Jub 150 : Remain faithful to your charism

Thank you to our Swiss confrere Roman Stäger, who published this article in German in the «Schweizer Kirchenzeitung» of January 18, 2018.


Jubilee of 150 years of “Missionaries of Africa” and “White Sisters”.

It was in an emergency that the Missionaries of Africa were founded: the priests and the Brothers on October 19, 1868, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa a year later (September 9, 1869). The then Archbishop of Algiers, Charles Martial Lavigerie (1825-1892), had to take care of hundreds of orphans, who, victims of a widespread famine and a cholera epidemic, had left their villages. He had hoped to find priests and sisters on the spot for this work, he had to find that no congregation could – or would – put at his disposal the desired personnel.

Bring the Gospel into Africa

Lavigerie was created Cardinal in 1882. For a long time, he had been thinking of a missionary activity in this still unknown African continent, which was explored and more and more occupied geographically and politically. The convictions of the Archbishop of Algiers were clear: on the one hand, the gospel was to be brought to Africa by a community of missionaries; on the other hand, the missionaries would only be “preparers of paths” for the gospel. Wherever they are sent: they should first acquire the language of the locals and understand their culture. Baptizing was only allowed for adults who had freely chosen to become Christians and had accepted several years of preparation. For Lavigerie, the reason for the failure of many previous missions was in the haste to want to proclaim the gospel immediately.

At first, and with some exceptions, Africans were not accepted into the Society of Missionaries of Africa because of the conception of the mission of the “White Fathers”: the candidates for the priesthood would enter the local clergy, and the young people attracted by the monastic vocation would either go to one of the existing Western religious orders, or to an African religious community. In this way, the Missionaries of Africa contributed, in fidelity to their charism, to the birth of a dynamic local Church, by favoring the African religious communities. The same process was followed by the “White Sisters”: how many African congregations have they not founded and accompanied until their autonomy! The women and girls of Africa could – and should – be the ones to proclaim and live the gospel in an “African style”. This basic conviction still inspires today the Missionaries of Africa.

From the “white” Fathers to the Missionaries of “Africa”

And yet. For more than twenty years, many Africans have been attracted by the White Fathers’ vocation. For the first time in the history of the Missionaries of Africa, the General Chapter elected, in 2010, an African as Superior General. Since 2016, it is Father Stanley Lubungo, born in 1967 and originally from Zambia, who holds this office.

Called to live in communities

From the very beginning, Cardinal Lavigerie wanted international communities because, according to his opinion, they represented a more faithful image of Christianity than communities from a single nationality. The Swiss have also found their way to the White Fathers. The first contacts with the Society of Missionaries took place by chance: Brother Gustave Schurvey (1852-1911) – as the first Swiss missionary of Africa – discovered the White Fathers during his work in Leukerbad, and Monseigneur Burkard Huwiler (1868 – 1954) while studying at Einsiedeln College. The first house of the White Fathers was opened on August 15, 1911 in Fribourg.

The Formation of the future missionaries of Africa

Over the past 150 years, it has shifted from a Western-centered conception to an increasingly African inspiration. Many candidates, African and European, first studied in Western universities, including at the University of Fribourg. Nowadays, the future Missionaries of Africa, both Asian and Latin American, study first in their countries of origin. Only then are they registered in African Universities and Institutes; because a training imbued with “Africanity” can only be done in Africa. The “spiritual year” (formerly called the novitiate), a pastoral internship and theological studies are mostly in Africa. Specialized studies, such as Islamology or the Arabic language, are organized where the best skills are.

Commitment to the Eastern Churches.

The pastoral activity of the White Fathers in Jerusalem could be considered “extra-African”. After the massacre of Christians by the Druze in 1860, Lavigerie visited Syria and Lebanon. In Damascus, he thanked Emir Abd-el-Kader who had protected many Christians. Lavigerie thus discovered the Islamic world, Arab culture and the Eastern Churches.

Since 1878, the Missionaries of Africa are present at Ste. Anne in Jerusalem; they are in contact with the oriental rites in communion with Rome. They want to remain faithful to this commitment for the future. Efforts to train the Melkite Greek clergy for many years, such as the present clergy of the Ethiopian-Catholic Church, bear witness to this. The churches in Egypt and Ethiopia point out that on the African continent live Christian communities that do not belong to the Western Latin rite.

In dialogue with Islam.

One of the building blocks of the Missionaries of Africa Foundation was the orientation towards a presence among Muslims. This data came naturally from the first engagement in Algiers and Carthage. Until now, the White Fathers have remained faithful to this option of living witness and a Christian witness to Muslims. They promote active empathy in a world marked by Islam and the Arabic language, both in Africa and in other regions; a fairly large number of White Fathers consider dialogue with Muslims as the reason for their missionary vocation.

Option for Justice and Peace.

The Missionaries of Africa and the White Sisters remain faithful to their original charism after 150 years of existence. The dynamic of their charism requires looking, in the light of the gospel, at the new social, cultural and religious components of people’s lives. And this is not just about the political independence of African nations; the demands of the Gospel for justice and peace are also actively relevant in the context of international life. In this way, fidelity to the basic principles of the Missionary Society is expressed through openness to the concrete reality of life.

In 2016, the Missionaries of Africa and the White Sisters wanted their charisma to be not only valid for “Africa” but for the “African world”, regardless of what this world may be and wherever it may be. Their missionary commitment will no longer be limited geographically. Because a new era of history has begun: that of mobility. The migration of so many people is the most visible part of this global evolution.

Cardinal Lavigerie had vigorously engaged in the 19th century against slavery and the slave trade in Africa. Nowadays, we no longer talk about slavery, but about human trafficking, and even the sale of migrants. Many White Sisters work together with victims ravaged by modern society: orphans, unaccompanied children, raped women and girls. They continue that which, in Algiers, was at the origin of the Missionary Society. They try to enable these people to lead or regain a dignified human life; at the same time they give a credible witness for Christ.

150 more years? “Stay true to your charisma”!

Article of Roman Stäger, published in German in the «Schweizer Kirchenzeitung» of January 18, 2018.
Translated and adapted in French: Roman Stäger, Jean-Marie Gabioud.
Translated in English: Webmaster with the help of Google Translation  😆 

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