By Roberta Sciamplicotti
LUENA, Angola, MARCH 20, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Angola, a country attempting to leave the nightmare of war in its past, expects much from the Pope’s visit, says Salesian Father Luigi De Liberali.
Father De Liberali is pastor of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Luena (eastern Angola), the largest Salesian parish in the world, covering more than 50,000 square kilometers [32,000 square miles], but with a low population density. Over a third of the city of Luena is rural, consisting of more than 160 communities. These are difficult to access given the few existing roads, often in a poor state due to the civil was that lasted almost 30 years and ended in 2002.
In this interview with ZENIT, the missionary spoke about the present ecclesial situation in Angola and the hopes roused by Benedict XVI’s visit to the country that began Friday and will end on Monday.
Q: How long have you been in Angola and what has been your personal experience to date?
Father De Liberali: I am a Salesian priest and I have been in Angola for a short time — I was a missionary in northeast Brazil for 18 years — but I live in a Salesian community that has over 25 years of experience in this land.
My work is itinerant. I visit the different rural communities, spread over a territory that is as large as the north of Italy. On my first visit, I found a chapel with an image of Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms and I entrusted my mission to her, to be able to take Christ to whomever I met.
Given that we are living the Pauline Year, I also thought of St. Paul and invoked him to be my guide and to teach me to be a good itinerant, living with his missionary ardor and learning how to form Christian communities.
Q: What is the situation of the Church in Angola?
Father De Liberali: The situation is very different in the various dioceses of the country. The civil war, which lasted almost 30 years — from the proclamation of independence from Portugal in 1975 to 2002 — has clearly marked two periods: one of persecution and one of participation.
Of increasing importance has been the action of the community’s coordinator — the catechist — who has kept the faith alive even in places that were hard for a priest to reach once or twice a year.
There are, instead, areas where the Catholic Church has been present for only a few years, and has yet to evangelize well, such as the one I am in, in the province of Moxico, in the east of the country.
In general the structures of the Church — Caritas, schools, health centers — work well and have given and continue to give an important support to the people’s social growth. Of note is sensitization on the problem of woman — through groups called “PROMAICA” — reflection on human rights, and the endeavor for adult literacy — with the “Don Bosco method.”
Q: To what degree is the faith inculturated? Is it well integrated in the local context or is it regarded as something “external” to traditional African values?
Father De Liberali: The Church is well integrated in the culture and values of the Angolan people, especially when speaking of a God who wants life and peace.
We could say that the Church has succeeded in entering people’s lives: she doesn’t look from outside, but supports the nation’s political/cultural development.
The people participate in celebrations of the Mass, especially through singing and the offertory. One of the loveliest customs in Eucharistic celebrations, which I have found here in Angola, is called “tambula,” an offertory procession in which the faithful present their own gifts, bringing to the altar country products, food, chickens and household utensils. At the end of the celebration, these gifts are given to the priest or to a poor family; it is a small but great sign of generosity that poor communities are also able to carry out in a concrete way.
In regard to singing, it must be said that the people sing beautifully, and, in singing, are able to transmit their soul.
Q: What are the challenges facing the country and what are the signs of hope?
Father De Liberali: The main challenges are education, health, the reconstruction of structures destroyed by the war — roads, bridges — the recovery of agricultural and industrial production and the redistribution of wealth.
In regard to the signs of hope, in the first place I underline the peace that all wish to continue to build and the will not to let what has been achieved to date die. Along with this are religious liberty, the path of political democratization through elections and the great potential of young people.
Q: How has the Pope’s visit been received and what special preparations were made for this event?
Father De Liberali: The news was well received by all segments of society. Radio and television published it a lot, inviting people to participate in the different meetings with the Pope and to listen to his message of peace and love.
In the preceding days, every night the national television news program presented the initiatives of the different Angolan dioceses. Catecheses were prepared — pamphlets and a book — to know the Pope better; giant posters and prayers have been printed to receive him, and prayer vigils were organized.
Q: What hopes does this visit rouse?
Father De Liberali: There are many expectations. All hope that Benedict XVI’s visit will confirm even more the country’s desire for peace and direct the path of Christian communities.
We hope the Pope will pronounce words of encouragement to the poorest and neediest, that he will open the hearts of all to Christ’s words, that he will give a missionary impetus to the Church in Angola, and that this visit will show a Church that is united and in solidarity with the people.