Brother Hans Eigner, Comboni missionary: “Perseverance in faith”


Monday, October 9, 2023
If the spark of faith catches fire, the church flourishes again. This is what Brother Hans Eigner believes in. He shares with us his thoughts on “faith” in today's world as below. “I have experienced that a Christian community comes to new life as soon as the Word of God, the gospel, is sincerely and joyfully put into practice”, says Bro. Eigner.

Faith is a personal decision based on experience but first of all it is a grace from God. I had to learn this fact that faith becomes strong if it is experienced in community. My experience with the Small Christian Communities in the parish of Kariobangi in Kenya shaped me greatly. I noticed a "special ability to believe in God" through those people among whom I had lived and worked. Shortly before he was killed by the Nazis, the Jesuit Priest Alfred Delp described modern man as “incapable of believing in God”. 

Heaven on earth?

Our lives have generally changed enormously during the past 60 years. This process affected also our faith. If it was obvious up to the recent past to believe in God, in the omnipresent God, today however faith is considered as one option among others. I would say that we became religiously homeless while living in comfortable homes. The new generations are not introduced any more to the Christian faith and we witness the silent exodus of many from the church. The explanations are many, internal and external. Many consider more internal causes of the church, I, instead, want to write about external conditions of faith. Something changed for everyone: for those who believe in God and for those who no longer (are able to) believe in him.

We were too busy over the past decades with our growing prosperity and wellbeing (including interest in sports = self-optimization). With such progress and feasibility people settled comfortably down in this world. This is how we tried to control our world; perhaps also out of fear of missing out on something during our short lifespan. In the past people found consolation in the idea of life eternal, but today it is sought in worldly comfort. Heaven must be here and now. I consider this equally disastrous. I am not talking about individuals, but about society as a whole.

We interpret the world according to the pattern of modern society. The world is therefore at our disposal, it can be controlled and everything is attainable. We developed many means to "redeem" ourselves but in this process heaven is locked down and the world fell silent. As we no longer believe in heaven, we strive to create heaven on earth. But we often experience our limitations and so do others; then we cause chaos in the world. Just looking a climate change, wars and social injustice. Hartmut Rosa, a sociologist from Freiburg, says: “We live in a society that gets stable and steadfast only through moving dynamically. Thus, we need constant growth and acceleration to sustain ourselves. This forces us into a multiple relationship of aggression: such as aggression against nature, aggression against our fellow human beings through competitive thinking and aggression against ourselves through the phenomenon of self-optimization”.

But faith in God doesn't work that way. We cannot find God with our “aggression mode”. God is not available like the goods in a supermarket. Faith is an open response relationship.

God is here and goes with us

My East African experience taught me something different. In Kenya I became aware that the visible and invisible worlds form a unity and that the world is open up to the sky. No area is exempted. Also the experience of belonging is shaping a person in Africa, according to the following proverb: "I exist because we exist." That means that I don't have to be the best, to be rich, the most beautiful; I do not need to constantly compare myself with others, but I belong to a community that supports me and offers me dignity and identity. As people feel referred to God and dependent on each other, they shape their lives with hope and confidence, despite all hardships.

A procession of the way of the cross in Kariobangi parish in Kenya on Good Friday expressed this above mentioned very touchingly. At nine o'clock in the morning, we left the parish church carrying the big wooden cross accompanied by a small group of people. At each Station of the cross, right through the slum, more people joined us and towards the end - after about five hours - more than thousand people had joined us: Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and maybe non-Christians. People felt to be taken seriously by Jesus' way of the cross, because even their way of life is ultimately a way of the cross. The comforting words in the gospel of Matthew "Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened..." (Mt 11:28) became reality. The community that came into being under the cross shaped me and my being a missionary.

I lived and worked in Kariobangi for more than 10 years. To date around 200,000 people live there under inhumane conditions. Poverty has many, often dramatic, faces. One word, however I heard practically every day: "Mungu yupo". This is a Kiswahili word and means: "God is there." This is the whole and wonderful theology of Africa, the faith of Africa. With this attitude, many struggle through life and get the strength to manage their difficulties of everyday life.

God is present and walks on our side. In this way the hope that things may get a little better at some point, increases. How else could broken families, single parents, unemployed people, street children, people suffering from various diseases face the strain and struggle of life?

The only way for many to live from day to the day in without a bank account, without social security, perhaps without knowing what they will get for supper is the assurance God is present and sooner or later things will turn out well – although with many painful cutbacks. This is resilience in the best sense.

Faith re-experienced

I went to Africa for the first time in 1984 as a "do-gooder" and came back as a missionary. In Africa, the people taught me the deeper layers of faith. I like to say: A missionary does not fall from heaven, but he becomes a missionary by getting involved with the people and the word of God. I learned a lot from living with people and my faith was greatly deepened.

We missionaries witness that wherever people accept the gospel with an open heart, society and community life improve and become more human. I experienced that the church is constantly reborn and growing. The parish of Kariobangi in Kenya has a huge parish church but with few priests. It is based on 70 Small Christian Communities (SCC): Neighborhood groups of 30 to 50 people who, in addition to the Sunday service, meet weekly for Bible sharing in their back yards or streets. People read the gospel of the coming Sunday and ask themselves in prayer what is going wrong in their own neighborhood or what should improve: Where are the sick waiting for a visit? Where do neighbors need help? Where are families starving or are unable to send their children to school because they cannot pay the school fees? Where do young people need guidance and support so that they do not end up as street children or as the garbage scavenger?

Strong together

Every missionary is impressed by the power the gospel develops in the hands of the poor and with how much imagination and devotion people live their faith. So it happens that a family that already has five or more children also takes in the children of a deceased neighbor. A lot of help and social work takes place in Africa without much fanfare, without publicity. Many poor people experience injustice as powerlessness. As individuals have no chance of reporting injustice suffered to the police, the idea arose that every Small Christian Community should write down their experiences of injustice. Then the police commissioner was invited to the parish to listen to the written complaints. As missionaries, we build on such and similar experiences. By this, faith becomes a feast that improves life and makes it more beautiful. The saying: “Shared sorrow is half sorrow; shared joy is double joy” became reality. 

To understand the reality of the Church in a new way

Every European parish is faced today with the question: How can we address parishioners in a new way? What must happen so that more people can come to church again? But perhaps we have to ask the question differently: How do the Word and the divine values - namely Christian love - reach the people of today? Even if the number of candidates to the priesthood were to increase in the foreseeable future, it would take another ten years to stop the sharply declining number of priests. At present, a priest often “cares for” five to ten parishes so that for the real pastoral work time hardly remains. Pope Benedict XVI already emphasized in 2010 that "To look for new ways of preaching according to the appropriate present situation of human plight.

The great idea of Bible sharing, which Missio started in many parishes 30 years ago, came to a standstill because the most important step - action - was not implemented. Maybe everything is too complicated and we are afraid to bear witness to our faith in today's society. Could people of faith not set up prayer and Bible groups and other forms of encounter (with the blessing of the official Church) that do not get stuck in the "passive spirituality" but get into "action" among the people in their neighborhood? This is the only way to build up a community of believers able to inspire the church anew. Where the gospel is taken seriously, it leads to the neighbor through empathy. And as soon as the power of the gospel is really experienced, the way to the church or to its community is not far away.

Why do we not, with the help of Small Christian Communities, inject new life to our communities who hardly see a priest anymore? I have experienced that a Christian community comes to new life as soon as the Word of God, the gospel, is sincerely and joyfully put into practice. Being present in the life of our neighbor creates community and precious friendship. Then heaven opens and God is with us.

Bro. Hans Eigner,
Comboni missionary