The fruits, failures, wounds, the new beginnings. Archbishop Nahimana recounts 125 years of the Gospel in Burundi
by Luca Mainoldi
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - "Since the beginning of our evangelization, the family has been the first cell of the Burundian Church", says Msgr. Bonaventure Nahimana, Archbishop of Gitega and President of the Conférence des Evêques Catholiques du Burundi (CECAB), in a interview with Fides.
The Church is celebrating 125 years of evangelization in Burundi. What are the spiritual fruits in this period of time?
The 125 years of evangelization in Burundi is a time of thanksgiving because we see the fruits. We have 8 dioceses with almost 300 parishes, with abundant priestly and religious vocations. There are also numerous social works of the Church: schools, health centers, places of social gathering (foyers sociaux). We hope that this Jubilee may mark a new stage in our evangelization and that is why we have focused it on the Christian family, which is the domestic Church and the first area of evangelization. This is because since the beginning of the Church in Burundi, families have participated a lot in the work of proclaiming the Gospel. Newly baptized parents sent their children to catechism, had them baptized, and taught them prayers.
That is why we wanted from the grassroots community, passing through the parish, the diocese, and then widening our gaze to the national level, to consider the condition and mission of the family. We will organize meetings for families at the parish and diocesan level that will conclude in May in a national forum in Bujumbura, to which representatives from Rwanda and neighboring Congolese dioceses are invited
What other initiatives do you have to celebrate the Jubilee?
As for other Jubilee initiatives, pilgrimages to the first Burundian parish, Muyaga Parish, is planned. But since not everyone will be able to attend, we have planned for these pilgrimages to take place in the first five churches in Burundi so that people can understand how the faith came to our country and later spread throughout the region. We want to build monuments to commemorate the first settlement of the Church in Burundi starting from Muyaga, then Gitega, which was the first diocese as well as the seat of Burundi's second parish, and then Bujumbura, because in the current capital there were the first attempts to proclaim the Gospel, but they were unsuccessful. Pilgrimages and initiatives will also take place in Rumonge, where there was the first missionary presence in 1879, which ended badly because the missionaries, who were the White Fathers, were murdered, on May 4, 1881. As a result of this martyrdom, the missionaries were forced to abound in Burundi for some 20 years. The White Fathers killed at Rumonge were part of Cardinal Charles Lavigerie's first caravan, which had split into two groups. The first had headed towards Lake Victoria, in Uganda, and the other towards Lake Tanganika and precisely to Rumonge which is on its shores.
So the fruits we hope to have from the Jubilee are first of all the renewal of the Christian faith. To remember where our faith came from to see it revived through families. Because from the very beginning faith was handed down from family to family and within families; parents take their responsibility as Christian educators of their children seriously. We then hope to see the beginning of a new stage in the evangelization of our country through missionary openness. Burundi has received much from missionaries. Now the Church of Burundi has priests, religious men and women sent to different countries. We have almost 100 Fidei Donum priests sent to Churches in Europe, America and also Africa. For example, the Archdiocese of Gitega sent priests to Cameroon and Chad. We also have priests in Europe (Spain, France, Austria, Germany and to a lesser extent in Italy). Religious congregations of Burundian origin are also present in other countries. They are visible fruits of the missionary aspect of evangelization.
Can you give some details on the work of the religious congregations born in your country?
There are several religious congregations that were born in Burundi and are present in other countries. The first is the congregation of Soeurs Bene Tereziya, which was founded in 1931 by the first Apostolic Vicar of Burundi, Msgr. Julien-Louis-Edouard-Marie Gorju, is now of pontifical right, and is present in Tanzania, Chad, Italy, and France. The second congregation is that of the Frères Bene-Yozefu, and then there is that of the Soeurs Bene Mariya, and others. In this respect the Church in Burundi has been blessed by the Lord.
As in Rwanda, the State in Burundi has intervened to place rules on the "new religions". But one also notices a return of the faithful to the Catholic Church after an experience in one of these sects....
First of all, there is a strong thirst on the part of the Catholic faithful to drink at the Word of God. Ten years ago the first edition of the Bible came out in Kirundi, the local language, printed in 10,000 copies. It was thought to be more than enough. Since then seven editions have come out and so far the demand cannot be met, testifying to the fact that the faithful need to go deeper into God's Word and Christian formation. The laity are asking to be formed so that they in turn can engage in evangelization. These are positive signs, but it is also a challenge because we need to find the formators and the means to do so. At the same time we see that several Catholics who had joined the sects are returning to the Church. And this is an additional challenge for the formators, especially the catechists whom we thank very much.
From the beginning their role has been essential. It is the catechists who welcome people, prepare them to receive sacraments, and accompany families.
How is the Church in Burundi structured in the area?
The family is the first nucleus of the Church, and is called to be a school of prayer and proclamation of the Gospel. Ten families living on the same hill form a base community, which meets once or twice a week to share the Word of God. In each base community there are services such as Caritas, the commission for catechesis, liturgical commission. In short, at the most basic level all services are represented. Each participant in the grassroots community is asked to live his or her faith by helping each other and being close to each other. In this way the individual grassroots community can take charge of its poor, because you know who is in need, who has no food. Then we have what we call the "Branch", formed by a number of grassroots communities. The latter gather in a chapel to pray, while the "Branch" has a church for the Sunday celebration of the Word presided over by a catechist. At the "Branch" level, lay associations and movements such as Catholic Action and Scouts operate. It is a "branch" of the parish that is made up of 4 or more "Branches" and is directed by one or more priests.
Has this territorial structure enabled the Church to heal the wounds of the civil war?
This is a good question. Yes, it is precisely in grassroots communities that people can get to know each other, talk, listen to each other and confront the problems they are experiencing. There are grassroots communities where actually people have reconciled. For example on the issue of receiving refugees returning to Burundi. In the villages from where they had fled, they are asked, through the grassroots communities, to prepare to welcome them and then to help them integrate into social life. In the various "Justice and Peace" commissions in the church network there are people in charge of peaceful conflict resolution.