From Nigeria to Canada and back to Benin. The encounter with the dignity of a poor people, the discovery of Christian communities rich in vitality and faith. Mons. François Gnonhossou, Bishop of Dassa-Zoumè says: “ The mission does not consist in teaching the faith to another but travelling with the other on the path of his encounter with happiness and his discovery of the presence of God”.
I have lived through different stages from the birth of my vocation until today: the painful break with my family at the start of my formation, the welcome I received from the Society of African Missions (SMA) that became my apostolic family and periods of time spent in various houses of formation in Benin and Nigeria. My first steps in the mission in Nigeria until my appointment as the second Bishop of the diocese of Dassa-Zoumè.
The mission is a school of faith in Jesus who calls us, teaches us and gives us for the mission. If the mission is, in fact, characterised as the work of announcing the Gospel and the values of the Kingdom, there is always something to be learned. I remember how, on 30 September 1997, just a few weeks after my ordination, together with Charles Owusu Ansah, a Ghanaian confrere, I left for Nigeria, my first mission land. We were the first African members of our Congregation of the SMA to leave for that region that, up to then, had seen only missionaries who were mostly Irish.
Our mission was in the Apostolic Prefecture of Kontagora created two years previously and entrusted to the pastoral care of the SMA. It was at the parish community of Gouffanti, on the banks of the river Niger, that I took my first steps as a young missionary. It was by coming into contact with different ethnic groups that my missionary adventure was forged and rooted: Kemberi, Gungawa…poor and abandoned populations. That which surprised me was their great respect they had for us missionaries and the great simplicity of their life. The ability to be happy with the little one has, was a great life lesson for me. I learned that happiness and joy are not bound up with material goods, that riches do not become a source of joy except when they bring concern for the good of human beings and are at their service. Seeing the beauty and the joy of such a life of simplicity, I understood that it is possible to be poor and happy. Just a few things are necessary for this: faith in God but also love for one’s neighbour in all his humanity.
During my six years spent in this school of wisdom, I discovered that true riches are to be found in the encounter with people who open us up to their life and culture, that every human being conceals a divine treasure that is only revealed through respect. Among the Kimberi and the Gungawa, I discovered that the mission does not consist, first of all, in teaching the other the faith but in walking the same path as the other towards his encounter with the happiness of his discovery of the presence of God. In this way my first steps among the “blessed poor” of Kontagora were enriched.
Among the Ojibwe
I had another experience among the Ojibwe of Canada, in northern Ontario. It was in the XV century, long before Africa that the Indians of America, strongly rooted in their ancestral religion, encountered Christ in a dramatic moment of their life, during the brutal occupation that decimated many tribal groups and led to a number of them to live, even until today, on reservations. After some months of cultural initiation and getting used to the climate, I went to the parish that served one of the Ojibwe villages. Some weeks of contact with the community of Garden Village allowed me to realise that this Indian group is reserved and prudently mistrusting of strangers. Although they are open to the external modern world, the Ojibwe have kept their culture and their ancestral traditions, and have thus preserved their ethnic dignity. It is striking to see how attached they are to their culture and their lively sense of respect towards women, the elders and children.
They also have great respect for nature which for them has a sacred dimension. After some months, my missionary approach based on the faith, the love of God and respect for others opened for me an entrance into the community of these people who are so sociable and welcoming. I discovered that they are very respectful of human dignity, prudent due to their dramatic past but also open to all that come from outside provide their own culture is respected and valued. Very faithful in friendship and generous, these people won my heart and strengthened and increased my understanding of the human race. This experience made me understand that the mission may be a painful experience but it also can, in the final analysis, bring about spiritual completeness.
The beauty and cultural diversity
During my two decades of priestly life, the mission drew me away from my native land of Benin. In Cotonou, the economic capital and a metropolis in the south, where I grew up, I often spent my holidays. My knowledge of the country as a whole was very limited: the other cities and regions in the interior were almost unknown to me. Furthermore, I had not even been able to follow the life of my original Church.
Then, in February 2015, while I was a Councillor of my Institute in Rome, I was appointed Bishop of the diocese of Dassa-Zoumè, in the centre of the country. Then the pastoral visits to the cities and villages of the diocese made me gradually discover and appreciate the beauty and cultural diversity of my country. The many things learned and discovered during those visits enriched me beyond all my expectations. The rural beauty of the villages and countryside; being welcomed warmly, respectfully and helpfully by the people of the villages at every visit; liturgical services greatly enlivened by choirs singing to the rhythm of the drums and in multiple scales. Those festive celebrations encouraged me to respond to the joy of the people at seeing me among them. In the small collections of houses I discovered a Church in full expansion mode, lively and participating: a young Church with different cultural colours and ethnic groups that make one feel pastoral courage and the joy of serving it. I am profoundly amazed by the generous commitment of the faithful, so materially poor but rich in faith.
My mission in Benin also opened my eyes to the misery of a country sick with galloping corruption. I also had the impression that the priests have lost something of their dignity, once nourished by a life of prayer and respect for the evangelical counsels. Obscurantism and fear seemed to dominate the consecrated souls. Despite this challenge and despite the proliferation of new sects, a phenomenon that is gaining in strength, the influence of the Catholic Church of Benin is undeniable.
The number of new adherents to the faith, the motivation of numerous prayer groups, the vitality of very active parish groups and the growing awareness of pastoral agents are all, for me, so many more reasons to have hope. I see this as the way one can learn to know and discover one’s own country and people and how to be a happy missionary at home. The mission can lead to acceptance or rejection. It all depends on the approach of the missionary and the expectations of those to whom we go. Knowing how to listen before speaking is a source of riches. It is in silence and attentive listening that God reaches us and walks with us. As a place where cultural values are gained, as the crucible of a deeper understanding of the Gospel, the mission is a school of knowledge of humanity that only faith in Jesus makes us truly receive and understand. The mission enriches us. The service of God fulfills us. This is my hope.