Father Sergio Marchetto is a Xaverian Missionary from northern Italy. He has been working in Burundi since 1966. We asked Father Marchetto a few questions about the Church in his adoptive country.
During your time in Burundi how did evangelization develop?
Evangelization has had a great expansion. When I arrived in 1966 the Church was committed to evangelization activities. The catechumenate lasted four years; only then people were accepted for baptism. Today, about 60% of the population is Christian. The Catholic Church has grown much and can now be considered a mature Church. From 1976 to 1987, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza did everything he could to limit Church’s influence on society. He tried to expropriate land and buildings, mostly schools and dispensaries. The expulsion of missionaries was another way. All European missionaries were expelled in 1987.
Was that a disastrous event for the local community?
I think the expulsion was a blessing in disguise. The local Church became more autonomous, more responsible of its own choices, and the laity found a major role in the running of the Church. President Pierre Buyoya (1987-93) recognized the freedom of worship and that helped the Church to grow even more. Today, all the bishops are Africans and local priests have greatly increased in number and they can easily take care of their Church.
What about the presence of sects?
Their presence and influence is strong. Many are supported by the United States. In urban areas, you can find a ‘hall’ or ‘church’ at every corner. However, even though they make a lot of noise, the country keeps its Catholic identity. The presence of sects, but also of Islam, is a reminder that we need always to deepen our faith. In the parish where I work in Bujumbura, every Sunday 5 to 6 thousand people attend Mass. Yet, it is not Mass attendance that makes us Christian. This is why we are favouring the formation of Small Christian Communities, smaller groups where people feel at home and find ways of practicing their faith.
What are the major problems the Church must face?
At social level, the lack of justice and the level of violence present in society are the two main issues of concern. The bishops have spoken on these issues, and on the political situation. Unfortunately, many priests and bishops have relatives who are well known for being the great offenders. It is difficult for them to tackle these issues without entering in questions relating to family or clan loyalty. We should not forget that a few years ago the Nuncio was killed because he was trying to reconcile Hutu and Tutsi. His killer did not want a foreigner to poke his nose on local matters. Poverty and health are other two issues that need urgent attention. Most Burundians are poor. The economy is such that there is no realistic hope for development. People cannot pay for their health care.
How do you evaluate the presence of the Xaverian Missionaries?
We have been in Burundi for the past fifty years. We came here to evangelize. Things are now changing. The local Church has grown much and the existence of enough priests to run parishes poses a question about our presence today. We believe it is important to stay. We are a sign of an international community, a multiethnic family that goes beyond the narrow borders of Burundi. We remained here during the civil war; we stayed close to the people at the time of martyrdom. It is important to be here now to proclaim the Gospel of peace in the midst of interethnic conflict, which is never ended. We also have the opportunity to speak about the importance of being missionaries. The Church in Burundi can offer people to go and proclaim the faith in other countries. The local Church really needs to open its horizons and feel the need to share its faith with other peoples.
I see in this missionary animation the fulfilment of Paul VI words, “Africans! Be missionary of yourselves”. Paul VI said those words in Uganda in 1969, inviting the local Church to take up the challenge to preach God’s Word in the continent. I believe African missionaries can do a great deal of good in Africa, but also beyond. They are called to reach the ends of the earth like every other missionary.