, 25 September, 2020 / 11:13 PM
Statistics have indicated a steady increase in the number of people joining the Priesthood and Religious Life in Africa despite an overall global plunge in those choosing to dedicate their lives to service of God as Priests and Religious.
According to the latest Vatican Statistics based on the Pontifical Yearbook 2019 and the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2017, while the number of candidates to the Priesthood across the globe decreased by 0.7 percent (from 116,160 in 2016 to 115,328 in 2017), Africa and Asia recorded an increase, with Africa contributing 27.1 percent to the world total number of Major Seminarians in 2017.
Information provided by Agenzia Fides in 2018 shows that Africa, which had recorded 13,708 Priests in 2017 reported an additional 198 Priests in 2018. Countries in Europe, America and Oceania recorded a decrease in the number of Priests with Europe showing the biggest plunge by 972 Priests.
But behind these admirable statistics lie testimonies of immense pain, rejection and biggest sacrifices that are made especially by those who have to swim against the currents when they decide to dedicate their entire lives to God’s service as Priests and Religious.
These are the stories of two Seminarians of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritans) who were interviewed by ACI Africa on Friday, September 25, the day they took their perpetual vows in the international missionary Congregation, the eve of their ordination as Deacons in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi alongside 20 others from six African countries.
Disowned by dad, the Story of a 28-year-old Seminarian from Gabon, Central Africa
Sometime in 2011, Owono Ondo Christopher made a life-changing spiritual commitment that has seen him go through unimaginable pain, abuse and rejection, sometimes from those he held dear in his life.
Christopher was 18 and just about to sit for his final examinations in secondary school when he made a firm decision, while praying before the Holy Eucharist, to become a Catholic Priest. He was at a good place in life.
Brought up by grandparents and an underage mother, Christopher had long reconnected with his father and the rest of his relatives. His relationship with his father was also blossoming, until he announced his intention to become a Religious Priest.
But 2011 was not the beginning of Christopher’s interest in Religious life. Growing up in Gabon in Central Africa, he admired Priests who served at St. Michael of Nkembo in the Archdiocese of Libreville where young Christopher served at Mass.
“I used to imitate Priests as they were performing their ministries, especially the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. I was so confident in this behaviour such that people started calling me ‘le Prêtre’, meaning Priest,” Christopher told ACI Africa in an interview on Friday, September 25.
But it was the 2011 experience that was most profound.
“I remember some day before the starting of the national exams, there was the statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary that moved around countries. Saint Michael of Nkembo had the grace of receiving it and they organized a full day of prayer and adoration. I attended it and during my prayer before the Holy Eucharist and the statute of the blessed Virgin Mary, I made an oath with The Lord Jesus, present in the Holy Eucharist,” Christopher narrates.
He continues, “I told Jesus that if he could help me overcome the fears I had in life and give me a mark in my exams that would get me entry into Religious Life, I would not spend any second of reflection or meditation; I would join the seminary and with his divine grace I would become a Priest according to his will.”
By God’s faithfulness, Christopher performed well in his final year exams and joined the Spiritans in 2011.
The Gabonese Seminarian who spoke to ACI Africa on the eve of his ordination as a Deacon said that his decision to join the Priesthood deeply wounded his mother and caused his father to disown him.
Christopher is the first born of his parents who parted ways before he was born and an only child of his mother.
“My mother conceived me when she was 16 and my father at that time was 23. They were young and obviously they ended up separating before I was born,” the Seminarian narrates, and adds, “I grew with my grandparents and only saw my father when I was 10.”
Christopher proceeded to live with his father who loved him and always told him about going to study in Europe. All the while, young Christopher safely guarded his deep childhood desire to become a Religious Priest. He was afraid to break the relationship with his dad by making his desires known. It was one of the fears he prayed about.
“To my father, it was the biggest betrayal when I eventually announced my desire to become a Religious Priest. I remember after that delicate discussion I spent one week with him before I joined the Spiritan house and during that week he did not utter a single word to me,” he recalls.
Later, his dad tried all means to dissuade him. He even sent messengers. When he ran out of options, he dropped the statement that pierced Christopher’s heart.
“I still remember what he told me,” 28-year-old Christopher shares with ACI Africa, and adds, “He said, ‘since you have chosen this life, never expect anything from me and you can look for another father because from now you're no longer my son.’ I was devastated and afraid because of what he said and the uncertainty of life that lay before me. I had found my father and lost him.”
His mother’s heart was stung the most.
“My mother had another relationship and gave birth to my sister who died in 2007. I am her only son and she has begged me with tears to forget about Priesthood and to give her grandchildren,” Christopher narrates.
He sometimes visits his mother and listens as her friends talk about her greatest misfortune, that of having only one child who decided to become a Religious Priest without thoughts of “leaving any legacy behind.”
“My mother’s friends rebuke me. They tell me all sorts of bad things, including how I am inconsiderate. That I am wicked. My mother cries all the time when these things are said,” says Christopher.
“One day some of my family members told me that because I had joined Religious formation, they would drug me and make sure that I sleep with a woman of their choice so that she gets pregnant and that they would raise their child by themselves. I told them that God will never allow such a thing to happen,” he narrates.
With time and a lot of encouragement, Christopher’s father accepted his vocation and has since become his greatest source of support.
As for his mother, he says, “I am praying for her because I know it is very hard for her.”
His other family members have also had a gradual change of heart and are looking forward to a Catholic Priest in their family who will be “the witness of their weddings.”
As for his ordination as a Deacon on Saturday, September 26, Christopher says he has mixed feelings, “a bit on edge, but excited and grateful.”
“I feel anxious and overjoyed at the same time. I ask myself whether am I really ready to receive and live the order of diaconia (service),” Christopher shares with ACI Africa.
He adds, “I am overjoyed because I realize that God is always with me and His merciful love is always upon me.”
“This is the day the Lord has made and I should rejoice and be glad without forgetting that the journey is still going on,” Christopher says some hours before pronouncing his perpetual vows in the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, the Spiritans.
A ‘missionary from childhood’, meet 29-year old Tanzanian seminarian from mixed family
Raymond Joel Riziki is an only child born to his Ugandan mother and Tanzanian father.
Brought up in Arusha in Northen Tanzania, Raymond developed a deep passion for missionary life at a tender age when he served at Mass in St. Simon the Apostle Loruvani Parish of the Archdiocese of Arusha.
“I was only seven when I started serving in Mass,” Raymond narrates to ACI Africa, adding that he was taken under the wing of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (White Sisters) who had their apostolate at the Parish.
“The sisters told me about their founder, Archbishop Charles Lavigerie and I read about him and meditated on his life. From childhood, I knew I wanted to be a missionary,” he says.
But at a tender age of 12, Raymond announced to his parents in Arusha that he wanted to go and live in Uganda where his mother was born. As an only child and receiving tender love, his parents were puzzled at his decision and decided to let him go.
“Life in Uganda was difficult; I had to learn a totally different language in order to communicate in Uganda. But I persisted and within six months, I had mastered the language and proceeded with my studies through the rest of primary school and even high school,” he says.
“Looking back, I usually ask myself how bold anyone could get at such a tender age. How free I was to the point of choosing to go anywhere I wanted to go, away from the safety that my two loving parents provided,” Raymond recalls.
Unlike Christopher who faced rejection when he announced his desire to be a Priest, Raymond’s parents, who also had one child, were more supportive when he announced in 2010 than he wanted to become a Religious Priest, specifically a missionary.
“My mother was overjoyed. My father, however, asked me to think clearly about it and said he would always be supportive,” he shares with ACI Africa in recollection.
His biggest challenge, one that made him consider abandoning formation, was when he was sent for his apostolate in Zanzibar, a place he says was dominated by Muslims who conducted all manner of hostilities on Christians.
“A priest was shot and another had acid poured on back in 2013,” he says, recalling the events that happened three years before he joined one of the Spiritan communities in the semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.
Disclosing his thoughts during his apostolate in Zanzibar in 2016, he adds, “We always lived in fear and I dreaded being sent to such a place at ordination. So, I started thinking of abandoning Religious life.”
It was until he participated in the interreligious dialogue during his apostolate that he gradually overcame the fear.
Sharing his experience of formation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Raymond said that it has been a difficult moment when seminarians were required to “spend their resources sparingly.”
“We encountered many financial challenges and we had to go slow on our food reserves and other necessities. But we always received donations from outside,” he says, and adds, “But even though we spend many months locked away from our families, we are grateful that our everyday Mass privilege has not been taken away from us.”
Ahead of the Saturday, September 26 event when Raymond will be ordained a Deacon by the Holy Father’s representative in Kenya (and South Sudan), Archbishop Bert van Megen, alongside 21 other Spiritans, he regrets that his parents will not be there to witness his “bid day.”
“The only unfortunate thing is that my parents won’t be around to witness my big day because of the ongoing lockdown,” Raymond tells ACI Africa and adds, “But I thank God for making my dream come true and I pray that I will be a faithful servant.”