A single copy of The Catholic Herald in Africa can be read by up to 100 people. Christina Farrell reports on the faith of the Third World and describes how a missionary subscription has transformed the lives of students in Uganda
The letters, when they come, are flimsy, with copperplate handwriting on airmail paper, light as air. The stamps reveal the countries of origin – Uganda, Zimbabwe, India and Indonesia.
We receive many letters at The Catholic Herald. They can be graded – as with the Dewey Decimal system – according to content: delighted, bemused, troubled, angry and frankly, sometimes, a little bit bonkers.
The latter are known euphemistically as the “green inkers” because, invariably, that is the letter-writer’s choice of ink. But the letters from overseas are in a different category altogether.
The language is often archaic and slightly Dickensian. The letters convey respect – that overused word in British politics – and evoke a time when manners and dignity mattered.
Students, missionaries, Christians from the farflung reaches of the world write to convey their thanks for the gift of the paper, and for the wisdom within its pages.
This is a salutary experience – reading letters from people who have suffered as we have not suffered – whose countries, as Cafod and other world agencies struggle to remind us, battle to survive the wars of men, the greed of politicans and the indifference of the west. These are men, women and children who have often witnessed indescribable tragedy but whose faith is a beacon in a secular world.
The priests and nuns who minister to them are living their faith in a way that the cocktail set – clergy and correspondents fond of canapés – do not. They have given their working lives for love of the Church; sometimes they pay the ultimate sacrifice.
Fr Charlie Beirne, a Montfort missionary in Mbarara, Uganda, wrote to the paper just before Christmas. He wanted us to know that the one gift subscription of the Herald that he received was read and reread by over 100 pupils. I wrote back to him.
Let me know what your pupils think, I said. Give us a sense of what is important.
Catholic journalism is increasingly self-focused in this county: obsessed with the minutiae, the politicking of prelates and personal prejudices. And we risk ignoring the bigger picture.
Writers in this paper may sometimes thunder about the direction of the Church, the battle between traditional and progressive liturgies, but the letters from Africa speak of a basic human need for faith and for understanding.
When so-called “Catholic” journalists put poisoned pen to paper, what would Christ have said? Africa and the Third Nations of the world tell us – a call that is not heard and too often, we miss its echo.
Fr Beirne’s letters eventually arrived – weeks later than the airmail sticker would suggest. On foolscap sheets of A4 his parishioners, his students of Ntare school, sent me their thoughts in neat blue biro.
Ntare is a mixed-denominational (primarily Protestant) establishment with Muslim and Anglican pupils, as well as Catholics. Ntare means lion, the symbol of St Mark, the Gospel writer, to whom the school chapel is dedicated. The pupils display a leonine fervour for their faith and a pride in what it should mean to say: “I am a Catholic.” I was touched by their words of commendation and humbled by their elevated opinion of an imperfect periodical.
If we do nothing else, we have a duty to let these people know that they matter and that there are Christians across the waters of the world who will keep them in their prayers.
Here are extracts from their letters.
CF Mugumire James Brian: “I AM IN A multi-religious school. We have different clubs here, including the Young Christian Society and the Legion of Mary whose activities are aimed at building each other up in the ways of God through fellowship and Bible study.
“We have a vision of seeing all students becoming one voice in proclaiming the Gospel. A vision of seeing lives being changed, broken hearts being mended, lost souls being found and, above all, a love for God and our fellow humanity being the cornerstone of our existence...
“Reading The Catholic Herald gives me plenty of food for thought and calls me to action... the Herald has helped us to realise our weaknesses and what we should do to bring our souls closer to God and is instrumental to us young, growing Christians as a Christian voice in our society.” Dominic Eckwacu: “THROUGH YOUR interesting paper we are encouraged and made more aware of the need to work and live together in harmony and peace with all people, no matter what the colour of their skin, or their tribal background. This is a great challenge to us here at Ntare school where we have people of different tribes and religious beliefs. Your paper encourages us to follow the example of our later Holy Father John Paul II who led, by example, the way to live in a world with peace in every nation.” Biruwgi Joseph: “IN UGANDA we don’t have a weekly Catholic paper... Before I started reading The Catholic Herald my interest in Christian liturgy was rather low and all I was interested in were thrillers and notorious romance novels. Thanks to this informative and innovative paper I now take time off to read some good quality literature and I believe this will continue to bring me closer to God. I look forward to many issues not forgetting to wish the paper, all its staff and readers well in all their endeavours especially in promoting spiritual information in this ‘information age’.” Mukasa Adolf: “IN THE EARLY 1990s, our chaplain Fr Beirne read an article in The Catholic Herald about the construction of a joint-faith chapel in England. He liked the idea and through the Herald was able to get financial assistance from the joint church of the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes which was opened by the Queen Elizabeth II. Presently, our chapel is the only joint chapel in eastern Africa...
“The chaplain brings issue after issue of the Herald every Sunday and due to the fact that there aren’t enough copies, we have to sit in our small Catholic library and wait in turn. Not only are we interested in the headlines and religious news, but also in articles by Mary Kenny, Pastor Iuventus, Fr Ronald Rolheiser and David McLaurin. His articles make us realise that the Herald is also for Africa.
“The articles of such honest men and women have improved our literature and when we read their essays we feel challenged The local press only gives snippets of information about the Church and the world. We are a minority faith group in the school but we know that we are part of a much bigger family of God united in the one true Catholic faith.” Waiswa David: “LIVING A religious life in Uganda is quite difficult. The forces of opposition against Catholicism had, at one point, become unbearable, until the school administrators warned against discouraging believers from their way of worship.
“The beauty of faith is that it enhances unity among God’s servants. Our prayers are usually dedicated to the suffering people in the Tsunami-hit areas, Sudan and Iraq. Reading the paper has exposed us to stories from all parts of the world. We are made more aware of the plight of our suffering brothers and sisters. This encourages us to be in soli Habaasa Gilbert: “CATHOLICS SOMETIMES feel inferior here. Those putting on rosaries are seen as devil worshippers; we are criticised for adoring idols and statues. I was not aware of what to do, due to my lack of experience, as I had always previously attended a Catholic school. I tried to defend myself with the Bible and to reject their criticisms and gradually I have learned how to adjust and how to live peacefully with my brothers. They voted me their prep prefect, something that was unheard of for a Catholic to lead in this school.
“To that end, therefore, persecutions and religious differences are not the end of the world. We can live harmoniously with others as I am doing. If I can do it – why can’t you?” Mugisha Stanley: “ON MARCH 18, 2000, in Kanungu district, 50 km from Mbarara, people misled by their leaders committed mass suicide in their churches. They were members of a cult known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments.
“The leader, Joseph Kibwetere, said it had been revealed to him that the world would come to an end. He started preaching and converting people to his sect. His followers were encouraged, not to be good readers of the Bible, but good listeners of their leaders.
“They said the world would end on March 18, 2000, and they would all go to heaven on that day. They told believers to repent and to sell off their property. They said goodbye to their loved ones and entered their churches, nailed down the doors and burnt themselves. The next day many bodies were found. That is how poor Ugandans, misled by their own people, lost their lives. None of the cult leaders died. I warn people not to follow sects.” Ssebatta-Fredrick: “OUR LIBRARY is supplied with a variety of copies of The Catholic Herald by our chaplain, Fr Charlie. The library is overcrowded on Sundays when the latest edition is brought out. Everybody really feels anxious to know what is happening in the Catholic world.
“Through the Herald we have come to know other people’s experiences from different parts of the world, hence sharing with them both their sorrows and joy.
“Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to write about my experience of the life of a Catholic student in a multi-religious school.
“I really feel proud of being a Catholic and also proud to give an article to this very paper. God bless you.”