Here I am Lord: My first steps on the way of mission
“I must not omit to confess to you the reasons why I was so persuaded, because in them your deep, secret providence was at work, and your ever-present mercy, and these are to be pondered and proclaimed…”
– Saint Augustine, The Confessions.
On the first of the month of October 2016, a Memorial Day of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Doctor of the Church and Patron of Mission, at noon time I stepped my feet for the first time on the land of Sierra Leone. This year the first day of October happened to be a Sunday, the twenty-sixth of ordinary time and this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 21:28-32) offers food for thought and meditation as I commemorate my arrival and celebrate one year of presence in this country.“Which of the two did his father’s will?, asks Jesus.” Is it the elder son or the younger one? With this in mind, I share about my going to mission.
My memory harks back on the thirty days retreat. Before everything, there was a prospect of being assign to Africa though no mention was made of Sierra Leone even from those entitled to inquire about our preferences. It did not cross my mind, neither. There was a suggestion for me to work in another place and for two years I fed my imagination with the thought that that was the only place I could work; though at the end, it became obvious to me that it was a choice that I would have to reconsider owing to some reasons. Since everything was still on the level of suggestions and considerations, I left it to the care of the Holy Spirit; though I included it as well in my prayers over the thirty days retreat.
It is in this atmosphere in the middle of this retreat that I received my assignment letter where it was written Sierra Leone in bold and big font size and without any alternative, contrary to what we heard from our elders: there was supposed to be a dialogue where a confrere is presented with alternatives and he chooses.
I felt a sort of resistance within me inasmuch as it came without an alternative. Thinking of Sierra Leone from the viewpoint of French Xaverian missions in center of Africa, namely, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Cameroun and Tchad where we have the common novitiate and there has also been an exchange of confreres in the past, Sierra Leone and Mozambique are lost islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one away from the other. They are so insulated that there is little contact with those French speaking mission in the main land. This is due not only to their respective location on the map but also the language and the pastoral paradigm that they deal with.
Besides, though the country might have been proclaimed Ebola free by that time, it was still on the headline on various TV programs and images presented were not appealing at all. Let it be allowed to me to speak sincerely and honestly: any attractive alternative in terms of choices would have been a genuine excuse for me to ignore finely the option of Sierra Leone.
However, upon a deep conversation with myself my conscience challenged me within: thoughts of what I had been preaching in occasional moments that they asked me to, time we spend in formation house repeating boldly some statements from fundamental documents of our congregation in relation to this, what I heard and spoke in spiritual direction and formative dialogue and the like; all these popped back my mind. I felt as if there was no way of refusing this assignment without denying what I had gone through so far. Is it naïve or idealist? I don’t know. Giving a hearing to the other’s opinion can prompt a genuine dialogue. At the same “The story we are meant to write with our lives, say Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, is one that continues to unfold”.
As I kept my gaze on the printed copy of the letter on my hand, my eyes slipped on the signatory. It was written Eugenio Pulcini: formator and rector of the theologate of Manila for my first three years: we had to laugh with, smile, and frown at each other as with any member of the community. The voice that used to preside over our Saturday community meetings and the formative dialogue, in the stillness of the Jesuits sacred heart novitiate, rang again to my ears as I read:
Yesterday, the Superior General, with the consent of his Council, confirmed your admission to the Priesthood. […]
The General Council considered as well the matter of your future assignment. According to the needs of the Congregation and – we hope - to your availability, we assigned you to work in the Xaverian Region of Sierra Leone, which currently needs young confreres and therefore is very happy to receive you!”
“Aceto” went forth from my mouth after a sigh. Thereafter, it seemed as if the Lord had preceded me already to Sierra Leone all I had to do was to hurry up and follow him there. Hence, after the retreat, the rest of the days in Manila were to be used wisely in order to make the most of them. A simple schedule of “good byes” right and left came out and, at the same time, I had to take the advantage of the facilities of the place to buy few things needed for the mission. On June 8, 2017 evening my feet were off the ground and my journey westward started with Congo as the first stop for the priesthood ordination and vacation.
The first part of the sojourn in Congo was mainly filled with pressure and anxiety as I joined the family in the preparation for the even;t trying to make sure that everything was in order. A sort of honeymoon started after the ordination with first Masses around. Indeed, I was gifted and feasted. Permission was even granted to me to fly to Bukavu, the Xaverian headquater in Congo, to visit confreres and to concelebrate at Innocent Bashizi and Raymond Babuya’s ordination Mass. The list of Masses was still packed even in Kinshasa where I had to lend a helping hand to confreres since my stay there coincided with the vacation time of some of them.
The joy of celebrating and different parties that accompanied it was becoming little by little a heavy weight preventing me to move on and continue the journey to my destination; hence the need to find a wise way to get away of it. While those clinging to me were sleeping, indeed at this time Kinshasa’s inferno of noise coming from neighborhood church religions and bars gave space to silence, in September 30 at 11:5 pm as it was booked from raptim, I left stealth. The compass was not pointing to the East anymore but to the West, namely, in Sierra Leone where I landed in the first day of October at noon time and found three confreres waiting for me patiently with wide smile under the Sun. I knew only one, father Patrick who introduced me to father Carlo Disopra, the regional superior and Father Solomon, by then a deacon. From then on, I formally joined in the train of Xaverian Missionaries in Sierra Leone in motion since July 8, 1950 with the arrival of the four pioneers.
Solomon’s priesthood ordination, few weeks later, enabled me to meet all the confreres as we all gathered around him thanking and praising God for gift of the first Sierra Leonian Xaverian priest. I shook hand and exchanged few words with them, all alone, I was welcomed. After two months and a half in Makeni and nearly three weeks in Freetown for a glimpse of Krio, in January 12 of this year, a day long journey under the aegis of father Carlo brought me to Our Lady Queen of the apostles parish in the newly created district of Falaba whose chiefdom is Mongo Bendugu in the periphery of the country.
It is a land covered with forest and filled with swamps; and there is a scarcity of life facilities. We used to make it to Makeni in a space of more or less 220 km for eight or nine hours during the dry season but in this rainy season it becomes unpredictable since the first half of the road is deplorably rough. One can spend days before reaching even the first half of the road. But we are told that Peter Calza arrived here already in 1954 and raised the walls of the primary school, few steps away from the roof under which I am writing this simple sharing.
Despite this pioneer’s arrival, the Christian faith is still in its cradle. This is not only on account of the number of children with which most of outstations are made of but even the small group of adults that come to the main church still strongly needs our support in faith or in other ways. We attend to them delicately since any breach with the person of the minister can make some turn the back on the church and still more, they are fruits of a hard work of different confreres who have passed by over many years. This is the place that the region found suitable for me to be introduced to mission.
Honestly, my arrival in Sierra Leonne did not depend on the Memorial Day of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus neither did I think of it when I was landing. The gospel of reading of the twenty-sixth Sunday is, say, an ingredient that has been added in the thinking of my arrival in the mission. However, it is nice to see behind this the design of the divine providence. Does yes or no matter to God? Perhaps! Though I do not with certainty. I just pray that God my grant me a discerning my mind and heart in order to be able to discover God’s will in God’s yes or no to my wishes.