Vocation animation in Sierra Leone
On the occasion of the celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life, I personally find meaningful to reflect a little bit on our regional life concerning the activity of vocation animation.What I express here is my own personal opinion being involved in the field of vocation animation. I will try to share with you some of the challenges I encounter when I meet young people in the schools and parishes.
Sixty four years ago (1950), the first Xaverian Missionaries arrived in Sierra Leone, their first African Mission. It was eight years after that the Xaverian Missionaries arrived in Congo (DRC). After so many years of our presence as Missionaries in this country, the question that many in Sierra Leone are asking, is: “why after so many years of your presence and work in this Country, there is still no local Xaverian Missionary?” Considering our long presence in Sierra Leone, not only local people are asking that question, but also some of our confreres are baffled by this situation when they look to the other xaverian African missions. This is surely an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our history and ministry.
Why so late?
The question of local vocations for our society was not present nor debated when the Xaverians began their work in the northern province of Sierra Leone. It came to the fore in the 80’s and 90’s when several religious Congregations joined us in our missionary work. We felt that there was no urgency to open up to local vocations. First of all because, having been entrusted with the development of the diocese of Makeni as such, we felt that it was our duty to give priority to the task of recruiting and training vocations for the diocesan clergy.
Secondly, we generally felt it was a daunting task to find formators and set up structures in a short time to begin this new adventure, so we preferred to postpone the decision to later times. Finally, the decision to open up and start recruiting and training local vocations depended also on the “conversion” of at least the majority of the members of our region in favour of accepting Sierra Leonians as confreres. This may sound scandalous today, but that is history: Missionaries needing conversion.
Vocation Animation as one priority of the Xaverians in Sierra Leone
Our recent regional chapters underline the importance of vocation animation and the involvement of all Xaverians in this missionary activity. Although there was no a specific plan on how to do it, it is clear that Xaverians were aware of this aspect. And the XI regional Chapter (2010 ) stressed the role for all Xaverians to be involved in the vocation animation. The matter became more serious and practical when the Regional Superior appointed a confrere, full time, as Vocation Director and coordinator.
Challenges in the field of vocation animation
In 2010, I have been asked by the Regional Superior to take up the job of vocation animation. As a method, I decided to go round the schools and parishes to meet young boys and present to them our Charism. Through meeting with them, I encountered a lot of challenges of which I would like to mention some. The main challenge in my task as Vocation Director is to answer the question which I mentioned above. Following the departure of some of our Xaverian students, rumors have spread that it is very difficult to join the Xaverian congregation. Many boys are now a bit afraid to decide to join us, in case they might meet the same fate as their brothers. Apart from this experience, there are some other serious aspects like the WASSCE, Health problems in particular Hepatitis disease which is very common in Sierra Leone. Many people are affected by this disease without knowing it. We have lost some of our senior candidates because of it.
In Sierra Leone, after the civil war, the level of education has further dropped down and this has seriously affected our formation, too. This year (2013-2014), among those I was following and whose families I was visiting, we had at least six candidates who were ready to join our Kissy Community in Freetown. None of them made it in their Wascce and so they have to try again. Most of the students here do not succeed at their first attempt: they have to try at least two or three times in order to get five credits as required. Then those who make it after two or three times will be confronted with the criterion of age. We have tried to help them with books and school material, school fees so that they may have a better chance to pass. All the means we have tried until now have not brought good results. What more can we do? I do not know. In most of the schools, we cannot say or do anything about this situation, as we were able to do before when the schools were controlled by the Catholic Mission. This is discouraging when you apply all your efforts and you get no result that can bring a little bit of consolation.
Our congregation is more demanding about the recruitment of candidates in the sense that before accepting a boy or young man, we have to be sure of his health situation. In the last two years, we have noticed that in Sierra Leone, a lot of young boys are suffering from Hepatitis B and they are not aware of it. It becomes a problem and a disappointment for us when we discover that the candidate is affected by such disease . Other congregations do accept them, but we cannot since our DG and Formators have made the decision not to accept such candidates.
More collaboration needed in our Region
We all know that vocation animation is a task that calls for the collaboration of all the Xaverians in Sierra Leone, but in reality it is only a few who show such interest in our pastoral ministry. We can see this when the formators send our students for the pastoral experience in our parishes. Some confreres do not accept the students in their parishes. The reason they give is that they do not have the time to follow them. The question that I used to ask myself is why can we not make a little bit of sacrifice to promote what is an essential task of our Region? Is it true that we do not have time to follow them or we do not accept them for other reasons which we do not express openly?
I do believe the parishes where we are present could be places where we have the chance to talk about our Charism to the young people, but it seems that many of us fail to show the interest in or be proud to present our Charism to the young boys. Everything is left to the Vocation Director. Sometimes I ask myself what is the role of the Vocation Director. I think that his role is to go and meet young boys who have expressed their desire to join us. It could be easy for me as vocation director to visit them and to know their families, but it is not so. If the confreres who are living in that place and know the young boys made a little bit of effort to prepare them, it would be easy for me to go around and talk to them. Vocation animation becomes easy and fruitful if we take it together as one of our priorities in the region. I believe that things will improve if we call all confreres to a total dedication to vocation animation.
Ebola Deadly Disease outbreak
And now we have the Ebola outbreak: this is also a big problem that badly hinders our vocation animation. Ebola is a big problem that has caused a lot of other problems. It badly affects our pastoral work. As the saying goes: “ Man proposes, God disposes”. We had made a plan to go out, in full gear to improve vocation animation in our Region. This year everything was ready to start going out to other dioceses and parishes for a serious vocation animation. I had planned to reach out to Kenema and Bo dioceses for the first time to do vocation animation. In the end it has not been possible. I am thinking of the future since this year no one is going to school, nobody is taking exams. The Ebola epidemic has brought education to a halt in Sierra Leone, shutting all classrooms across the country, leaving all teachers, children and communities affected, as the disease continues to claim lives. What is the future for our formation in Sierra Leone? We entrust this situation to the One who can do everything.
Conviction and hope
Despite these challenges, our faith tells us that no matter what has happened or is happening to our region, we must try to learn the correct approach. Blaming others is not helpful. Being truthful about ourselves and about our failures is the correct thing to do. I do believe one of the great joys in the life of our region is the agreement of all confreres to prioritize the vocation animation by assigning a confrere full time, who has the possibility of meeting young boys and their families.
This road will not be always easy and will demand the sacrifice of our time. The year of consecrated life becomes an encouragement for us religious to deepen our sense of consecration to Christ. We need to have the conviction that whatever we are doing now, tomorrow it will yield some fruit. Someone must plant and water, others will harvest later.
We all have work to do. We need to ensure that everyone joins together to make the difference that is required to promote vocation animation. It is not a matter concerning one Xaverian but it concerns all Xaverians present in Sierra Leone. Let us go ahead with faith and enthusiasm.