The Missionaries of Africa on first term in the Province of Southern Africa, met in Johannesburg (South Africa) from the 3rd to the 7th of June 2019, to reflect about their experiences in the Mission and renew their commitment to serve in God’s vineyard. These confreres were: Fr. Thomas Pouya from Burkina Faso, working in Mzuzu (Malawi), Br. Vitus Danaa Abobo from Ghana, working in Lilongwe (Malawi), Fr. Konrad Millanzi from Tanzania, working in Henley Parish (South Africa), and Fr. Herve Tougma from Burkina Faso, working in Tete (Mozambique). Besides sharing their experiences, they also spent some time to familiarize themselves with the historical, political, religious and economic contexts of the country through visiting the “Freedom Park” in Pretoria, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and some other places of interest.
Though the meeting was organized for the four confreres, the members of the hosting community at Edenglen, were actively involved in ensuring that the participants were well taken care of. Fr. Malachy Oleru who was the Moderator of the meeting facilitated the sharing and involved other confreres like Fr. Raymond McQuarrie, Fr. Jones Kawisha, and Fr. Peter Joseph Cassidy, to give input on different subjects based on their mission experiences.
The participants, together with the confreres of Edenglen community, started each day with the Laudes, followed by the Eucharistic celebration, inviting God to take charge of the day’s sharing, inputs and outings among others.
For confreres like Fr. Thomas Pouya, it was like a homecoming, since he did his pastoral training or “stage” in Orange Farm, South Africa from 2010 to 2012. For Herve and Vitus, this was a new discovery. For Konrad Millanzi, who is working in Henley Parish, South Africa, visiting Johannesburg was nothing new.
On the first day of their meeting, the four confreres shared more about themselves, family backgrounds and their vocation journeys. This exercise was really an ice breaker for the group as some of the members were meeting for the first time. In their sharing, certain elements stood out, such as how the plan of God is made manifest through their family experiences, the decisions of their parents, and other human agents like relatives, friends, religious leaders and education systems. These have been part and parcel of the vocation stepping stones! Besides, the cultural experiences have also played a role in molding them into who they are today, and enkindled in them the desire to encounter other cultures. In the vocation journeys of all the members, there were moments of doubts, moments when scales that blinded their vision fell off, and moments of great certitude and confirmation of God’s will in their lives. All these challenges, doubts and joys contributed in helping them to respond positively to the Call of God to become Missionaries of Africa.
On the afternoon of the first day of their meeting, the group, with the help of Fr. Christophe Boyer, visited Freedom Park in Pretoria. Upon arrival at the Park, they spent some time visiting the Museum before they got a guide who helped them to appreciate the richness of the place and the different aspects of the park. The guide explained that, Freedom Park was born as both a national and international icon of humanity and freedom. He added that, the idea of a place of that kind was in the dreams of the late Dr. Nelson Mandela, of which Mandela himself in 1999 expressed beautifully in these words: “… the day should not be far off, when we shall have a people’s shrine, a Freedom Park, where we shall honour with all the dignity they deserve, those who endured pain so we should experience the joy of freedom.”
Some of the elements which caught the attention of the group were the Wall of Names, the Sanctuary, the Eternal Flames and the beautiful view of the City Centre from the walkway. Regarding the Wall of Names, the members were curious to know what criteria was used to select those whose names are inscribed on the Wall. It was also consoling when they found many names of heroes and heroines whom they knew or have read about on the Wall of Names like Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso, Kwame Nkurumah from Ghana, Fred Agbeyegbe from Nigeria, Thomas J. O. Mboya from Kenya, and Empress Zweditu from Ethiopia. The guide explained that the Eternal Flame is meant to invite visitors to remember the unknown and unsung heroes and heroines who lost their lives, yet their names are not recorded in history.
A notice “PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOES” welcomed the group to the Sanctuary. With such a notice one realizes he or she is approaching a holy ground. The guide explained that visitors are invited to conduct a ceremony or light a candle in memory of the “victims in our struggles for freedom or simply to celebrate the life of a loved one.” Responding to a question asked by one of the group members, the guide said that anybody or a group from any religious affiliation is allowed to perform their ceremonies here, as long as they remove their sandals.
At the end of the visit the group had the pleasure of seeing the City Centre from a high altitude wooden walkway. They were excited to take some pictures from the walkway with the City Centre in the background. The group was so grateful to their guide who was very good at explaining the different things in the Park and also patient at listening to all the critiques and appreciations of the group. To show their appreciation, they invited the guide to take a picture with them, to which the guide accepted. The visit to South Africa will not have been complete without a visit to Freedom Park, where many centuries of history and humanity’s struggle for freedom have been showcased in a neutral, non-judgmental way.
On the Second day of the meeting, the group shared on their experiences of initial insertion into their places of Mission. In the sharing, it was clear that inserting oneself into a local milieu is not always easy as one encounters new confreres, cultural shocks, new languages, and in some situations new climate, among others. The experiences of the members during stage was found to be very instrumental in enabling them to adapt to their new places of mission. The challenges of inserting themselves into their places of mission pushed them to grow and become active participants in shaping their communities and places of pastoral assignment. The arrival of these new members in each of their communities, places of mission have brought in new energy, ideas and dynamics.
As if by God’s providence, all the confreres got invited in the evening to a Muslim family to join them in breaking their Ramadan fast. This gesture granted the confreres an opportunity to experience the generosity and hospitality of their Muslim brothers and sisters. During the meals which brought together at least four Muslim families, there were different discussions and sharing about what both Christianity and Islam has in common, and also the challenge of some extremists disfiguring the picture that many people have of Islam.
On the third day they reflected on Collaborative Ministry with the help of Fr. Peter Joseph Cassidy (PJ) who works in St. Thomas Parish, Lenasia. At the beginning of PJ’s input he shared about his experience in South Africa as a Stagiaire, his experience of collaborating with ministers of other religions as well as his joys of being a Missionary of Africa.
He insisted that joy and pain are part of our life and no matter which of the two that one is experiencing, there is a need to share with others, and where necessary to seek for help. On the same point of Collaborative Ministry, PJ reminded the group that Mission has to be centered on God, adding that ‘in Collaborative Ministry we have to encounter both Mission and Values.’ He compared this ministry to the different parts of the body making use of the letter of St Paul to the Corinthians (Cor12:12-31). He insisted that Collaborative Ministry is about ‘working together and building the Kingdom of God together.’ From the above reading, the group members shared some three lessons which included: the uniqueness of the different parts of the body, the need to appreciate each other and pay attention to the needs of one another. And finally, the fact that despite the importance of each part of the body, some of the parts may feel that they are not visible or appreciated.
PJ highlighted the importance of building bridges in life instead of building walls. He also emphasized the importance of taking up new challenges and putting our gifts into use.
He also introduced the idea of supervision as a tool to help us pay attention to our emotional, physical and psychological realities. In order to collaborate with others, he advised, ‘you need to collaborate with yourself.’
After sharing about their experiences of love at different levels, PJ invited the members to imagine what would have happened, if the same kind of energy they get through love was transferred onto the ministry. He invited all the members to approach the ministry with the same kind of energy which they get through love.
Lastly, PJ talked about Safeguarding Children and ensuring that in our ministry children are protected, loved and cared for. ‘We also need to pay attention to ensure that children are not abused around us.’ He also shared his experience about working on child abuse cases and other sensitive issues so as to encourage the confreres to pay attention to them and put in place measures to protect children in our places of apostolate.
In the afternoon of the third day, the group together with Fr. Paul and Fr. Peter Joseph, visited some historical places including, Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Hector Peterson memorial and our confreres working in Lenasia Parish.
At Regina Mundi the group was told the story of how some bullets were shot into the Church building. Some of the holes on the roof of the Church building were still visible. At the back of the Church, one could find different pictures, messages and even signatures about the Soweto uprising and the struggle against the Apartheid regime. The group driving past the residence of the late Dr. Nelson Mandela found a lot of visitors who had come to visit the house.
When the members arrived at one of the outstations of Lenasia parish, they were shocked to find that the motor which automatically opened the gate of the Church compound had been stolen the previous night. From there the group continued to Lenasia Community, where they were warmly welcomed by Fr. Mathieu Van Vlierden and Fr. Raymond McQuarrie. There they had a lovely chat together.
After the recap of the previous day’s input by Malachy Oleru, Fr. Jones reiterated the importance of Collaborative Ministry, emphasizing the importance of appreciating the gifts of each other instead of being jealous. Fr. Jones regretted that, ‘sometimes when new talented confreres arrive, instead of collaborating with them we become jealous of them.’ He also emphasized the need to be present to each other especially in today’s context, when sometimes ‘we don’t spend much time together, instead we spend more time with our computers or smartphones.’
Later on, Fr. Jones gave a short input about his experience in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria, North Africa.
During his experience he faced a challenge of keeping a balance between working with both the Christians (who were mostly Students) and the Muslims. Some of the Muslims would complain that the responsibilities and work is being given to the Christians, while the other Christians will complain that more attention is being given to the Muslims.
One of the dilemmas that the confreres faced was when some Muslims showed interest of wanting to become Christians. This is because one can be accused of converting Muslims into Christianity. The question still remains; do you refuse to admit a sincere Muslim who desires to become a Christian?
Despite the challenges that he faced in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria, such as the insecurity, he appreciated community life and concern that confreres had for each other. He was also appreciative of the trust and hospitality of the Algerian people towards the Missionaries of Africa.
With regards to working with Muslims, he emphasized the importance of collaboration and dialogue, highlighting that dialogue does not mean conformity. He added that, in dialogue it is essential to respect our differences and be sincere to our own identity.
Concerning the question of reciprocity regarding dialoguing with Muslims. Fr. Jones believes that, dialogue is part of the Christian faith; living out both the vertical and horizontal dimension of our faith. He however, recognized the fact that it is challenging.
After Jones’ input the other members also shared about their experiences of living with, schooling with and working with Muslims. It is remarkable that in the case of Burkina Faso some Muslims would join their Christian friends and relations to go for Charismatic prayers in Churches. They would also celebrate both Muslim feasts and Christian feasts as one family.
In the afternoon of the same day, the group in collaboration with Fr. Paul Namono and Fr. Jones visited the Apartheid Museum. There were many things that caught the attention of those who were visiting the place for the first time such as the distinction in the colours of the ID cards, the separation of local people in the residents according to tribes, the reservation of some services to whites only, among others. It was remarkable to see how the locals were enslaved, and not represented in Parliament. The tour of the Museum also gave the group to revisit the life and struggle of Nelson Mandela and many others, for the independence of South Africa (End of Apartheid System) in audio visual form. At the end of the visit, the members still left the Museum with a thirst as there were still a lot of exhibitions not visited due to the shortness of time. One thing is certain, humanities quest for freedom is a long journey and a burning flame which no individual or system can ever put off, be it through torture, starvation or death. This freedom once attained demands responsibility and discipline to maintain.
On the last day of our meeting, the group was blessed with the presence of Fr. Raymond McQuarrie. He talked about clericalism and the need to have an exit strategy in the mission. While emphasizing the importance of the Christian faith and getting rooted in the sacramental life, he invited his brothers to focus on what is happening around the world. ‘We should not forget the issues of Justice, Peace, Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and other social issues of the present day,’ he emphasized. He gave us some motivational biblical texts to highlight the importance of paying attention to issues of Justice and Peace, with supporting documents from the Catholic Social Teachings of the Church.
Also, he highlighted the focus of making their communities and places of apostolate a family. Community life is one of the main values that have remained through most of the writings of Cardinal Lavigerie, the founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa. Their first ministry is their families, Raymond reminded them. He added that ‘anything that undermines the cohesiveness of the family has to be challenged.’ He further challenged his brothers to bring back issues of Justice and Peace as expressed by Jesus in the book of Isaiah 61 to the forefront of their apostolate: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… (Isaiah 61:1ff)
In summary the meeting of the confreres on first term working in Southern African Province was a success. It gave these confreres the opportunity to reflect together in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, about their experiences and see how God is using them to fulfil his Mission in Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. It also gave them the chance to look back at their experiences and rethink how to better minister to God’s people. The fact that the meeting took place in Johannesburg, it also gave some of them the privilege to acquainting themselves with the South African context and appreciate how far the country has come up in the fight for freedom.
This meeting will not have been possible without the support of the Provincial and his team, as well as the confreres in the Sector of South Africa, most especially the community of Edenglen, who despite their busy schedule availed themselves and their resources to facilitate this meeting.
Vitus Danaa Abobo, M.Afr.