To love Africa
Fr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Fr Kazimierz Kieszek and Fr Cezary Wieczorek, missionaries from the Society of African Missions.
Rev. Mgr Ireneusz Skubis: – You belong to the Society of African Missions. Please tell us something about this Society.
Fr Kazimierz Kieszek: – It is a Catholic missionary congregation, founded in Lyon by the French Bishop Melchior de Marion-Brésillac in 1856, specifically for the African continent, where Christ and his teaching of the Gospel was not known. The Society began its activities in Sierra Leone, a small country in West Africa between Ivory Coast, Mali and Liberia, but unfortunately, after three months our founder and his team died from yellow fever. Then there were neither medicines nor vaccines. One can say that they were the first African martyrs.
– But the Society exists...
– Certainly, this is a matter of faith. One should remember that our founder entrusted the Society to Our Lady of Fourviere. And there were followers. After a few years Augustin Planque, who continued the work, went to Africa with a team, to the Kingdom of Dahomey, today’s Benin.
– Have you been to Benin, too?
– Yes, I have. But I was not long there, only as a guest because our seminarians have one year of formation there. I basically work in Togo. It is a very small country in West Africa. Till World War I it was a German colony, then German missionaries were there and afterwards the French missionaries from Alsatia.
– How many dioceses has the Church in Togo?
– There are seven dioceses – there were four but the Holy Father John Paul II created three more. We have missionaries from various associations. There are 25 missionaries in Togo and the whole Society has ca. 800 fathers.
– Do you also serve in Ivory Coast?
– Yes, we do but Ivory Coast develops so well that there are three major seminaries there. Some dioceses do not need missionaries. They are independent. In the north there are still missionary dioceses but the south is self-sufficient.
– You have said that there are ca. 800 fathers. Where else do they work?
– Some have surely retired and some are still working in Africa, commencing with Ivory Coast through Ghana, Togo, and the Republic of South Africa, up to Nigeria where there are many missionaries. We are also in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) and in Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. These countries are evangelised by our missionaries.
– Are there Muslims in the countries where you work? What culture is domineering: the French one or another?
– There are rather few Muslims; in the western part Islam embraces 15% of the society. As far as culture is concerned the former French colonies have the French culture. The situation is different in the English colonies. These are two civilisations. I think that the French colonies are more developed. The French left a lot of schools, built roads, brought many missionaries. In the English-speaking countries the sects pose a great threat. They come from America, England and they simply divide the Church. The Africans find it difficult to differentiate them. For them this is the Church and the Church is God. The sects win new members because of poverty. They give some small presents, e.g. T-shirts and thus they recruit people. There are also sects in the French-speaking countries but the Church is very strong.
– Do you love Africa?
– I love Africa very much and I feel sorry for Africa. I spent over 20 years there and because of malaria my doctor told me that I had to stay away from the malaria area for at least three years.
– What would you like to do for Africa on the African mission?
– First of all, I would like to make our society aware that our Church, that the African Church is a Church of the future. We have a stereotype of Africans as lazy people and thus as if people of the third category. However, we should remember that it is not easy to live in such a climate. This is not laziness but simply tiredness. Bigger effort and some illness comes at once, malaria comes. We should make people aware that these are our brothers, the same people created by Lord God as we are. The Africans suffer for their skins, that they are black. Because of that they have complexes and the colonists contributed to that. We remember that there were even views that the Black have no souls. It is not their fault that they were born in Africa. The African Church needs material and spiritual help, needs contacts and needs to educate their seminarians here, in Europe. As society the Africans surely need more justice, that we get interested in Africa, in their problems in a more reliable way. These are not free countries. They are ruled by regimes, dictatorships. In some countries the President is richer than the whole country and huge corruption ‘consumes’ the whole help they receive from Europe, from the European Union. Various organisations, the so-called humanitarian ones, help Africa but in fact, if help does not go through the Church only parts of it reach people. One can see representatives of these organisations, driving very luxurious cars, receiving big salaries and sometimes they give some exercise books or pencils. Their administration consumes subsidiary funds. And it hurts me. We can also see that if help goes through some congregation or other units of the Church it reaches the addresses and then is justly distributed among those who need it most; those who are left to themselves. But above all the Church gives hope to these people, tells them that Christ loves the poorest because we know that Christianity is the religion of the poor.
– In which fields is help most needed?
– My concern is first of all the seminarians. Coming from very poor families they receive no help. On the contrary, when they go on holiday to their poor homes their whole families wait for the to bring them something. So they need help. In Poland the so-called distance child adoption is becoming increasingly popular. This is a beautiful idea. People help a concrete child in education and upbringing. In Africa there is also the problem of water, of wells in villages. I have built several wells myself. These wells are no expensive. The thing is to help a poor woman who often walks several kilometres to draw water. Besides, you should educate these people who are manipulated.
– Which experiences have made you happiest?
– I was very happy when at Easter I had over 100 baptisms of adults who found Christ and were happy that they were in the Church, that they knew what good was and what evil was, what brotherhood, family meant. The parish that formed one family was the example. There were no rich men and poor men – there were brothers. It happened that there were a few tribes in my parish. Then I always tried to create brotherhood, to build the awareness that we were all brothers and God was our Father. He loves us although we are poor. He is beside us and he suffers like we do.
– On 29 June 2009 in Suwalki you celebrated the 150th anniversary of the death of the founder of your Society Bishop Melchior de Maríon-Brésillac. What would you like to tell our Readers on this beautiful occasion?
– We invited all those who were sensitive to suffering, pain, poverty and hunger to show their solidarity with the African nations. At present, every third African child suffers from hunger and we must know that people eat once a day there. Perhaps we should live a little more economically, knowing that there are other church communities that need our help. Once missionaries came to us. Now we should pay the debt of gratitude because the Church is a continuation of mission. We would like to make our society aware of the fact that the Church of Christ is one, that somewhere very far, in Africa, my black brother suffers from hunger…
– How can we help you?
– As far as our addresses are concerned – we have two houses in Poland: House of Formation in Borzecin Duzy near Warsaw (Warszawska Street 826, 05-083 Zaborow) and Retreat House in Piwniczna-Zdroj (Smigowskie 42, 33-350 Piwniczna-Zdroj). We have excellent teams of young energetic and dynamic people who have been to Africa, but you must run these houses. Therefore, after spending several years in Africa they return to Poland for several years. Anyone that feels responsible for the work of missions in Africa can take a proper formation and help us. Naturally, missions are not adventures but calling. Going there you must do your best and leave some trace there.
– You will become the parish priest in the cathedral in Cairo. Will you also serve the Polish people who are there?
– Yes, I will. I have already been to the Egyptian Embassy and I know that there are numerous Polish women who married Muslims. Sometimes they are in very difficult situations. There are also Polish migrants there as in any other country there are old and young generations of Polish migrants. I intend to celebrate Mass every Sunday evening for them and then organise some kind of a meeting so that people can get to know one another and help in various situations. This is my idea.
– Now I am asking Fr Cezary Wieczorek who is the vocations director of the Society and his concern is the missions. Where is your base in Poland?
Fr Cezary Wieczorek: – As Fr Kazimierz mentioned our base is in Borzecin Duzy. From there we try to go to parishes presenting the work of missions and first of all, we try to reach young people in schools to show them Africa by getting to know its culture. Among other things we organise exhibitions that are also carriers of evangelisation and let them get to know other people who are so different and strange as it seems but after all, they are very close to us.
– Have you been to Africa?
– I have been to the western coast, to Togo. First of all, I saw the needs of evangelisation. And I know that although many organisations have brought material help none can replace the Church that opens people to something more than bread, to eternal life. My dream is that everyone had the possibility to experience the Eucharist. But in order to eat the Bread of Life one must hear the word of God, open himself to the gift of faith; one must hear the Good News.
– So you can see the big sense of vocational work and as I understand you enjoy doing it…
– We can only provide the information that if someone feels God’s calling, that God wants to use him as a tool in missionary work in Africa, there is a door: the Society of African Missions to fulfil this dream. There are many people who want to help Africa. But they imagine that they will go there for a month or two but longer presence is needed to get to know the people living there more deeply and bring Christ to them. Naturally, we try to realise various educational projects, e.g. ‘Mathematics for life’ (a doctor of mathematics goes to Tanzania and lectures in mathematics) or health projects. Thus one can get involved in various forms of missionary help as a lay missionary or a volunteer.
– Has your Society any women’s congregations to collaborate with?
– Ten women’s congregation for evangelisation of Africa have originated at the African Mission. In fact, none is present in Poland, but in one of these congregations, the Missionary Catechists of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Sisters that was founded in France, there is one Polish sister who has taken the perpetual vows. She comes from the diocese of Elk. If some girl discerns a calling to evangelisation in Africa she has a possibility to join the congregation although she must go to France to have religious formation. The possible and simplest contact is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Thank you for the meeting and conversation.