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‘He shone with the light of Christ’

13 December 2013

Nelson Mandela's prison chaplain, Harry Wiggett, recalls being humbled by his spirituality


Bleak: the prison cell in which Nelson Mandela was held on Robben Island

Bleak: the prison cell in which Nelson Mandela was held on Robben Island

Shortly after my ordination to the priesthood in 1964, Archbishop Robert Selby Taylor asked if I would assist Fr Alan Hughes in his chaplaincy work to the prisoners on Robben Island.

It was there that I met Nelson Mandela for the first time, and was aware that I was in the presence of someone with an alive spirituality and an appreciation for the sacramental and teaching ministry of the Church.

After his transfer from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, I was fortunate to continue that ministry by invitation of the local prison authorities.

In a letter Nelson Mandela wrote to the then Archbishop of Cape Town, Philip Russell, on 4 March 1985, he told of the chaplains' ministry, describing himself as "one who has been so impressed by members of your Church".

He wrote: "Apart from our families, who could only see us once every six months, the only other people we could meet were priests. The interest they took in prisoners, especially during the turbulent days of the '60s, was a source of considerable strength.

"And, in such an environment, each sermon made us feel that we had a million friends, a feeling which made us forget the wretchedness which surrounded us.

"Of the priests whose services were very popular in those days was the late Fr Hughes. . . What he said not only enriched the spirit, even more, it left one full of hope."

On every occasion that I visited Pollsmoor Prison to celebrate the eucharist, a warder had to be present to keep an eye on me and to hear every word that I said, to be sure that I was not passing on or receiving any politically inflammatory messages.

On this particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch. "Brand," he asked, "are you a Christian?" "Yes," the warder, Christo Brand, responded. "Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is holy communion, and we must share and receive it together."

To my utter astonishment, Brand meekly removed his cap, and, joining the circle, received holy communion.

I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of doing that.

To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of inclusive love, one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual, but also of its political significance. The fact that Christo Brand was white, and that he had responded to an invitation from a black, and so naturally, was deeply moving. Brand had political power, but submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the prisoner.

In Christo Brand's Dutch Reformed Church, blacks and whites were not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian heart that morning. That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and pray for. That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God, belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those of this mullti-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the world.

He truly shone with the light of Christ.

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