Simon Khaukanani, a catechist who worked closely with Benedict, said, “Benedict attracted people to him because of his goodness, his truthfulness and his humility”. Young people in particular were attracted to him and he had a special love for them. His relationship with young people resembled that of John Paul II. Addressing the youth of Ireland in 1979 the Pope said, “I believe in youth with all my heart and with all the strength of my conviction”.
Benedict too had that strong belief and confidence in young people as the hope for the future of the Church and of the world. They in turn sensed that he truly loved and cared about them. He gave them generously of his time, he respected them, he mixed easily with them, he listened to them, he advised them and he challenged them. He wanted only the best for the young people as Hendrick Mugivhi tells us, “He wanted each person to develop, to grow so that they will know who they are and what they should do in their lives”.
Benedict brought the youth together for conferences, retreats, outings, youth camps and vocation workshops. He ensured that they enjoyed themselves through singing and sporting activities. However, he always made sure that the main aim of youth ministry came first and that was the moulding of the young to become good adult Christians. He challenged them instead of taking the easy way out by giving in to what they wanted and thus becoming popular. We learn this from Michael Maliavusa who worked closely with Benedict in youth ministry, “We were young and demanding but Benedict stood up to our demands”. Michael adds, “He was very disciplined and he expected everyone to be the same. He brought us back to our senses”. Michael goes on to make the interesting comment, “We always chose him as our leader even though he was quite strict. You could learn a lot from him”.
The youth probably learned as much from observing Benedict and his way of living the gospel as they did from listening to him. One frequently hears that young people don’t listen to their parents and elders, but then they always seem to follow their example. In Benedict, the youth had a role model who challenged them by the example of his life as well as by his words – he practised before he preached! Norman Tshifura remembers how Benedict guided the youth, “When you were listening to Benedict teaching or leading the youth you could feel the strength of his faith. He himself was the example, the role model of faith”.
Michael Maliavusa gives us some examples of this, “Benedict could not accept lies. Whether it was conscious or not, Benedict could not tell a lie. He always wanted to live honestly without telling lies”. As regards Benedict’s charity Michael tells us, “Benedict’s life was all compassion for people. He was gentle but firm, straight-forward, honest and fair. He would always come to the rescue when you needed help and go out of his way to make sure that others’ needs were met”.
Even though Benedict tried to hide his acts of charity probably many of the young people noticed them. They surely saw him as one in love with the Lord and with a heart for people. His way of life impressed and attracted them. This made it easier for them to be open to his challenging message in areas such as work and the Church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage and life itself.
Again, we are indebted to Michael Maliavusa who tells us that, “Benedict wanted to cultivate in the young a mind for hard work. He made us understand that we had to persevere and work hard. Benedict himself was a hard worker and encouraged us to work and earn whatever we received. He worked very hard at school and in his vegetable garden”. And Benedict was never above doing menial work during youth gatherings. According to another youth leader, Alex Maliavusa, “Benedict was a humble man and even though he was a principal he stayed with us sharing the cooking and other work. He was a real shepherd”.
The most difficult area for young people then just as today was that of sexuality and relationships. Here also the youth could observe the good witness of Benedict’s own life. He would give them the clear Catholic teaching. Alex Maliavusa recalls that, “In the conference he organised at one time he spoke about the relationships between boys and girls, marriage and about the seven Sacraments”. People were impressed by his clear grasp of the basic teaching of the Church on these and other issues, and also by his ability to impart this teaching to others. He stressed the importance of Christian living and the need for prayer and the grace that God gives us through the Sacraments, in order to follow the Christian way. We cannot do it on our own. Here again Benedict led by example as we learn from Fr. O’Connor, “He went to Confession as he always did before Mass”.
He urged the youth to be chaste and keep away from sex before marriage and also to shun the use of drugs and drink. He pointed them towards Christian marriage. Alex Maliavusa remembers the guidance he gave the young people, “He advised them not to rush into marriage but to be educated first and get a profession. He encouraged the youth to study, to use up their energies playing sport and to avoid drink”.
During the last years of Benedict’s life the country was going through a period of great turmoil and violence. This impacted especially on the youth. As one of the youth leaders at the time recalls, “The young people saw themselves as the agents of correcting what they thought were the wrongs and evils of our modern society. Often evil means were employed and Benedict saw himself as there to correct this thinking”. Frequently the evil means was the use of witchcraft. Benedict wanted to guide the young people away from this evil in order to protect innocent lives.
At the same time Benedict was sympathetic to those involved in the struggle against apartheid because he believed in justice and fairness for all people. Gabriel Malaka tells us that, “Benedict was sympathetic to the people involved in the struggle at that time but he didn’t support political activities”. One of his friends remembers that, “Benedict was helping us to open our eyes to what the Church was teaching – that people should not oppress others”.
In dealing with young people Benedict was very much in tune with Saint John Paul II who had high expectations of young people and knew that they were capable of making sacrifices. He wrote, “Young people are always searching for the beauty in love…they know that only God can give them this love. As a result they are willing to follow Christ without caring about the sacrifices this may entail”.