The Only Bishop in Gambia

Interview With Irish Missionary, Bishop Robert Ellison

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BANJUL, Gambia, AUG. 23, 2010 ( The Church in Gambia is ready to be self-sufficient, with a good number of native priests and religious. The task that remains is finding adequate funding, says the bishop of the only diocese in the country, Banjul.

Bishop Robert Ellison is the pastor of the entire Gambian nation, which is nestled within Senegal and is slightly less than twice the size of Delaware.

Gambia is almost entirely Muslim — 90% — but that is one of the reasons the local Church has so much to offer the world, the bishop says: It is an example of two major religions living side by side in the spirit of respect and understanding.

In this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop Ellison speaks about his missionary country, and how he himself discovered his vocation to evangelize.

Q: You are the only bishop of Gambia and you are also a missionary. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Bishop Ellison: Well, it’s not because I’ve been a missionary in Gambia since the 70s. When I arrived in Gambia in 1979, just after my ordination, there were about 22 Irish Spiritan Missionaries. I’m a missionary of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit; we call ourselves “Spiritans” for short and I’m a member of the Irish province of the Spiritans. There were about 22 Irish Spiritans; at that time there were no Gambian priests at all. The first Gambian priests of this modern era as we call it, were ordained in 1985. Now there were two before, going back to the early part of the 20th century. One of them died rather early due to fever and the other died naturally at a later date.

Q: You are now a bishop in Gambia and you belong to the Spiritan Fathers. They have always been in Gambia. Why is that?

Bishop Ellison: There were no other priests as I said; now there were no other congregations probably because Gambia is such a small country. There is only one diocese and most of the people are Muslims. There are about 40,000 to 50,000 Catholics in the whole country and in the diocese.

Q: Was it your congregation who first came to Gambia and evangelized?

Bishop Ellison: Yes that is correct. We actually arrived there in 1849 three years before our founder died in 1852. The men who came first were from France because we were founded in France but by the end of the 19th century the Irish missionaries began to arrive because the province was founded in Ireland from France to cater for the foreseen needs of the Anglophone countries in West Africa. Our founder — the charism of our founder or his general orientation or vision of what he wanted our congregations to do — was to be involved in the work in evangelizing particularly the slaves who were liberated from the West Indies and from America with the abolition of slavery; active abolition of the slave trade in 1837, he started our congregation in 1845 and the first missionaries arrive in 1849. That’s how the Spiritans became involved with the work in Gambia.

Q: Had you heard of Gambia before being sent there?

Bishop Ellison: Oh! I did, I did. I was born in Dublin, in Ireland, in Balckrock a town six miles south of the capital and I went to a primary and secondary school run by the Spiritans in Ireland. So from the age of six, if you like, I began to be immersed in what the Spiritans were doing not only as educators in Ireland but also as missionaries in Africa.

Q: Is that when you decided to become a missionary?

Bishop Ellison: Well let me put it this way, at the age of six I wasn’t thinking of Gambia or anything like it but I presume that the impact or the influence of the priests who taught — in those days there were some lay teachers but most were priests — some of those had come back from the missions and some actually had been in Gambia. So by the time I finished my schooling in Blackrock College, Williamstown, County Dublin, at the age of 17 my mind was pretty clear about what I wanted to be. […]

Q: Looking back would you do it all over again?

Bishop Ellison: Oh, I would most certainly but I wouldn’t like to go through it all again.

Q: Have you been able to be a real missionary in Gambia?

Bishop Ellison: I’ve had many, many different experiences of mission in Gambia. When I arrived, the bishop at that time, the first Irish Spiritan bishop, Bishop Maloney, asked me to go into our high school in Gambia: St. Augustine’s High School. We sometimes compare it to Blackrock College in Dublin; it was a very, very well run, disciplined school. So I taught there for one year. Then I had experience in the cathedral parish. I was at that time, early on — I was only two or three years in Gambia when I was sent to Rome for this course on Islam. It was the first time that the Anglophone part of this course in the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies was open. There were only four students at that time. I was one of those four, myself, a Franciscan sister from Pakistan, a priest from Tanzania, and a priest from Nigeria. So we got a special treatment.

Q: How did this help you when you went back to Gambia, which is 90% Muslim?

Bishop Ellison: Yes 90% Muslim. I felt much more at ease and more comfortable in meeting these people because I knew that … well maybe they didn’t know as much as I did, some of them, about their own religion but I knew that there were some things that they were trying to live day by day. Now I imagine certain areas but I suppose the more obvious ones you will experience as a visitor or as a missionary in the country are the practices of the Muslim faith. You can not live in a Muslim country like Gambia without knowing that they are up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning because the call of the muezzin, the man calling the people to morning prayer before dawn; you cannot sleep on. […]

Q: Does it help you in your own prayer life?

Bishop Ellison: Exactly, you’ve taken the words out of my mouth. It is an immediate reminder that, at least as a priest, I should be faithful to the 5 times a day a priest is supposed to pray from the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours as we call it. And I felt that here was an opportunity to encourage and to inspire our own Catholics and our Christians too: Your Muslim brothers and sisters, most of them are very faithful to their prayers, so there is room there for you to learn from that, not in a sense of competition, but as an encouragement for you to worship God in the same way.

Q: Does the Catholic Church have the possibility to evangelize in Gambia?

Bishop Ellison: If you say evangelizing, yes we are evangelizing all the time but not proselytizing, and I think we have to be clear about this. The Muslims in Gambia, by and large, are a very peaceful people. They are moderate Muslims. They want peace. They respect what we are doing, but there are limitations and there are boundaries. Once or twice we have opened missions in different parts of the rural areas with the aim of evangelizing the young people through our education facilities.

Q: What happens?

Bishop Ellison: It has been shown that … sometimes these would be secondary schools for boys or girls … and we may be getting the permission to baptize them but as soon as they would leave school and return to their own village and their communities or whatever it is, they would almost automatically go back to the Muslim faith because the social, the community pressure is there. Now, it doesn’t mean that none of them who are baptized actually continue in their Christian faith but the vast majority didn’t.

Q: Do you feel, being a missionary, that it’s a suffering that you cannot evangelize these people?

Bishop Ellison: No, I think there is far more to evangelizing — proclaiming the good news of the Gospel — than merely wanting to add more adherents to our own Catholic institution
and some people might not quite agree with that, but I think the main goal or purpose of Jesus in his work of preaching the Gospel was to convert people in the heart first of all. Look at the numbers of people, the multitudes he spoke to, but we’re told that at the end of his earthly life, there were about 120 disciples. He must have spoken to thousands. Many of them followed him. They wanted to hear what he was saying, but they did not become formally his disciples. I think the most important thing that the Catholic Church can do in situations like this is: First of all, to respect the religious values of a religion like Islam; try and encourage them to be faithful to their own values and give witness to those values through our own lives, our own faith. The values of love, compassion, forgiveness, understanding and respect for each other. Leave the rest to God and the Holy Spirit.

Q: You have now been a bishop for two years. That means that you really have to be an example. How do you do that?
Bishop Ellison: Well, I don’t think I do it any differently as a bishop than I did as a priest, except that now, as the chief shepherd of the diocese both as regards to priests, the religious sisters and the laypeople, I must try and encourage them and inspire them to work along those lines. I think that is the real vision, let’s say an important part of the vision of our mission in a country like Gambia: to be faithful to our own beliefs in Christ and let that testimony speak. Some do come and ask for baptism, some who are adults, not many but we don’t force the issue.

Q: Gambia is very small and surrounded by Senegal with a higher Catholic population, about 6%, slightly more. What is the relationship of Catholics in Gambia and Senegal?

Bishop Ellison: Let’s say ordinary informal relationships between families, tribes and people in the two countries because the peoples of the two countries are identical ethnic groups […] on both sides of the borders. The only thing that has divided the two countries is that one was colonized by the French and the other by the British and that has caused a little bit of a divide, but the families are fully integrated on both sides of the border and there is a lot of cross traffic.

Q: What is the percentage of Catholics and Muslims with these tribes?

Bishop Ellison: In Gambia, the largest group is the Mandingos (Mandinkas). Now the Mandingos are a very poor tribe that originated from Portuguese Guinea — Guinea Bissau. They migrated toward Gambia because they thought that there were more opportunities there for farming or business or for life in general. They have now become the majority members of our Church. In general very few become Muslims because they neither drink palm wine, which is not allowed, and they eat pork so Muslims will not encourage them to be Muslims.

Q: What are the relations between the Catholic Church in Senegal and Gambia?

Bishop Ellison: The relations have improved enormously, I’d say, in the last 10 to 20 years because as more young Gambians become priests, the priests naturally relate with each other much more easily than did the older Irish missionaries, because the language was a much bigger barrier in those times. Most of the older missionaries on either side of the border … either the French didn’t speak in English or the Irish didn’t speak French. So it doesn’t lend to a kind of interrelationship. But now that the Gambian priests will speak the languages of the Senegalese priest by and large, there is no language problem and of course they mix more easily. Since I became bishop, I found I got a number of invitations from the Senegalese bishops to celebrate my ordination, because I do speak French … or I’m able to manage in French let’s say.

Q: Would you wish it one day that a Gambian priest will take over your position?

Bishop Ellison: Of course. It is not a question of want; it simply will be I presume. There is no question about it. There is nobody left behind me almost if you want to put it that way. I would have said that even two or three years ago that there were expectations that maybe the previous bishop appointed would have been a Gambian priest, but somehow the Holy Spirit moved in there and the Holy Father thought otherwise.

Q: What can the Gambian Church offer the universal Catholic Church?

Bishop Ellison: I would prefer to change the question slightly: not just the Catholic Church universally. I think Gambia is a very, very small country but it has one marvelous thing to export. I can’t find the right word.

Q: What is it?

Bishop Ellison: It is the spirit of two major religions especially Christianity and Islam living side by side in the spirit of respect and understanding. You know the world that we live in is so torn apart, so divided, and in so much conflict particularly in the Christian and Muslim world that Gambia has something to give witness to; it is a living example that this is possible. Most of that is due to the nature of the Gambian people. They are a peace-loving people. They call themselves the smiling coast of West Africa and there is a lot of truth in that.

Q: What are the challenges for you and the Catholic Church in Gambia?

Bishop Ellison: The great challenge that exists at this moment is its history because we are moving almost completely to an authentic local Church or particular Church. The Gambian priests and sisters are there in plenty. The catechists have always been Gambians. The Church in Gambia must now begin to face the need for more and more self-reliance. It already has that self-reliance in its wonderful young personnel. It lacks that self-reliance in terms of finance and funding. In the year 1990 about 20 of the priests in the diocese were expatriates, most of them Irish missionaries and there were five Gambian priests, all young.

Q: What is the situation now?

Bishop Ellison: Today there are nearly 20 Gambian priests and there are four or five expatriate Irish missionaries kind of moving toward retirement age. So it’s a complete reversal in 15 years. It was also easier for the missionary at that time to, 15 years ago, get funding in Europe either at a personal level or at the official level; that is no longer available. So if we are going to maintain our structures, major work commitments and contributions to education in the country — kindergarten, primary, middle schools and high schools, we have the personnel and the enthusiasm but the funding is becoming a problem to sustain and maintain the structures that we have. If a priest is not mobile he cannot … he does use the car for his ministry as a priest but he is using it for development and education work. And the agencies in the so-called Christian Europe are very reluctant to give money that they think is going to evangelizing needs and I think that is very sad. You cannot talk evangelizing without also doing development work and education work. It would be a very narrow minded understanding of evangelization. Neither can you talk about strictly development work if it’s not integral development work whereby you’re training not only to help the body or the material needs of the community but that there are values like honesty, justice, forgiveness, and understanding to help people live in peace. So much of the development work in Africa has not gone forward as it should because there isn’t peace in so many of these countries. There is no peace until religious values are respected.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for “Where God Weeps,» a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. 

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