17 after a fortuitous meeting with Benedetto Risimati, teacher and fervent lay catechist. In 1973 Benedict obtained the diploma of elementary school teacher and a year later married, according to traditional Lemba custom, the young Shadi Eveline Monyai, a member of the Lutheran Church. Their bond was validated civilly in 1978. On January 1 of 1979 he was nominated Director of the primary school of Nweli. After the conversion to Catholicism of Eveline, the Sacrament of Matrimony was celebrated on August 9, 1980. From their union were born eight children, the last of whom was born four months after Benedict’s martyrdom.
For Benedict matrimony was not only a ceremony but a real event of grace and of conversion. From that moment he had the clear perception of the call to sanctity and the commitment to the apostolate. Guided by the Irish Father Patrick O’Connor, of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, he intensified his interior life, participating regularly at the Eucharistic Sacrifice and becoming a promotor of concord and of peace.
From 1980 until 1990, for ten years, he generously committed himself in his parish as a close collaborator of the pastor, enlivening liturgical functions, teaching catechism and taking part with fervor in the parochial pastoral council. In his personal, familial and social life he was a credible witness to Jesus.
In the last days of January of 1990, during a meeting of the city council of Mbahe, he demonstrated, for reasons of conscience, his opposition to contributing to a collection for the witch doctor. The practice of witchcraft was against the Catholic Faith. Often times innocent and vulnerable people were falsely accused of having bewitched others and were killed. For Benedict, rather, it is God who is the victor over evil and the protector of life.
On the evening of February 2, 1990 he was cruelly killed near his home.
Great was the sorrow of the community. Benedict was a good and gentle young man. Father Patrick O’Connor has met him in August of 1969 at the Tshisimani Teachers Training College for the celebration of Mass. The young Benedict was the first to greet him and prepare the altar for the celebration. He usually went to confession before Mass. After some time, other young people, even non Catholics, went to Church. Benedict was a true missionary of Christ and succeeded in convincing his companions of becoming Catholics.
Father O’Connor relates an episode of his life. During the second and final year of the College, Benedict had to go back home, but he had no money. He did not, however, accept money from the missionary because he wanted to earn it for himself by working. Thus he found a job as a cleaning man in a hospital of the Dutch Reformed Church. A few days later the pastor told him that if he did not convert he would lose his job. Benedict refused the proposal and returned to Father O’Connor. A few days later the young man returned to the missionary the amount received and with interest.
Benedict was gentle, good and strong of character. He regularly frequented the Sacraments, he fed upon the Word of God, he prayed before and after meals and before going to bed. He loved the Church, the only guide of his life. Benedict was happy for his family, for his wife and for his many children whom he loved and educated in truth and in justice.
He himself was an example of goodness and of generosity. On the afternoon of his murder he had taken to the pastor, Father John Finn, a little bit of vegetables from his garden.
Benedict loved life, his people and his loved ones. But he loved more his faith in God the Father creator of heaven and of earth, in Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of humanity, and in the Holy Spirit, the infinite Love of God. He was killed on February 2, 1990, on the days when the Republic of South Africa was rejoicing in the end of apartheid.
How did Blessed Benedict Daswa accept his senseless murder? With the same words of the prophet Isaiah, proclaimed in the liturgy of today:
“The Lord God opened my ear;
and I did not refuse,
I did not turn away.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who tore out my beard;
My face I did not hidefrom insults and spitting.
The Lord God is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
Therefore I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He who declares my innocence is near [ … ].
Behold, the Lord God is my help: who will declare me guilty?” (Is 50: 5 – 9a).
Blessed Benedict Daswa went forward to his martyrdom with courage, like Jesus, knowing that God would confuse his adversaries and would show forth the innocence of his son.
The way of the cross is the secure path to paradise. The Christian, like the martyr Benedict Daswa, puts into practice the words of Jesus who says: “If anyone wishes to come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his own life will lose it; but the one who loses his own life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it” (Mk 8: 34 – 35).
There are three messages that Blessed Benedict Daswa, masterpiece of the Holy Spirit, leaves for all of us.
Above all, he invites us to be, like him, authentic witnesses of Christ and of His word of life. In this way alone one becomes the salt of the earth and light of the world. As he gave witness to his faith with his blood, we too are called to do it with a daily and sacrificial fidelity to the practice of the commandments of God and above all to his commandment of love and of forgiveness in family, in community and in society.
Secondly, Blessed Benedict Daswa encourages us to be also evangelizers and missionaries of Christ, to be purified of our limitations and our sins. Our martyr knew full well that baptism had freed him from slavery to evil, that the sacraments had purified the air of superstition and idolatry, that the grace of God had conquered forever the darkness of evil. The risen Christ is, in fact, the victor over sin, evil and death. The Church is the place of this spiritual freedom that shapes a good and holy humanity. This is the Gospel of grace that Benedict invites us to meditate upon, to live and to preach with our lives, words and actions.
Thirdly, Blessed Benedict is the father of a family who loved life, accepting it, nurturing it and protecting it. His children were received with joy and gratitude as a gift of God. This is the message which our Blessed urgently directs to all the Christian families of the world: accept life with generosity and thankfulness to God, creator of all life on earth. The Church, as the family of God, loves life, protects the family and educates her children to become good Christians and honest citizens.
Let us entrust our families to Mary, Mother of the Church and Queen of Martyrs, so that she may protect them from every evil. Let us pray now with the very words of Pope John Paul II, pronounced at Yaoundé, in Cameroon, twenty years ago, precisely on September 14, 1995:
“The people of God with their Pastors
To You turns and together with You begs:
may the outpouring of the Holy Spirit make of African cultures places of communion in diversity, transforming the inhabitants of this great continent into generous children of the Church, that is the Family of the Father, the Fraternity of the Son, the Image of the Trinity,
seed and beginning on earth of that eternal Kingdom
that will obtain its fullness in the City whose builder is God:
a city of justice, of love and of peace”.
 Homily given at Thohoyandou (South Africa) on September 13, 2015.
Tshimangadzo (is the traditional name which means wonder) Samuel (Christian name given him at birth) Benedict (baptismal name) Daswa (family name) Bakali (name of the Lemba clan). Venda was his maternal language, of which he was proud and spoke proficiently.
 It must also be added that in the traditional religion there existed also the belief to consider sickness and misfortune as the work of evil spirits or of jealous people.
Positio, p. 210 ff.
Ibid., p. 205.
 JOHN PAUL II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa (September 14, 1995), n. 144.