The Church: Standing Her Ground in Uganda

Bishop of Kotido on Evangelization, Education and Development

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ROME, JAN. 27, 2012 ( The bishop of Kotido explains that his diocese is the poorest in the central African country of Uganda. And he admits that he doesn’t much like being a bishop. But with his missionary heart, he has outlined the main priorities of his Church and is working step by step. What does he say he needs the most? People to help him.

Marie Pauline Meyer for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Bishop Giuseppe Filippi, a 66-year-old Comboni missionary originally from Italy.

Q: Can you describe the life of the people in your diocese?

Bishop Filippi: Yes, they are very, very poor. Their only concern is survival — to continue living day to day — and most of the time they are starving. The World Food Program supports them. Their diet is made of milk from cows and goats as well as meat and blood; they drink blood because the milk of the cow is not enough to sustain them. 

Q: Do you have many tribes in your diocese? 

Bishop Filippi: There are two main tribes and two smaller tribes. The biggest is the Jabwor, which occupies the southern part of the diocese. They are generally in a better area where there are mountains, and the rainy season is a bit longer, so they can cultivate different crops to survive. Another major tribe is the Krimojong divided into two groups, the Jie and the Dodos. They are [sustained through caring for animals] but they are very strong and powerful. Unfortunately they are armed with guns and they use them to steal or raid the cattle of neighboring tribes. This creates tensions and difficulty among themselves — but that is their pattern of life, and unless the government and the institutions are able to provide an alternative way of life, this will go on. 

Q: Are these tribes Catholics or what are their beliefs? 

Bishop Filippi: Most of these people believe in traditional religions. There is a common element in their religions, which is the belief in one God, and that God is the creator and the giver of everything, which is good. They also believe in many spirits which have the power to intervene in their lives: the spirit of the river, of the dry season, rainy season, and so on. They have to deal with all these spirits to avoid all the troubles that may come from them. They also have the spirits of the ancestors that are to be obeyed. All these create a bit of fear. Generally, these tribes are more materialistic than any other of the Ugandan tribes because of their physical strength, power and the capacity to cope with the hard life, so they do not practice much their traditional religion except during great need, great suffering, or events with which they are incapable of coping. 

Q: What is your work like? 

Bishop Filippi: My work is evangelization. People generally welcome the teaching of the Church, though they are resistant to conversion. They perceive our teaching as attractive and very appealing to their needs. Their resistance is their perception that to be a Christian they have to change their lives, which means that they have to stop raiding the cattle of their neighbors. They have to stop killing and they find it a contradiction. They are not able to give up their pattern of life in order to take up a new pattern of life, which is less productive because if they live in peace the question arises, how do we survive? 

Q: So peace means poverty?

Bishop Filippi: Yes, so, for this reason the Catholic Church and the other churches try to provide the Karimojong people with alternative ways of living, like agriculture and the development of other resources like the Arabica gum — but it is not easy. Men are particularly resistant to conversion. They do not despise religion. They listen. They want to know about it, but they leave conversion to the end of their lives when they are elderly, when they are no longer warriors, when they can live in peace and are in need of peace. 

Q: Is the Catholic faith the largest community in your diocese? 

Bishop Filippi: Yes, it is the largest because the presence of the Catholic mission is very strong, strong in various ways, and in number. We can attribute this almost totally to the Catholic schools. The people have a great trust in the Catholic Church, which cannot be said about other institutions like the government or NGOs. 

Q: What are your priorities in your diocese? 

Bishop Filippi: I have three basic problems. The first is evangelization. We need to find a common way to evangelize people, not just proclaiming [the faith] and making people part of our diocese, but to help them find their identity. So we are working hard to set up a center of formation in order to form all types of leaders, particularly geared to lead the Christian community to a better life. The second priority is education. Education is a challenge. 

Q: Why? 

Bishop Filippi: It is not an issue of few schools. We have enough schools. It is the standard of the schools, which is very low. We are marginalized because we are in the periphery of the country and most of the teachers allocated to our schools are the rejects. The government controls the teachers and often the teachers engage in business or are not as committed. My purpose is not to reject or dismiss them but to try to help them to become more motivated to do their job. I have no other choice. 

Q: And the third issue?

Bishop Filippi: The third is human development. We need to be realistic. Starvation has been a normal way of life for several years. Many NGOs have good will and a desire to help these people to improve the standard of their lives and the various NGOs come in and think that they can solve the problems in two or three years, but in Karimojo it takes 20 years. I would like to review the old system of assisting our people to find out ways that are more adapted to the place and take into consideration the nature of the people: their own resources their own capability, even if it means that we have to work for 20 years before we achieve something. 

Q: You are an Italian missionary. How have the people accepted you? 

Bishop Filippi: There are some people who are not happy and that is understandable, however, most people I see are happy. I, of course, have been there a long time now. I went there in 1978 and learned the language and I think I understand the culture quite well. So I feel at home. This understanding of the culture helps me to have a greater trust in them, and it is reciprocal. 

Q: Can you give specific examples of these targets you have set for them? 

Bishop Filippi: For example schools, alternative ways of surviving, the search for a way of making Arabica gum from the Acacia tree, the source of life, adult education. We promise a little bit and we do it. Recently, we had cholera so I helped those who were sick and told them how to avoid cholera, and for nurses who abandoned their post, I paid those who came back. I did it and they see that I am concerned with them, not myself as such, but the Church. The Church stands her ground, she does not run away, does not escape from difficulties and is ready to help. That is a way of creating trust. 

Q: You sound as though you have been a bishop for a long time. 

Bishop Filippi: No, I only became a bishop on Dec. 19, 2009, so I am a novice. I am still learning but the work compels you to do something, to act and to move and involve people, to listen, to see what is possible. 

Q: Do you like being a bishop? 

Bishop Filippi: No. I am a missionary and my previous training was studying as an engineer and working as an engineer for several years in a big factory in Italy. And then, following my missionary spirit that was given to me by my mother, because when I was still a child my mother used to talk to us about the mission. In addition, when we complained because we were quite poor — it was just after the Second World War — my mother used to say you canno
t complain because people in Africa are suffering more than you, so you have no right to complain. This became part of my training and with this background I feel that I am equipped and I am prepared to work with people, less to be on a chair or in a role where there is honor and glory. This kind of thing is not for me. In a way I am happy to be the bishop of Kotido because it is the most miserable diocese in Uganda. So it is the right diocese for me, but I do not like being a bishop very much. People still call me Father. 

Q: Are you comfortable in Uganda? 

Bishop Filippi: As a missionary working in different places in different situations, and with different responsibilities, I have developed an attitude to be present where I am. When I was in Zambia, I set aside Uganda; when I returned to Uganda in 2005 I set aside Zambia. As a missionary I learn to get in involved with the people where I am sent. And if I am there, it is as if I’ve never been anywhere else. 

Q: Your diocese is in the north of Uganda. What is your experience with the Lord’s Resistance Army? 

Bishop Filippi: The rebels attacked my mission. In 1998, some 300 rebels came and looted the mission completely, destroyed the dispensary, looted the leprosy section. They took 50 of our people and killed five or six. I experience personally the cruelty of these people. In 2007, the Lord’s Resistance Army moved to Congo. The reason for this departure was due to the peace treaty in Sudan and this cost Joseph Kony, the rebel leader who was a refugee in Sudan, the loss of support from the government in the north of Sudan. The rebel camps in Uganda have slowly been dismantled and we can say that Uganda is enjoying the peace. 

Q: Bishop Filippi, what is your episcopal motto? 

Bishop Filippi: My motto is «Your Word is Peace» because there is no permanent peace between the various groups. There are the constant skirmishes among them. And peace meetings do not amount to long-term peace agreements. The real peace will not be a result of these peace meetings but will only occur when people consider a change of heart, when it becomes similar to the heart of Christ. For this reason, I’ve put on my coat of arms the Bible with two drops of blood and water in memory of Christ on the Cross being pierced by the lance and out of it came blood and water. That is the life in the spirit and the human life coming together. I talk to the people this way: unless we get the life of the spirit through our human life, then peace will never come. 

Q: What can the Universal Church do? 

Bishop Filippi: My diocese is poor and the Universal Church has sent me help. I feel that the Church supports me. I can get along with the little resources, but what I really need is people because people are the main resource. If you do not have people, then money is useless. I do not need that much money because I do not have enough people to work with. It is like building a cathedral in the desert and they do not function without the people for support. We need committed people to serve, lead and work with them with confidence and trust in God. 

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

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