Why this title?
Many older Catholics will remember the story about a very significant incident in the life of Peter the Apostle during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor. Things were getting too hot, so Peter decided that, to save the Church or at least its leader, i.e. himself, he would leave Rome and go into hiding. However, as he reached the outskirts of the city, he met Jesus who was walking along the Via Appia in the opposite direction. As they met, they both asked the question: Quo vadis? Where are you going?

Peter answered: To escape the persecution! Jesus answered: To suffer and die again if necessary. Peter immediately turned around and rejoined his brothers and sisters.

South Africa – Quo vadis?
At the present juncture in our history, when we seem to have two similar movements of people – one seeking to escape the “persecution” of poverty at all costs – by fair means or foul, regardless of what happens to their brothers and sisters caught up in the persecution of poverty, which is being compounded and intensified by each and every act of greed, be it exaggerated increases in salaries; exploitation of the tender processes; gifts and favours to family, friends and connections; bribery and corrupt practices such as demanding payment for services for which they are employed and paid handsomely; inflating costs of public works projects; or blatant abuse of power as in the case of scandals too many to enumerate.

Jesus is quite obviously asking Quo vadis to those who are abandoning their former fellow sufferers. The problem is: Are they able or open or willing to hear the question, let alone begin to answer it?

Second follow up question: What can be done to make them undertake or even undergo a change of heart?

Who is Jesus today?
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”, that was Jesus’ answer to Paul when he asked “Who are you, Lord?”

It is my contention that the same Church which is us today, has to engage the “escapees” from the reality of life in an emerging democracy market/economy, which of necessity has to undergo sometimes severe growing pains, especially the pain of having to share what you have and what you regard as rightfully yours because you engaged “selflessly” in the Struggle for all those years.

What does the Church answer to the question Quo vadis?
Just as Jesus was entering Rome to suffer and die again if necessary, or at least in his members who were being savagely persecuted, so the Church has to walk back into its modern Rome – the situations of extreme poverty, unemployment, widespread illness and disease, crime and violence even in the home which should be the haven of safety and security.

How does the Church heed the calls, imitate the example, emulate the concrete actions of Pope Francis at a media saturated level, but also in the humble neighbourhood where many a granny is looking after her own orphaned grandchildren as well as other orphans and vulnerable children with no one to care for them?

(I shall never forget the visit by the KZNCLG members to deep rural Zululand, where an old granny was caring for 10 children – 6 her grandchildren and 4 other orphans – and she did that on her humble pension of R750 a month)

The situation is worse today. It is our Quo vadis moment! Jesus’ question to us is just as insistent, challenging, exposing the depth (or lack of it) of our faith and trust in him, but especially of our love for those we are leaving in the remorseless persecution of poverty and need.

Quo vadis, Domine? Quo vadis, Fili.

Is Jesus going back in the direction of the poor and needy, while we his Church are heading off to find our own safe, insulated comfort-zone? This is the moment to ask ourselves the question and to work out the right answer.

+ Wilfrid Cardinal Napier OFM