Sister Janet Fearns FMDM says that some Sudanese villagers wait a quarter of a century for a priest to visit but their faith remains strong ‘When I started Mass with the Sign of the Cross,” says Fr Elvis Berka Shudzeka as he recalls the time he visited a remote Sudanese village called Koloka. “Very few in the congregation responded. I immediately thought that this might be because almost everybody understood only their local language, Dinka.” He continues: “During the homily, with the help of a translator, I spent time checking the preparedness of the catechumens, having been told that they all had at least two years of preparation. I started with the Sign of the Cross and discovered that not 10 of the first 50 catechumens knew how to make it correctly.
“Then I proceeded to the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary and Glory be. Depressingly, they knew little or nothing of the Catholic doctrine about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Mary. My immediate reaction was to call off the baptism to give them time to learn. Immediately an 82-year-old woman spoke up; ‘Father, I have waited 25 years to see a priest and had longed and hoped that the day I see one, I would be baptised as a Catholic Christian before I die. You can’t surely refuse me baptism simply because I don’t know how to make the Sign of the Cross. I am not sure I will be alive next month but please, Father, I want to die a Catholic Christian. Baptise me.’ “After Mass, one of the elderly newly baptised Christians told me that the previous visit from a priest was in 1984. She said: ‘Year after year we were told that a priest is coming. Ten years, no priest. Twenty years, no priest, and in the 25th year none of us really believed a priest would come again until we saw you with our own eyes, heard you with our own ears and touched you with our own hands. Now we know God has not really forgotten us.’ Twentyfive years, with no priest or Sacraments and yet within those 25 years, the longing for Christ survived.” Not every priest shares the experience of Fr Elvis Berka Shudzeka when he visited Koloka. In 2009, the Mill Hill Missionary was the first priest in 25 years to visit the village, situated in the midst of a guerrillaheld area which was often torn by conflict. To his amazement he discovered that, through all the difficulties and privations they had experienced, people had clung to their faith. A Tanzanian Missionary of Africa once remarked: “We Africans know that if God is God, sooner or later, he will help us and that is why we cultivate land and plant seeds even in a drought.” The people of Koloka had truly experienced a spiritual drought and yet they hung on, knowing that, sooner or later, they would have a priest. Many had not been baptised. Although, when necessary, we all have the power to administer the Sacrament of Baptism, only a priest can offer Mass and administer the Sacra ment of Reconciliation. There are innumerable villages scattered across the developing world where a priest can only visit, at best, two or three times during the course of a year. For the most part, these are in the care of catechists who also act as prayer leaders, preparing people for the sacraments and holding together the Catholic community. Occasionally, during their holidays from the seminary or their pastoral year, seminarians have the opportunity to visit isolated outstations, supplementing but not replacing the priest.
A priest is not a priest in isolation and neither does he reach the altar steps on his own merits. A Zambian proverb says: “When you reach the branches of the tree, look back to the roots.” This means that each and every one of us depends on others for support and encouragement. This is as true of a vocation to the priesthood as it is to any other aspect of life.
Who are the young men who present themselves at the doors of the seminary?
Paul Mburu Mumbi, a firstyear student at the Christ the King Seminary in Nyeri, Kenya, was born in 1985 and baptised when he was 11. His story shows how the lack of funds can hold back those in young Kenyan churches from following their desire to learn more about Jesus. Many people across the developing world speak of attending school with the same sense of proud achievement with which their counterparts in this country speak of a university education.
Paul found it difficult to go to secondary school because of the financial backing required, but in 2001 started studying to become a mechanic, and did this for four years. “I wasn’t sure about going back to school and having to manage without money. But the parish priest helped financially and in 2006 I went to minor seminary and completed my secondary school education,” he explains. “For 12 months I worked in a parish as a lay worker and then put myself forward for pre-theological formation. I’m only at the beginning of my training, but the image of priesthood is becoming clearer. The longer I go on, the more I realise God’s great love for me and how much I want to share it with others. I really want to be a priest but it depends on God’s will and not mine.” One of five boys in his family, Eric Omondi Otieno is 25. He has just completed his philosophy studies and is about to embark on theology. His desire to become more closely involved in the life of the Church started when he served at Mass during his secondary school years and went with his parish priest to the outstations.
“I enjoyed this so much,” he remembers, “that after Fourth Year I made enquiries about becoming a priest.” Eric is now studying in Nyeri, alongside four other students from his diocese who started there with him in 2007. In a country where daily life can be marked by factionalism Eric relishes the diversity at the seminary.
“I really enjoy mixing with students from all the tribes,” he says. “It is a joy to realise that there is such richness in our country. Here we share all parts of life, and although our background and languages are very different we have become really good friends.” Support from Missio and the Society of St Peter the Apostle (SPA) ensures that thousands of seminarians just like Paul and Eric can continue their studies for the priesthood. It also guarantees that young men and women will not find seminary or convent doors shut against them because there is not enough money to pay for their upkeep. There are even cardinals who can look back to their youth and think that if it had not been for the generosity of an SPA supporter, they could not have been ordained.
It’s worth thinking about.
Sister Janet Fearns is a Franciscan Missionary of the Divine Motherhood. To learn more about the Society of St Peter the Apostle visit Missio.org.uk/ spa/index.php