Fr. Alain Fontaine is at present working as Provincial Secretary of PAO in Ouagadougou. This year, he celebrates 50 years of Missionary Oath (24/06/1967 – 25/0672017)
50 Years ago
50 years ago, on the 24th June 1967, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, I took my first Missionary Oath in the novitiate of Gap in France. Two further temporary commitments followed before I took my permanent Missionary Oath on Holy Thursday, 1972 in my native parish of Chaville.
All had begun in October 1964 when I entered the postulancy of the Missionaries of Africa in Mours. I had just finished my studies at the Ecole d’Optique de Paris (EOA) with a view to becoming an optician. However, I was already in contact with the Missionaries of Africa in Paris. Africa was calling me! I was encouraged to train for the priesthood but I preferred to begin my missionary life as a Brother in order to give myself some time to think about it. I had no experience of seminary life and I felt that I needed to learn more about what was involved. I also wanted to have an African immersion and know if I could live there as my health was never very strong.
|Alain Fontaine at the novitiate in Gap on the 11th September 1965|
On the 11th September 1965, I took another leap when I entered the novitiate in Gap high up in the French Alps. It was a change of scenery in more ways than one; the place itself was completely different from any other place where I had lived and then there was the almost monastic atmosphere of the novitiate itself. I stayed there for two years and it was a real spiritual experience.
Mission in San, Mali
However military service loomed, so I opted to do it as an overseas volunteer and planned to go to Mali for two years to work as a primary school teacher in the Diocese of San. The climate and political situation at the time of Moussa Traoré’s coup d’état in 1968 was a seriously testing time for me. In fact, it was proposed that I continue my studies in Strasbourg instead. I then returned to Mali, still as a Brother and taught for three years at Saint Paul’s Junior Seminary in San Diocese.
In France towards priesthood
It was during this time in Mali that, in consultation with my Spiritual Director, I decided to resume my studies with a view to becoming a priest. I felt ready. It was also a delicate time for the Church in France, as, after Vatican II, many priests were leaving the ordained ministry. My superiors, at the time, proposed that I prepare for the priesthood by studying at CERM (Centre d’Études et de Recherches Missionnaires). This centre was one of the first missionary consortia which came into being as a result of the Council. The Centre accepted students from the Paris Foreign Missions, Salesians, Montfort Fathers, Spiritans, and the SMA Fathers and some other groups. I was the first White Father to prepare for the priesthood in this Institute.
We followed courses at the Institute Catholique de Paris, the Seminary of the Paris Foreign Missions on rue de Bac and the Major Seminary of St-Sulpice d’Issy les Moulineaux. After three years of intensive study, I was ordained deacon in June 1977 at Boulogne Billancourt by Bishop Jacques Delarue, the first Bishop of Nanterre. He proposed that I receive a double incardination on this occasion to show that it was my home Church that was sending me on mission. A year later, in the Church where I was baptized, confirmed and took my Missionary Oath, I was ordained priest on the 28th May 1978.
Return to Mali
After ordination, I returned to the Diocese of San in Mali to work in the parish of Mandiakuy. I learnt Bomu and got acquainted with pastoral work. It was at this moment that the Équipes Notre Dame, a movement promoting family spirituality was started. The movement soon extended to many dioceses in Mali including Segou, Bamako and Kayes.
After this initial pastoral experience, I was asked to return to the Junior Seminary of St. Paul to take charge and to facilitate handing it over to the local clergy. I stayed there for five years.
In 1988, the French Province appointed me to Toulouse in the south of France for missionary promotion work. I did not know this big city and began by getting lost. One night, I spent many hours looking for the house. I worked for five years at the service of the Pontifical Mission Societies and got to know the pastoral situation of the Church in the south of France.
Rural Radio in San
Between the end of my stint promoting missions and my return to Mali, I was asked to do some training in media, specifically the setting up of a rural radio station in San Diocese. For a whole year, I learnt about computers, information technology and just how to go about getting a radio station started. It was a completely new domain for me and I threw myself into it enthusiastically. I worked on this project for six years. It was the first private Catholic radio station in Mali. Three of us were involved; Fr. Alexis Dembélé, the Director, a layman who trained at the Centre for Research and Education in Communication in Lyon and myself who had trained in Paris. It was not very easy in the beginning but we did eventually reach our cruising speed and Radio Parana is still going strong and in 2019 will celebrate its 25th birthday.
In 2000, I was granted some sabbatical time out, which I intended to organise as I pleased. However, I was asked to immerse myself in Ignatian Spirituality at a centre in Paris so as to be able to organise retreats and to spiritually accompany people. From there, I was sent to Jerusalem to be a spiritual director at a retreat for French speaking African priests.
|Alain Fontaine taking his Missionary Oath|
Centre Foi et Rencontre at Bamako
Then I was asked to move to the Archdiocese of Bamako to collaborate with Josef Stamer at setting up the Centre Foi et Rencontre and IFIC. I worked for 10 years on this project, bringing my expertise in IT and the logistics of planning training courses at the Centre. I also helped with the launching of IFIC. It required a huge effort of communication as we looked for ways to inform all the French speaking Bishops of Africa. During this period also, I served as Provincial Secretary of Mali and participated, at the same time, in the whole process that eventually led to the creation of the Province of the PAO for Francophone West Africa.
In 2011, I was asked to replace Pierre Bènè as Provincial Secretary of PAO based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This is where I find myself today and I am already in my 7th years at the service of the Province.
What can I say about these 50 years of missionary service, in Mali, France and Burkina Faso (40 years in Mali and 7 in Burkina)? First of all, I would to like express my sincere appreciation. I consider myself very lucky. All the appointments I received, some of which I did not expect at all, have greatly enriched me.
Really the Society took care of me and despite a path that some will call “a bit of a mix and match”, I was advised with great skill and offered what I could do. I was trusted and I am very grateful to all my superiors. Maybe I could have done more but they knew how to take me as I am with the abilities that were mine, without pushing me too much. I do not have in my C.V any grandiose constructions, top jobs, great responsibilities… I’ve always preferred – and I think it suits me better – less senior positions where I can work more effectively. I never asked for a specific appointment. I preferred to let the Spirit call me and lead me where he believed I would be best able to serve the Mission but not in a passive compliant way.
My missionary journey, first as a brother and then as a priest, did not represent any promotion whatsoever for me. It was the mission that mattered and the call to give the best service I could, so that the Good News would find its way to the peoples of Africa there where I was to be sent. That is why my first Missionary Oath in 1967, 50 years ago, really corresponded to the yes I wanted to say to the Lord for his Mission in Africa. What followed was a vocation that developed in my response to the various calls I heard and that had been verified by those who accompanied me. At the end of these fifty years I say a sincere thank you to all those who supported me in one way or another, to all those with whom I shared missionary work, those who supported me despite all my shortcomings, in community life and to all those who became my brothers in this wonderful family that is the Missionaries of Africa. To the Lord Jesus, always my companion on the road, to his Mother who looked after me so well, I express my sincere gratitude.
Alain Fontaine, M.Afr.