In Africa's 'Warm Heart'

Bishop Tells of Church in Malawi Growing, Needing Priests

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ROME, FEB. 10, 2012 ( The southeast African country of Malawi is largely agricultural and known as the «warm heart of Africa,» since hospitality is an essential custom in Malawi. The population, over 10 million, is 80% Christian and 14% Muslim. The Archdiocese of Blantyre is in the southern part of the country, extending from east to west and bordered by Mozambique on both sides.

Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Bishop Monfort Stima, the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Blantyre.

Q: How would you describe the population distribution in Malawi?

Bishop Stima: Malawi is composed of isolated villages often linked by only dirt roads. During the rainy season one can hardly reach the people. A motorcycle is sometimes the only transportation with which one is able to get to the people. I rode a motorcycle for eight years as a young priest, but as I was getting older, I managed to get a car, which I now use on those dirt roads. 

Q: You have been recently ordained a bishop. What was your reaction when you heard of your appointment? 

Bishop Stima: I was surprised because I never thought that I would be appointed the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Blantyre. I am 52 and I thought that I’m old enough now simply to continue working as a priest. It was a shock. I had to pray about it. For the past 10 years I have been involved in the administration, I have been the Vicar General and I knew what it means to be in a position of leadership, but being a bishop was something different because now I become the father of the priests and my fellow Christians. 

Q: Your name is Montfort Stima. Can you give us a history of your unique name? 

Bishop Stima: The name Montfort comes from Louis Montfort, a priest from France. He started the congregation of the Montfort Fathers. The Montfort Fathers were the first to come to our diocese to evangelize. The name Montfort is often used in the villages. My parents thought that such a name was good to give to me. 

Q: Did they have aspirations for a future religious life? 

Bishop Stima: Definitely not, they did not know anything. My parents never went to school so they did not know anything [about the religious life]. They had no idea. 

Q: What is your episcopal motto and why did you choose it? 

Bishop Stima: My episcopal motto is «Feed My Sheep.» Throughout my ministry as a priest, I had a passion for pastoral work. I had a calling to be a pastor and immediately after I became a bishop-elect I thought: «I have always done this and I have this passion. What would be the best motto and immediately ‘Feed My Sheep’ came to my mind.»

Q: Most Malawians are dependent on agriculture and yet Malawi struggles with food security. Can you tell us a little bit about this challenge of poverty and food security? 

Bishop Stima: Malawi depends on agriculture. We do have the resources but when you are dependent on agriculture, you also depend on God gracing you with a lot of rain. We are not yet into the technology of irrigation. There have been years where, indeed, we have been challenged by drought. The current government has been working hard to find alternatives and they have encouraged people to get into some form of irrigation projects, though still not much. What has helped, now and over the past three years is the government subsidy for fertilizers for some poor families. This has helped a lot. 

Q: Another challenge, which has an impact on agricultural policy, is the growth of the urban centers. Why is the urban center growing so rapidly? What is the impact of this growth on agricultural lands? 

Bishop Stima: People who have no formal education, particularly those from the villages, seek a better life in the urban centers. This contributes to their expansion. It is, however, the duty of the government to set up a system to allow the villagers to stay where they are by creating an environment for the villagers to earn an income and by creating a market for the village produce allowing the villagers to earn some income without them migrating to the urban centers. 

Q: There is, of course a further challenge, when these people go to the cities without skills: they find themselves on the streets. 

Bishop Stima: Exactly, and some people then commit crimes to get food. 

Q: In Malawi over 80% are Christians and approximately 5% belong to traditional African religions. What do we understand about traditional African religion in Malawi? 

Bishop Stima: They believe in one God but also believe in spirits; spirits of their parents and forefathers. These spirits act as intercessors to the one God. Most of them have shrines where they offer sacrifices. Most Malawians know something about the Christian God, apart from the Muslims, but there is a small group who are not converted to Christianity. They still believe in ancestral worship, traditional gods and beliefs. If you are a pagan and want to be Christian, you have to give up this life, although sometimes you will find a good Christian who goes to church, prays, and is perhaps an elder but if something bad happens to them they immediately think someone has caused it. They then rush to the traditional beliefs and try to find out who has done that. That is a kind of syncretism. They should simply go and pray to God. 

Q: …and not to seek revenge…

Bishop Stima: Exactly. That is the kind of belief we are fighting for — that people should know that nobody causes [bad things] in terms of witchcraft. You have to believe in God who will protect you. Similarly when a person gets sick, people also rush to traditional healers or witchcraft practices…

Q: Catholics make up four million of Malawi’s 13 million. The Catholic Church is growing. How many baptisms would you have, for example in a year? 

Bishop Stima: In most of the parishes in which I have been, there are over a thousand baptisms a year. These are just children. For adults, most likely around 200 to 300 — and this is once they finish their instructions as catechumens after which they are baptized. I have been helping the bishop, even when I was still a vicar general, with the confirmations and I have sometimes had 1,300 people a day confirmed. This translates to a large number of Christians per year. 

Q: Malawi has one of the highest divorce rates in all of Africa. I think about one-third of all Malawians are get divorced. Why? 

Bishop Stima: The problem, at the moment, is that we have not established a research center where you can go and do a systematic research for the reasons for divorce. So this is just a guess. If you ask me, because I have witnessed this working in the parish, I would say that preparation is lacking. In the past, when we had the missionaries, there was a very good preparation. The families before they got into marriage were trained and formed into this lifelong commitment, but today, particularly the young people, just find each other in schools or wherever and decide to get married without a proper preparation. So what do you expect from them? It is unfortunate that in Malawi the family value, particularly in the urban areas, is diminished but it is still highly valued in the villages.

Q: Your Excellency, we have covered issues from the landscape, religious situation, and the growth of the Catholic Church. What are your greatest needs now in your diocese and for the Catholic Church in Malawi? 

Bishop Stima: Our greatest need is to catechize the people, to deepen their faith. I believe that out of the deepening of faith every good will come out, whether development, [resolving] the problems of people, the question of hunger and food security, everything; if people deepen their faith, I feel the answers will be there. 

Q: …and enough vocations and priests. 

Bishop Stima: In Malawi, we do not have enough priests. I have been to a parish that has 80
,000 Christians and there wer just the two of us. 

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann 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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