The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was remembered Sunday as an exceptional spiritual leader who, in spite of his celebrity status, was always very humble.
The Cathedral of St. James and the South African Consulate General in Toronto organized the memorial service to commemorate the life of Tutu, who died last December at 90 after battling poor health for several years.
Rev. Michael Battle — who flew in from New York for the service — lived with Tutu for two years in the early ’90s, serving as his chaplain while writing his PhD dissertation on the archbishop’s theology.
“Most celebrities, you fall in love with them and you are attracted to them because of what they can do in public, and often times when you meet them behind the scenes you’re disappointed with their integrity or their lack of discipline or their character,” said Battle, who is director of the Desmond Tutu Center General Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s really the opposite with the Archbishop Tutu … because in public he’s tremendous, but in private he is a man of deep prayer. He prays probably about six times a day when I was with him as a chaplain.”
He described Tutu as a man of “deep integrity and authenticity.”
Tutu was known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist in South Africa as well as for his religious roles.
Tutu, who visited Toronto in 1986, was the first Black bishop of Johannesburg, from 1985 to 1986, and then served as archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996.
He worked alongside anti-apartheid figure Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990, leading negotiations to end apartheid in the country and introduce a multi-racial democracy. Mandela, who later became president of South Africa, chose Tutu to lead the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the abuses of the apartheid system.
Battle, who delivered the homily at the memorial service, says he hopes younger generations will know who Archbishop Tutu was.
“He’s a man of deep faith and spirituality and never sought the limelight,” he said.
‘A global icon’
Rieaz Shaik, High Commissioner of the Republic of South Africa to Canada, said Tutu was “a global icon” who “made a remarkable contribution to global peace and to global reconciliation.”
Shaik remembered Tutu as someone who dealt with “very difficult, weighty matters, with much passion and humour.
“His humour was something that made our suffering lighter, and he could cause us to laugh about our suffering. He could cause the oppressors of South Africa to laugh at their oppression and I think that is something I would always remember him for.”
Singer Jackie Richardson, who attended Tutu’s memorial, marvelled at how Tutu stepped in for Mandela as an apartheid leader when Mandela was imprisoned — and then stepped right back out when he was released.
“What does that say about a man? It just gives me goose bumps just to even think about that character,” she said.