September 05, 1977 12:00 PM

‘The church must speak’ no matter what

The room is small. The stark walls have only one decoration—a crucifix above the bed. There is a bookcase and a tiny desk with a shopping bag full of foreign stamps tacked to its side. This monastic cell in suburban Dublin is Bishop Donal Lamont’s Irish Elba. In his native land he is an exile from his adopted country.

When Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith announced the unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain on Nov. 11, 1965, he claimed to have “struck a blow for the preservation of justice, civilization and Christianity.” Today, with black revolutionaries ravaging the countryside, Smith’s lofty words have a hollow ring to many Rhodesians.

None has voiced this disillusionment as often or as eloquently as Donal R. Lamont, an Irish Catholic missionary who became bishop of the Umtali diocese (pop. 700,000) along the Mozambique border in 1957. When Lamont came to Rhodesia “to do God’s work in the bush” in 1946, he was unprepared for the discrimination he found. “I still remember my complete outrage,” says the 66-year-old prelate, “when I discovered that in our city churches black Catholics were not normally admitted to the main hall but had to worship from the sacristy. I changed that, of course, but there were a lot of whites who didn’t like it.”

Ever since, Bishop Lamont has been a bitter critic of the establishment in Rhodesia, where blacks outnumber whites 24 to one. Retribution was inevitable. It came last March when he was stripped of his citizenship, deemed “an undesirable inhabitant” and bundled aboard a London-bound plane in Salisbury the very same day.

Lamont first went on record against Rhodesia’s racial discrimination in 1959. “The church must speak,” he wrote at the time, “no matter what the fears, what the opposition.” Missionaries carry considerable weight in Rhodesia because they control virtually all of the educational and health facilities there. In Lamont’s diocese alone, his clinics and hospitals treat almost 70,000 patients a year.

For nearly two decades the bishop pressed the government to change. His mail was opened and his phone was tapped. He was called a Communist. Last August, after Lamont had published an open letter blaming the Smith government for the guerrilla bloodshed, official patience ran out. The police arrested the bishop, citing an incident in which a nun, held at gunpoint at one of Lamont’s missions, had given medicine to black rebels. “I would give Genghis Khan medical aid if he was sick,” said an uncontrite Lamont. “I would clothe him if he was naked and take him in if he had no shelter.”

In a 30,000-word defense Lamont admitted he was guilty of “civil disobedience” and nothing more. A judge sentenced him to 10 years at hard labor; appeals resulted in his expulsion. “If I’d been black,” Lamont says, “Smith could have hanged me. They hang blacks virtually every week now.”

Since his deportation the bishop has been traveling the world making speeches and accepting acclaim for his martyrdom. In May, along with President Carter, he received an honorary degree from Notre Dame. But Lamont says his real work is in Africa. Insisting that the key leaders in the black insurgency are men of God, Lamont says, “I expect to be preaching in Rhodesia under a black majority government before too many months go by.”

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