I have been asked to share my experience as a confrere doing further studies in a formation house (4th phase Small Formation Group in Kinshasa, DRC). What link should I make between my experience of being just another student at the university and as a student priest and collaborator in a formation house?
Some years ago, I finished my studies in Biblical Theology at the Catholic University of the Congo, after spending six years on mission in Mali, in the Diocese of Kayes in the parishes of Guéné Goré and Kassama. My passage from pastoral work to specialised studies was marked by a period spent at Chatelard near Lyon in France for formation in the art of Spiritual Direction. It was also a time for personal spiritual renewal and a preparation to help the human and spiritual formation of our candidates. There is no doubt that the transition between pastoral life in a rural setting in a small community of three or four to the reality of formation in a much bigger community presented great challenges that needed to be met and managed. Certainly, it was a learning experience, which was sometimes heavy-going but at the end of the day, it gave me great satisfaction as there is more joy in giving rather than receiving. It is a school where each one does what he can with what he is and what he has while obviously depending on the support and help of his colleagues who are the other students and confreres. When I was appointed for specialised studies at Kinshasa 10 years ago, I was asked to join the Small Formation Group which had just been set up as a Formation House and procure (guest house). I was expected to live there as a student confrere among the other students and at the same time be a collaborator in formation because according to the system only the Rector of the SFG was a formator. The other confreres were considered as collaborators in the formation programme.
A student among other students
Nobody can deny that going from pastoral work to studies is a difficult undertaking! Like all changes in activities, from the social milieu and the framework in which these activities take place, the transition to studies demands a big effort to adapt and make sacrifices especially in the areas regarding the organisation of personal time and the rhythm of life. This is not done all at once but occurs gradually at its own pace taking into account the pace of others and the programme of studies and courses imposed by the university institutions.
Going from the reality of parish work in a rural milieu to the reality of studies was a big challenge. It meant going back to school to attend Theology courses, take up Greek and Hebrew and even Aramaic. For me, it was not just a simple change of environment, of social structures and lifestyle, it demanded a constant effort to adapt to new situations and just be a student among other students. It meant going back to school, to study every day and be hard-working at academic activities and to accept the sacrifices demanded by student life. One had to accept all this in order to adapt and establish some sort daily rhythm. Our world today is evolving so fast that, having stopped studying a number of years ago, I was faced with new questions, I had to cope with new approaches and there were changes in the way subjects were presented, which posed new challenges in the thinking and transmission of knowledge. Over and above the questions posed by adaptation to a completely new lifestyle, I was faced with an enormous volume of work. However, I have to admit that there was the joy in doing research, in discovering and rediscovering different aspects of knowledge and, especially, the enthusiasm of some tutorial groups, which I found motivated and supported me. I experienced this in conversations with other students who came from different backgrounds, diverse religious institutes, whether they were priests or not. The participation in the activities of the student chaplaincy and an association of priest students was a way of deepening the links with others and to share our faith with students, priests, religious, seminarians and laypeople. Participation in the life of the Archdiocese of Kinshasa through the activities of the Catholic University chaplaincies was a point of entry into the local Church with its own experiences, facing its own challenges and questions around the general situation in the country. Having had an experience of Church elsewhere, I was able to bring something new to our exchanges and reflections.
What to make of all these changes? It was not easy to navigate through them without a constant effort to adapt to the reality of student life. The Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Kinshasa is largely composed of professors and students from an ecclesiastical background, seminarians in major academic and inter-diocesan seminaries, men and women religious sent by their respective institutes and some lay people. This meant religious diversity in the spiritual and intellectual sphere, which I could only wonder at before very slowly adapting myself. In the beginning, things were certainly not easy but thanks to the support and encouragement of the confreres and the other students, I finally fitted in benefiting from the experiences of others.
Student and collaborator in formation
My community in Salongo (Kinshasa) was composed of about 10 people, ordained priest confreres and students. Student among the students, I shared the daily efforts of going to the University, studying, the sessions with the students of my community. We talked about our struggles and the problems of doing some academic tasks. When there was overlapping in some subjects we discussed and swapped information. In order to achieve the best results, we collaborated with one another when we could regarding the work allocated to us in our tutorial groups and in our community. How did I fit into this setting with other fellow students? First of all, as a brother and confrere sharing the same missionary vocation and the same objective in following Christ through our daily activities, (Eucharist, prayers, relaxation, pastoral activities), I was a student like them. I had to respond to the same academic pressures and ask for help when I found it necessary. This way of life, of give-and-take and sharing, confirmed us in our interpersonal relationships by respecting and accepting everyone just as they are. This was essential to each one’s growth be they student candidates or ordained priests.
As a collaborator in formation, I joined the other ordained confreres in order to discuss the life of the community and see how each student candidate was progressing. Our community timetable was determined by the respective university timetables. The balance between community life and studies was constantly under review because of the unforeseen changes in the course programmes. We all cooperated in trying to find some sort of equilibrium in our daily life. Our community meetings, our recollections and our retreats and other activities organised by the community helped us to bond together as brothers sharing the same missionary vocation. Yes, it may not be noticeable at first in a context where all the energies are centred on studies (courses, tutorial, seminars etc.) but as life went on, we realized that even though we found things very difficult even traumatic at times, nevertheless we could go on and teach with enthusiasm and passion. I experienced this, when after finishing my studies in Biblical Theology, I spent some years as a teacher and formator in our First Phase house in Kimbondo near Kinshasa. In the course of these years of teaching, I realised that passing on what one has received no matter what the conditions, demands a big effort at preparation, adaptation, and constant revision that our changing world demands. Nonetheless, it still gives me a lot of joy to share what I have received.
Odon Kipili Manda