Sowing Hope in Sierra Leone

Interview With Xavierian Missionary Father Bongiovanni

By Victor Suma

ROME, JAN. 17, 2008 ( After 30 years of missionary work in Sierra Leone, Xavierian Father Victor Bongiovanni says the youth of that West African nation need someone to listen to them and put hope in their hearts again.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Bongiovanni speaks of the lessons learned after three decades in Africa.

Q: How did the idea of working in Sierra Leone ever come about?

Father Bongiovanni: I belong to a missionary congregation. When I was a theology student, in my final year, my superiors asked me where I wanted to work. I chose Africa and these were my preferences: 1. Congo, 2. Burundi, 3. Sierra Leone. They decided on Sierra Leone: Thanks be to God!

My friends in Italy were telling me: “You are ‘great’ because you are going to Sierra Leone to carry Jesus to them; you are going to promote social development and to help needy people.” I was so naïve that I believed them. I was thinking about being ‘great’ … I arrived in Sierra Leone to discover that Jesus was already here waiting for me, that Sierra Leoneans were the ones promoting the development of their country. To help the needy I depend very much on benefactors from abroad. But I discovered that my service in Sierra Leone was not one of filling empty bottles, but one of removing the caps and pulling out of the people what they already had. I am here, grateful to them, that they have accepted me as a “guest of honor”; I am here at their service, working for them, with them.

Q: How did your early training in life prepare you for this assignment?

Father Bongiovanni: When I found out about my assignment to Sierra Leone, I asked Bishop Azzolini, the first bishop of the diocese, and some missionaries about the necessities of Sierra Leone and what kinds of services they needed from a missionary. I was told that there was a need of pastoral catechesis. So I started studying catechesis. I attended the Pontifical Salesian University of Rome. It was supposed to be a four-year course, but because I had just finished studying theology, I did it in two years. I found that course very useful. It really prepared my mind for service in Sierra Leone.

Q: Where have you worked in Sierra Leone, and what ministries have you offered?

Father Bongiovanni: My first mission was Port Loko, where I worked as assistant priest to Father Milan. He asked me to go to Sanda Magbolonto chiefdom and to start a Catholic mission there. In that chiefdom we had only two […] primary schools but no church. So I met the […] teachers and few of them were Catholics. I decided to rent a room in Sendugu village in the same house of the Catholic teacher Anthony Sesay, to meet the local authorities and the common people. Wonderful people! I will never forget those beautiful years!

In that place, I began my work of catechesis. In the evening, while we were sitting in the veranda, I was asking Anthony and the other Catholic teachers: “If I want to pass an idea to people, what stories of life situations do you have that could help people to understand a given Catholic principle?” And they began telling me stories. I collected them and I prepared several booklets: “The Ten Commandments: 40 Stories”; “The Sacraments: Many References to Life Situation”; “Preparation for Catholic Marriage: 40 Stories” Then with Anthony, we started meeting people of the nearby villages.

To cut it short, after 10 years of work, we built in Sanda Magbolonto 11 communities with 11 churches. Note that I am not a “mason” or a carpenter. All these churches have been built by the people. I assisted them with the zinc for the roof; all the rest has been provided by them. My service to them was to motivate them, to assist them to understand that they needed to come together, to support each other in practicing their faith, and that they will enjoy their faith if they spread their faith.

Sierra Leoneans must be the missionaries to Sierra Leoneans.

I am so grateful to Sierra Leoneans: They gave me the joy of being a priest.

After 10 years in Port Loko parish, I spent 16 years as director of the Pastoral Center of Makeni. But before taking over this new area of service, I attended a one-month course in South Africa on the Lumko Program — an excellent program of pastoral catechesis. I got so much from it.

As director of the Pastoral Center, all my efforts were aimed at creating Christian leaders who will make the Church of Sierra Leone a self-reliant Church, both socially or spiritually. Here I have prepared several other booklets for the first announcement [of the faith] and for ongoing formation, for Illiterate people, for children, for youth, for adults.

And I can say that I have prepared all this material together with people, listening to them, encouraging them, involving them. I have learned so much from them and I am so grateful to them.

Finally, for the past two years I am attached to Conforti Parish in charge of the youth ministry, then teaching at the Fatima Institute — catechesis and the sacraments– and involved in the formation of youth aspirants who want to become Xaverians, and resource persons for workshops at the Pastoral Center.

Q: You have surely grown to love Sierra Leone in a very special way. What assignment or people remain in your heart the most?

Father Bongiovanni: You will not be satisfied with my answer, but I tell you the truth. I have enjoyed every minute of my staying in Sierra Leone and I have enjoyed all the people that I have met. I don’t know if they have enjoyed my presence! Even the experience of the war: It doesn’t leave in me a sense of hatred or some grudge. I try to remember the positive aspects of my life in the different places. Of course, I had difficult moments, but if I would have been in the situation of those Sierra Leoneans who treated me badly, maybe I would have done worse things than they did. I feel sorry even for the rebels: Poor youth who have been used and abused God only knows by who and how!

Q: You were crowned section chief in the Sanda Magbolontoh chiefdom. What do you make of this?

Father Bongiovanni: I take this crowning as a great honor. I didn’t spend a cent for this celebration. They did everything. They wanted to thank me for the 10 years of work in their chiefdom but they do no know that within myself I have a greater desire to thank them for having accepted me as a brother, as one of them. A great honor.

Q: You have watched the Church in Sierra Leone grow for over three decades. What progress has been made and what remains the challenge of the future?

Father Bongiovanni: Such great progress has been made in the Church of Sierra Leone. It’s enough to look at the Sierra Leonean clergy: We are here as missionaries to assist them, their ministry. This is the local Church: It is a diocese that has a bishop, clergy and religious made up of local clergy and foreign people, and laypeople working all together to build up the Kingdom of God.

What remains to be done? The war has done a lot of damage. It has created a lot of people who have lost confidence in themselves. Education is a mess. The war has prevented proper education in primary schools. Youth without foundations of primary school have gone to secondary schools and colleges. Here they find themselves lost, out of place. They cannot cope with the standard of the universities. They are considered stupid. They themselves conclude that they are stupid. They have lost the zeal to look at the future with hope and pride. They have abandoned a life of discipline.

Christianity is sometimes too difficult for them. They find it difficult to practice their faith. They see Jesus as far away from their lives. There is a need for catechesis, there is a need for that “Stranger” who walked near the two disciples of Emmaus to listen to them, to provoke them to talk, to explain to them to enlighten their hearts to look ahead with hope.

This is, for me, the most important need for the people, especially the youth of Sierra Leone.

Q: And the future of the Church?

Father Bongiovanni: I think I have already expressed what I think about the future of Sierra Leone. What I would like to say is something else.

It is this. I have spent almost 30 years in Sierra Leone. I have been away from Italy for about 33 years — I spent three years in Great Britain. Sometimes you hear people saying: “The time has come for the missionaries to return to their countries.”

That is easy to say, but I look at myself: In my country I am lost. I have been away for so long. It will be impossible for me to understand the mentality of my people. Here, where I spent all my best years of life, they do not want me any longer, so where should I go? It’s a question that comes from the bottom of the heart of a missionary.

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