Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx: 41 years accompanying and accompanied by Youth
Ordained priest 50 years ago (1968), Fr. Victor Bongiovanni, a xaverian missionary has been working in Sierra Leone for 41 years. In this interview, he shares his missionary experience, describing it as “a walking along in life”, a ministry of “accompanying and accompanied by Youth”.
Fr. Louis Bira (LB): How do you welcome the decision of Pope Francis to call for a Synod of catholic Bishops on Young people, the Faith and Vocational Discernment?
Fr. Victor Bongiovanni (VB): I am very happy for the initiative of a Synod of Catholic Bishops on Young People. The desires, the hopes, the challenges and the aims of Youth are always changing so our Ministry among them must always have the characteristic of a continuing ‘On Going Formation’. Welcome the Synod and I hope and pray they will give me a lot of “Food for Thought”. I feel the need to be challenged for my on-going personal conversion.
LB: According to you what are the main challenges and the most significant opportunities of the young people you encounter today here in Sierra Leone?
VB: In these past Fifty Years, our Youth in Sierra Leone have changed a lot. Ten Years of Civil War have left many and visible scars in their personality. Externally, supported also by the modern instruments of communications, our Youth look stronger, with a strong confidence in themselves, but internally, they have become weaker. They have lost confidence in themselves. They have lost a sense of balance. For them, it’s more important “what you have than what you are”. The importance given to “appearance” has created a lot of thieves: in order to buy the most up-to-date model of shoes, cloth, sun-glasses, telephone… etc. Our youth, today, do not hesitate to steal from their family even the “chop-money”…(Many parents made me this complaint!)
LB: In your youth ministry, which kind of activities are you presently carrying out?
VB: Every week a formation meeting for youth. (Every, every week: continuity creates a mentality!). Formation implies three aspects: 1. Experience of spiritual values (With personal Prayer, Reflection in Silence, Meditation…) 2. Deepening of Religious Knowledge. 3. Acquiring personal Skills (At any meeting the youth receive the paper of the message – quotations and drawings - and going home they are invited to show them to their brothers/sisters/friends. For example, I prepared a course of meetings on the Life of Jesus: 24 Meetings with 24 papers. At the end these papers were stapled in booklet. It is a help to Sierra-Leoneans to become evangelizers of Sierra-Leoneans. We have two types of Meeting. First type: Catechesis using the Bible and Teaching of the Church supported by drawings in order to make the message easier to be understood. Second type: Analyses of social Problem using the YCS Method: See, Judge, Act.
LB: Is there any activity you consider the most successful? If yes, why?
VB: I think the weekly meeting on Monday is mostly appreciated. Why? Because at the end of every meeting there is a sharing. The youth share what has touched their heart. In Communicating, they are convincing themselves. They are not just passive spectators. Secondly, they go home with a paper. They like to have a booklet at the end of the course.
LB: Your activities are “parish-based activities”. What do you do to reach out the young people who are not Christian Catholics?
VB: Every Thursday we have a Catechetical meeting for children. The youth are in charge of the Meeting. We present them the Gospel of the following Sunday exposed in drawings. Some boys and some girls are trying to explain to their companions the content of the drawings.This meeting is open to every child no matter if he or she is a Christian or a Muslim. And we have a very high number of children. The parents themselves are telling their children to come to the meeting. We are trying to create a family of all the children of the area no matter their religion, or status, or tribe…our motto being: “United in the diversity respecting each identity”. Also every Sunday afternoon we organize sports and games for children. Again the youth are in charge. And again the adults are noticing that Catholics are trying not to create discrimination among children and youth.
LB: Pope Francis wants the Synod to be an opportunity for the Church to listen to the young people. In your activities, how do you “give voice” to the young people?
VB: In every activity, we try to plan together, listening to their suggestions and asking them to be the responsible for the implementation of the plans. It takes a lot of time, a lot of meetings, but this is the only way to help them to grow with a sense of responsibility. Every July, after the closing of the school year, we organize a two weeks CAMP FOR CHILDREN. The past July, there were more than 500. Again the youth are in charge of the camp. We need several meetings with the youth in order to help them to understand the need of the Camp, the purpose of the Camp, the aims of the Camp. It is an annual event of “First Announcement” with an impact on the children, on the children’s parents and on the youth. We are trying to see that everybody has a role, an important role in an atmosphere of community work where there is no imposition.
LB: Since you have been working with sierra Leoneans young people, what have you learnt from them that you consider important?
VB: I do not know if I am right or wrong. I learnt from the Youth (naturally only from those that I have met in Port Loko, Makeni, Kabala) that the youth, not all but a great majority, have a kind of common DNA in themselves: “a sense of Inferiority”. In general they like to appear like a mountains-breakers, but after you have created a friendly confidence, (it takes long time and maximum respect!). They begin telling you about their moments of uncertainty, of discouragement, of lowliness. So I find very important to establish a kind Catechesis with them that aims to give them trust in themselves, to present to them a kind of God that loves them. Not a God-Policeman, but a God who needs them, loves them, gives them responsibility. They are important for God and God is looking for them. For example, they have to learn to control their sexual instincts not because of danger or because of punishment, but because of the esteem of their personality and of the gift of being ‘Temples of God’.
LB: According to you, what do the young people really expect from the Church in Sierra Leone today?
VB: From the Church Authorities (Bishop, Priests, Catechists)
- To be coherent to their preaching (Youth find difficult to be coherent but they expect and they are very severe in judging those pastors who do not practice what they preach.)
- To be kind, gentle, humble: never to humiliate them in public, never to offend them.
- To help even materially when there is a chance: not only sympathetic words!
- To serve the Community without getting discouraged when the lay-people do not respond.
- To be visited by Priests when they are sick at home or in hospital and to pray for them.
From the Church Community (Same Parish, same Prayer Group…)
- To be united in Church and in meetings outside the Church
- To be committed together helping one another.
- To be active in organizing some projects (not only talk-talk)
- To visit the sick members of the same community and to pray for them.
LB: For you, which kinds of activities are needed today in the catholic church of Sierra Leone in order to help the young people in their journey of vocational discernment?
VB: Our youth need to see that they are leaders, able to organize children and games. The children coming together for games, for sport, create in themselves a sense of belonging to the Church family. To the youth it must be given responsibility to organize these children, they must prove that they are leaders. They must be helped to be the right people in the right place. We should never ask our youth to be responsible of activities where they are not fit to cope. A failure in one activity killed in them the desire for better and greater future activities. Instead the success in modest activity helps them for planning feasible future vocational discernment.
LB: What do you expect from the coming synod of bishops? Do you have any special wish?
VB: More than having expectations, I prefer to have an open mind-heart-will to listen to the Bishops of different ages, coming from different countries. I am afraid that if I stress too much my expectations, these will become an obstacle to listen with open heart to the challenges of the Synod. I prefer to present myself to the Synod like a blank paper in which I can write what is said openly and even in corner-corner.