INTERVIEW: Central Africa: Peace Is Now Truly Possible

‘Providence heard us’

Children in a refugee camp in Bangui

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His was one of the most appreciated interventions in this first brief period of the 37th Rimini Meeting. For Father Federico Trinchero, 39, Carmelite missionary in the Central African Republic since 2009, it was a return to his native land, Romagna, but down there, at Bangui, capital of a country still lacerated by a terrible civil war, there are already those who miss him.

In the course of his testimony at the meeting, the missionary talked about how some locals, knowing about his imminent transfer to Rimini, offered themselves to polish his shoes in sign of solicitude and affection. In fact, there is much gratitude in Central Africa for these missionaries from Europe, who transformed their convent into a refugee camp, and who did not flee not even during the blackest moments of the civil war.

After Pope Francis’ visit, however, — who last November 29 opened the first Holy Door at Bangui, making it the “spiritual capital” of the world –, something has changed for the better. Father Trinchero described the signs of this hope to ZENIT, following his report last Sunday.

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ZENIT: Father Federico, how important was the Holy Father’s visit last November? What changes has it brought about?

Father Trinchero: By the design of Providence, I found myself at Bangui in two of the most important moments of its history. I speak first of all of the bloodiest war that ever involved Central Africa: notwithstanding the fact that in the past coups d’Etat and conflicts weren’t lacking, the level of violence was never so high. In the positive, we had the Pope’s visit, which happened in fact in the midst of this war. The Holy Father’s coming seems to have truly started a path of peace. It can’t be said that the war is ended, but certainly there is no shooting as there was at first.

ZENIT: In your opinion, what were the Holy Father’s words that struck the heart of Central Africans?

Father Trinchero: Certainly, when he said that Bangui was becoming “the spiritual capital of the world,” a phrase that, undoubtedly, surprised us and that, perhaps, we still do not truly understand its meaning. The Central Africans were struck, probably, not so much by the adjective “spiritual” but by the noun “capital”: at one point, they could relate a lot to those “last” that, in the Gospel, become the “first.” Used to occupying the last places, the Pope placed us on the stand. I’m not saying that we must teach others something – this would be pride – but now, however, we have perhaps something to say to the world and we didn’t expect this. “Spiritual” is what we must be: it is a commitment the Pope gave us and we will see in the coming years what it really means.

ZENIT: What are the most outstanding human characteristics of the Central African people?

Father Trinchero: They are a people that, year after year, I am getting to know and love ever more. This daily coexistence with them has enabled me to know their defects better and appreciate their virtues more. One of their good qualities is to smile when suffering. Many of the Italians here, to whom I’ve shown the photo of the refugee camp, have said to me: “”they have lost everything but one sees they are happy.” They are able to endure a lot, to smile in suffering, to always see the positive side of everything and not despair. In appearance they might seem passive and not very dynamic but in fact they always commit themselves and give the best of themselves.

ZENIT: How receptive are the Central Africans to the Christian message?

Father Trinchero: From the point of view of the faith, we find all the defects and merits of a young Church. There is much enthusiasm; the churches are packed, the Movements very frequented, young people take part in the life of the Church and are very willing. While here in Europe priests don’t know what to invent to attract young people, in Central Africa sometimes we don’t even publicize our initiatives for fear that too many will come! God isn’t a problem for them, He is not – as I often say – something that one discusses but Someone with whom one discusses. For them, it is as if God were part of the family’s friends.

Instead, problems arise in conversion from beliefs linked to witchcraft and regarding how the Gospel can really become life and change their moral behavior. In particular, in regard to the family and marriage, there is still a long way to go. I’m referring in particular to the fear of Sacramental Marriage on the part of young couples. Unfortunately, few weddings are celebrated in church and those who do are, in the main, mature couples who have lived for many years in concubinage and already have several children. Another obstacle is the dowry. There is also much sexual disorder, promiscuity, homelessness, individuals that have children from several relationships, children that grow up without the figure of the father. Truly united families are rare.

ZENIT: What is the state of inter-religious coexistence in Central Africa?

Father Trinchero: Before the war, Central Africa was an example of good Islamic-Christian relations. The official figures – which in my opinion should be looked at again – speak of 25% of Catholics and 25% of Protestants; hence, half of Central Africans would be Christians. Then there is 15% of Muslims, while the rest of the population is animist. Muslims have decreased (many have fled), while I think Catholics are somewhat more. Unfortunately, this war, which began for reasons of economic interests, has resulted in an inter-religious conflict, which then degenerated. Initially the Muslims harassed the Christians then, through the Antibalaka Movement, the latter avenged themselves: first the Muslims destroyed the churches, then the Christians destroyed the mosques. It will take years to return to what it was before, although some signs of improvement are being registered. It’s probable that for some time a sentiment of frustration was latent on the part of Christians that, in commercial activities are often the servants of the Muslims, owners of the greater part of businesses. Although being the majority, they suffered this situation of subjection.

ZENIT: What were the loveliest episodes you lived at Bangui from the beginning of your mission?

Father Trinchero: As I was saying earlier, relations between Christians and Muslims are slowly returning to normality and I noticed it in a recent personal experience. A short time ago, I was transporting chairs in a car, with the help of a Muslim. He was the first Muslim with whom I was speaking after two years of war. During the trajectory, I made a mistake and turned into a prohibited direction. The policeman wanted to fine me, but my Muslim friend was against it, because – he argued – I was a “minister of God.” I would honestly have paid for that contravention but he succeeded in impeding it: it was a gesture I appreciated very much.

Then, last Christmas, we witnessed a true and proper miracle. We so wanted to give a gift to our children in the refugee camp, but there were a good 500 and, in fact, it didn’t seem possible except that in the afternoon of December 24 two high-powered cars arrived at Carmel, from which well-dressed gentlemen descended unloading boxes with 1600 gifts and games for our children. They then disappeared and we don’t know where they came from or who they were, nor did we see them again. So Providence heard us: we who wanted to make this gift, He sent us His “ministers” and we, in a few hours, were able to distribute the gifts to the children of the entire refugee camp.

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