01-10-2009 - Traces, n. 9


The Bishop of Rumbek tells us about the African Church, which acts like Jesus, suffers with the people, and prays.

by Alessandra Stoppa

“The real Africa, not the one we have in mind…” His hope is that this be the development of the Synod, in which the bishops of the world along with those of Africa tackled the problems of this great continent. “What happened with the first Synod (in 1994) must not happen again; then, there was no real application of what was decided.” Cesare Mazzolari, a priest from Brescia, Italy, has been in Sudan for 28 years, and today is Bishop of Rumbek, the third largest city in the country. He tells us that in many zones the governments would like to reduce the African Church to an NGO in the service of the State. But the Church “resists, and its presence is solely to bring Christ, the only real carrier of forgiveness.”

What is the “real” Africa?
It is an Africa that, contrary to popular belief, refuses the slavery of loans, wants to be independent, and is educating itself. It is short of members, of personnel, so it relies almost completely on the missionary Church, but the conditions differ widely from zone to zone. In northern Sudan, for example, where Catholics are only 3% of the population, the Church is suffering more than in the south, where I am. But even where the Church is freer and can grow, it is far from being able to support other churches. Only in certain zones can it be seen that the African Church could have a more universal scope.

I am thinking of Nigeria, Uganda, the Horn of Africa, and Tanzania.

Would tackling the priorities of the African Church mean dealing with this poverty in resources?
Not firstly. Think of the Synod. The theme is “Peace, justice, and reconciliation.” Reconciliation is the key, and the true protagonists of reconciliation are the oppressed, as was the case for Christ Himself. The oppressed are those who accept the suffering, the blood, the cross, and find themselves once again and forgive. They disarm themselves and become new persons.

So reconciliation is not the outcome of diplomacy and politics?
Reconciliation is a gift of God. Christ is not just the “model” for reconciliation, He is the only real giver of forgiveness. Reconciliation cannot be manufactured; it requires a long, hard, painful process. The history of the Church and of mankind are in the hands of God.

What is the Church’s role in reconcilia-tion?
The presence of the Church in reconciliation is first of all to share the people’s suffering. Throughout these years of conflict and violence, the Church has behaved like Christ. It has suffered with the people and prayed.

How does the African people live the faith?
What I see, where I am, is that people go to the medicine man. If it doesn’t work, they come to us. But their awareness of Christ starts off from a question about us: “Why are you here?” They reach the point of saying that they are Catholics because they feel that they are “children of the mission.”

What does that mean?
There are events that have become permanent in their lives: the first meeting with a missionary, their first math lesson, or Baptism—events that remain for ever and define their life, because our presence, the presence of the Church, is a sign of friendship and hope, a sign that life is possible even there. This is why the Church never gives up and we cannot go away, because they would understand only that we don’t love them. Sudan is an exceptional example because the Church seemed dead but has come back to life.

In what sense?
At the cost of expulsions and persecutions, the Church has destroyed the government’s plan to make the Church an NGO at the service of the State. In 1964, the Khartoum government ordered the expulsion of 300 missionaries. Many people who had recently embraced the faith were killed. The few members of the local clergy left remained faithful to the Church of Rome despite government threats, and many lost their lives for this choice. Only in 1975 could the missionaries return. The Church in southern Sudan seemed dead, but it had remained; with immense courage and in greatest poverty, it had kept the communities faithful. And we who came back in the ’80s reaped the fruits of their blood and sacrifice.

And today?
Since then there has been another war, the civil war of 1983. Many of our missionaries were taken hostage, and the Church did again what Christ does, we prayed for their liberation, and all it was able to do.

It got to work always, where it was able to intervene, with meetings, acts of covenant, dealing even with the Liberation Movement. Above all, the bishops kept writing letters to their Christians, encouraging them to have mercy and forgive even their enemies. They were present among the suffering people. Many bishops had become beggars.

What do you mean?
They would ride in trucks, they traveled through Africa, Europe, and the United States, to bishops’ conferences and embassies—everywhere they could find help. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed, but peace is not coming, because a political process is in course. For us bishops, peace in Sudan is the fruit of the suffering of those mothers who, over the course of 22 years, have offered two million husbands and children.