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Catechists in Troubled African Countries Paying with Their Lives for Love of Apostolate

A Catechist in Uganda takes refugees from neighbouring South Sudan through a class/ Credit: Aid to the Church in Need

Catechists serving in a number of African countries experiencing violent conflicts are risking their lives and the lives of their family members to help in evangelization, Catholic pastoral charity organization, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, has established.

In a report published Wednesday, May 19, the leadership of the charity organization that works in countries experiencing religious persecution notes that some of these Catechists work in regions that have no Priests and are therefore the “back born of the Church” in those places, putting their work ahead of their own personal wellbeing.

“The Catechists in charge of pastoral services in regions where there are no Priests, sometimes even pay for their courage and devotion with their lives,” ACN Director of projects, Regina Lynch, says in the May 19 report.

The ACN official highlights a particular moving example of Philippe Yarga from the Catholic Diocese of Dori in Burkina Faso who was killed by terrorists last year.

According to the leadership of the Pontifical charity organization, Catechist Yarga was responsible for the coordination of pastoral services in the Eastern part of Burkina Faso at the border with Nigeria before he met his death on 16 February 2020.

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The late Catechist is survived by seven children, the youngest of whom was born six weeks after his death, ACN leadership narrates.

“The Catechists in Burkina Faso and in other countries of the Sahel region are directly affected by the terrorist threat and are sometimes forced to flee with their families in the darkness of the night,” Lynch says, and adds that one of ACN’s relief projects in Burkina Faso focuses on helping 18 displaced Catechists and their families to survive.

ACN also supports the apostolate of Catechists in many other countries worldwide and has approved aid for 18,000 Catechists across the globe, most of them from Africa and Asia.

According to information provided on the ACN website, the Catholic entity funded 20 projects to supply catechists with the technical equipment they need to carry out their work last year.

Other funding went into purchase of materials the Catechists need to provide pastoral care services and religious instruction.

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ACN is also supporting 35 other projects focused on the training and further education of Catechists in 18 countries, the leadership of the charity organization says.

“Our project work in more than 140 countries has shown us that in many places of the world, Catechists are the backbone of the Church,” the ACN projects Director says, adding that the apostolate of Catechists is especially significant in remote regions of Parishes where Priests take long to visit.

The Catechists are also instrumental in countries where war and persecution make it difficult to carry out Parish work. In such places, Lynch says, Catechists are “contact, helper and pastoral care worker, all in one.”

The organization has also highlighted the case of Catechist John Joseph Gazi who is carrying out his apostolate at a mission in Uganda.

Catechist Gazi is originally from South Sudan, the nine-year-old East-Central African nation that is still experiences conflict in spite of all efforts to establish peace.

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He has told ACN that most of his family members were not able to escape alive in the conflict.

“My father, my sister and my brother were all murdered. It all happened in the space of a few minutes,” he tells ACN.

He was able to flee into the neighboring country of Uganda, where more than one million people are living in refugee camps. These are people who are living with scars they got from witnessing the killing of their loved ones. Most are in constant need of revenge.

Catechist Gazi has become a symbol of peace among the refugees, teaching them about healing and forgiving their enemies.

Making reference to the refugees, including those who were forced to become child soldiers, the South Sudanese Catechist says, “Many are filled with hate and thoughts of revenge. I talk to them about forgiveness.”

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ACN reports that Catechist Gazi has completed his training and now prefers to call himself an “evangelist”, bringing the Good News to the poor and desperate.

He was supported by the charity organization to undergo training at the Emmaus Centre in the Catholic Diocese of Kasana-Luweero, near the Ugandan capital city, Kampala.

“At the centre (Emmaus), young people are trained to heal the wounds inflicted on the souls of their people and to stand by them as they overcome diverse hardships, another ‘battle’, but a completely different and more promising one than the embittered fighting raging in his homeland,” ACN reports.

Catechist Gazi professes, “I am now a soldier for Jesus. I am fighting to return souls to God… Thanks to my training as a Catechist, which was made possible by ACN, I am now able to bring hope and love to my people.”

In an Apostolic letter “Antiquum ministerium” issued May 11 to institute the ministry of Catechists, Pope Francis notes that the ministry in the Church is an ancient one, dating back to the roles that were performed by “teachers” in the New Testament.

“The history of evangelization over the past two millennia clearly shows the effectiveness of the mission of Catechists,” Pope Francis says, and explains, “Bishops, priests and deacons, together with many men and women in the consecrated life, devoted their lives to catechetical instruction so that the faith might be an effective support for the life of every human being.”

Establishing the lay ministry of Catechist, the Holy Father invited all Episcopal Conferences “to render effective the ministry of Catechist, determining the necessary process of formation and the normative criteria for admission to this ministry.”