Profile of Jan Lenssen, M.Afr.
Jan Lenssen died a few days ago in Belgium and already his profile was sent to all the Belgian confreres in Dutch, as Jan was from the Limburg province, in a Dutch speaking part of Belgium. Jan was provincial of Belgium and first assistant to the Superior General. He had a very intense life too. The official translation of the profile, in French and English, will follow in due time, but here comes an unofficial translation, quickly made for your information. The Webmaster.
Jan was born on 13 July 1941 in Kaulille in the province of Limburg, but the family would soon move to Bree. The family consisted of five boys and three girls. The father was a teacher and co-founder of the Legion of Mary section in Bree. An uncle of his mother, Father Laurens Coninx, worked as a White Father in the diocese of Mahagi (where he was to be murdered in Aba in November 1964), and her brother, Laurens (junior), worked in the diocese of Bunia. Jan followed the Greek-Latin humanities in the St-Michael’s’ college in Bree, where he was active at the KSA (Association of the Catholic Scouts). In September 1959, he followed his older brother Rik in joining the White Fathers in Boechout. He did his novitiate in Varsenare and the theological studies in Heverlee. His father died in February 1965. On 25 June 1965 Jan took his missionary oath and on 25 June 1966 he was ordained a priest. During his years of formation, Jan is described as a talented young man, very balanced, exemplary and helpful. He knows what he wants and is capable of taking on a leadership role. He devoted himself very diligently to the apostolate activities. He is a man with practical and common sense and a calm, delicate and discreet way of dealing with things. From 1966 to 1970, he studied in Rome, first theology at the Gregoriana, then morality at the Alphonsianum, ending with a thesis on “The catechumenate after Vatican II”.
In September 1970, Jan left for Rwanda and learnt Kinyarwanda at the Language Centre (CELA) in Kigali. In February 1971 he was a priest in Masaka, a “paysannat” not far from Kigali, where from 1973 to 1975 he took on the task of “visiting professor” of canon law at the Major Seminary in Nyakibanda. He is also “vice-secretary” of the Episcopal Conference. In 1974 he became a parish priest and the following year he handed over the parish to the Pallotine Fathers. In April 1975 he went on leave and made a study trip to Malawi and Mali. Despite Bishop Perraudin’s personal intervention to the Superior General, Father Vasseur, in order not to take away “one of the best missionaries we absolutely need”, in September 1975, Jan succeeded his brother Rik in the missionary animation of the diocese of Hasselt, and became a professor of moral theology at the Major Seminary in St. Truiden. The Hasselt missionary animation group was very active and Jan regularly wrote in the “Schakel”, the diocesan magazine for missionary animation and deepening of faith. At the beginning of December, Jan becomes provincial assistant of Belgium. He is a delegate at the Chapter of 1980 and in June 1981 he is appointed provincial. He would remain so for two mandates. During these years he was also a member of the National Missionary Commission, of the Inter Diocesan Pastoral Council, of the National Vocation Commission, and of the Committee for Missionary Institutes. He founded the “Blue Torre” centre in Varsenare, installed a community at the Milcamp Avenue in Schaerbeek, but closed the one in Auderghem. In 1983, he also had to manage the “forced return” of many brothers from Burundi. At the 1986 Chapter, he was elected the first General Assistant. In the same year, he became a representative of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in the World Council of Churches in Geneva, a task which he will continue to perform until 2013. He was especially in charge of the ecumenical dimension in pastoral work, including solutions of solidarity towards the poorest.
Jan’s first reaction to his appointment in Rome: “It is a grace to be so closely involved in the joys and tasks of the entire family of the White Fathers and the African Church”. Within the General Council, he was especially responsible for financial and legal matters, elderly brothers and the ecumenical movement. He was also the pivot of the year of commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Cardinal Lavigerie.
In July 1992, Jan took a well-deserved sabbatical, partly in France and partly in Great Britain. In July 1993 he returned to Rwanda and joined the parish of Nyamirambo in the crowded capital of Kigali. It was there that he met the genocide: “That Friday, after the death of Habyarimana, a kalashnikov against my belly, guarded by interahamwe, next to my confreres, death was doing its job: at my feet a few bloodily murdered children they had pulled out of my arms; a mother was bleeding to death while holding close her child. Machete and rifle were going up and down, and in the church – “sanctuary” – grenades were exploding. Death has nestled itself in my deepest heart ever since that day in April 1994. Together with several Belgian confreres, Jan was evacuated to Belgium on April 14. Since many parishes were evacuated because of the violence of the war, most of the confreres also had to flee temporarily. In August 1994, Jan was asked to go back to Rwanda on an ‘exploratory trip’ in order to see if the confreres could return, which, to a limited extent, was the case.
Jan himself returned to Rwanda as a regional on 7 December 1994. He will fulfil two mandates, which will be extended until the end of 2000. In January 1995 he became president of the Association of Religious Superiors, both male and female. The main concern was then to deal with the tragic events and to start a long road to reconciliation. In 1997 Jan wrote: “We are in the movement of a Church conscious of its integration into human history, even into sin… We are aware of the imperfections and even the faults that we may have committed during this century of missionary commitment… We hope one day to find the understanding, openness and atmosphere to make the truth… In this reconstruction work we would like to join the efforts of other churches and their communities, our Sisters and Brothers”. During these years, Jan was also secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Ecumenism. In 1998, he participated in the Chapter. At the end of 1998, he had to go on sick leave for the first time.
When his task in Rwanda was over, he was appointed in Tanzania in May 2001 and went to study Kiswahili in Kipalapala. In October, he moved to Nairobi (Kenya) in our community of Saint-Charles Lwanga on Ngong Road. He was appointed National Executive Secretary for the Commission for Ecumenism of the Bishop’s Conference of Kenya and Professor at the International Mission Institute “Tangaza” in Nairobi. He had pastoral commitment in the parish, visited AIDS patients in the nearby hospital of the Coptic Church, and cared for street children. He proudly testifies: “The ecumenical workgroup of the Kenya Bishops’ Conference is coming to life”. He deals with ecumenical themes in the Catholic radio programme. Jan is still an active member of the Mission and Evangelization Commission of the World Council of Churches, which is a rarity for Catholics. This led him in 1989 to San Antonio in the USA, in 1996 to Salvador in Brazil, in 2005 to Athens and in 2010 to Edinburgh. At his farewell in Kenya at the end of 2008, the General Secretary of the Episcopal Conference stated: “Fr. Lenssen leaves behind a Commission that is growing and creating impact more than ever envisaged.
At the beginning of 2009, Jan was appointed to Belgium, officially for the African pastoral service in the two vicariates of Brussels, for the White Fathers, more specifically in our project Centre AMANI. He soon became a member of the Ecumenical Committee of the Churches of Brussels. In March 2010, as part of the French-speaking Catholic Radio (RCF Bruxelles), he launches a weekly programme “Rencontrer l’Afrique” (broadcasted several times). Jan and his AMANI staff both seeked out and briefed the speakers. It was a feat of strength to find relevant speakers each time. The 250 causeries were broadcast from March 2010 to July 2014. In the meantime, it was discovered that Jan was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Appropriate medication will apparently keep the disease under control for years to come. He took several steps to facilitate the financing of AMANI projects. Every year he made a booklet in French and Dutch, for the Week of Unity. Jan was answering many calls from the Rwandan community (baptisms, marriages, deaths…). He followed their charismatic group “Miséricorde divine”. In 2012, he will be responsible for his community. After 25 years, he resigns as a representative of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. In May 2014, the evolution of his illness will no longer allow him to fulfill his many tasks and he asks to be dismissed. In November 2015, he left for Genk ‘at rest’. In May 2016, the International Ecumenical Movement of Kenya awarded him the decoration ‘Ecumenist Hero’. In October 2016 he will participate in the session for the over 70s in Rome. However, sitting still is not for Jan. He still has so many plans ahead and there is so much to do. His body is increasingly failing him, but his will is driving him forward and his agenda is still full…. A holy fire that has propelled him all his life and that has made his life so fruitful for many.
At the beginning of September 2018, Jan will come to Evere because of the need for medical follow-up. A walker allows him to carry on with what he is still planning enthusiastically. At the end of July 2019, he was taken to St. Michael’s clinic, where, after unsuccessful attempts, he was transferred to palliative care. Jan died there peacefully on August 10.
Jef Vleugels, M.Afr.