In 2018, unexpectedly, I was asked for a missionary service in Colombia. It had never crossed my mind to be a missionary in South America, but I didn’t know how to say no and I accepted with great peace and serenity. Mission makes us available to whatever it is. At the age of 77, I packed my bags to start a new chapter. I have always loved Africa. Its people seduce you, attract you, bring joy, they know how to relate and make you feel very comfortable.
But also, in Colombia, I have found wonderful and very welcoming people who allow you to make friends right away. They have a very sweet and cute language and way of speaking, which has made me aware of the harshness with which, sometimes, we speak Spanish. I live in the Simon Bolivar neighbourhood in the capital city of Bogota, and I am the only priest in a community that in Comboni jargon we call CIF, that is, an International Centre for Brothers, the acronym F comes from the Italian ‘Fratelli’, which was made fashionable by Pope Francis with his latest encyclical. At the moment there are only four brothers in training: one from Mozambique, Uganda, Peru and Congo.
The superior of the community is a Central African, Brother Godfroy-Abel, which is very important because most of the young people are African. In addition to ensuring the Eucharist and other services proper to a priest, my job is that of a formator, a term I don’t like. I prefer the word educator. It is about taking out what each often is living internally and helping them discover the wealth that they all possess. In all simplicity, I can say that God has given me the gift of knowing how to be among young people, from whom, moreover, I always learn new things.
In this accompaniment, I start with a very simple but very enriching question: “How are you feeling?” And, from there, they open up little by little to dialogue. It is true that at the beginning we all have our fears for those who are going to meet us, but when you offer them trust, you allow each one to express freely what they are really living. I try to welcome and listen without judging them.
Our religious institute is made up of missionaries with two different and complementary vocations: priests and brothers. In Colombia, I am more aware that we must pay greater attention to the vocation of the brothers because if they disappear, we will not be faithful to the charism of the founder.
At Centre, we give priority to the social and theological dimensions. All the students study at the local Javeriana University and carry out their apostolate among the Afro people. This is very interesting, especially for the African brothers. Afro-descendants of Colombia are discriminated against. Although it is not possible to speak of sociological oppression, they are seen as second-class citizens within the country.
Our African brothers encounter this reality. I remember what one of them told me: “When I return to Africa, I will no longer go with that somewhat angelic vision that we are different. Africa has interesting things such as joy, song, dance or the enthusiasm of the people, but I am aware of where we are and will have to talk about social justice to help escape the oppressions that bind us.”
In addition to vocation work, I try to make commitments outside the community, although the coronavirus has closed many paths for me. On Sundays, we celebrate the Eucharist in a market. It is a makeshift place in the middle of the stalls. It is not a chapel. Chairs are prepared and everyone who passes by joins in to participate in the celebration.
I am also discovering a very rich popular religiosity, but that does not necessarily lead to pastoral commitment. In fact, the social and political dimension is not very present among Christians. In addition, here the Church continues to be in the shape of a pyramid as if the vision of Vatican II that we are all the same even if we develop different services has not yet penetrated. In any case, in this new chapter, I am feeling great.