Bishop Miguel Angel Martinez Sebastian, a Comboni Missionary and bishop of Lai since 1998, is concise in telling me who he is. “I was born in Zaragoza in 1950. I entered the minor seminary of the Comboni Missionaries and studied in Spain and Portugal. I was ordained a priest in 1975, and arrived in Chad 1978. I worked in two parishes until 1982, when I was sent for further study in Paris, where I obtained a degree in missiology in 1984. After a second stay in Chad until 1988, I returned in 1996 and worked in Bediondo, in the Diocese of Sarh”.
In the meantime, the bishops of Doba and Moundou proposed to the Holy See the erection of a new Diocese in Lai. The two dioceses were far too large and both gave up some territory, father Miguel Angel was chosen as the bishop of the new diocese of Lai. Lai is the capital of the prefecture of Tandjilé in the south-east of the country. “It’s a rural area on the edge of the main avenues of communication and commerce. Some speak of real physical isolation. In the rainy season, we remain cut off for 4-5 months”.
The first missionaries arrived in this area 75 years ago and the tradition speaks of many conversions. “Our official figures show 110 thousand faithful throughout the diocese, but could be many more. We are witnessing an amazing growth of the faithful. Yet, I’m not particularly impressed. I would prefer less, but better prepared people. With the priests and catechists I insist they should not baptize in a hurry. Our first priority is to evangelize and establish solid small Christian communities worthy of the name”. The diocese can count on 22 local priests and other personnel belonging to missionary religious congregations for the care of 12 parishes and the proclamation the Gospel message to those who still have not received it. There is a felt need to deepen the theological reflection on the different traditional religious beliefs and practices, and on a true inculturation of the message of Christ in people’s lives.
Although a minority, the Catholic Church in Chad has a great social influence, and is highly respected for his contributions in education, health and development. “The Church is seen as a cornerstone of the struggle for human rights. Every year at Christmas, we bishops publish a message, addressed to all the faithful, in which we do not hesitate to address the main problems of the nation. Our words are heard by everyone because everyone, including politicians, wants to know the Church’s position on certain issues”. The bishops have been appealing to all Chadians to cooperate in building the unity of the nation that still appears elusive even after 50 years of independence. They encourage Catholics to engage in a constructive dialogue with their fellow citizens, be they Protestants, Muslims or followers of traditional religions.
The Church is very young Chad, it was founded after the Second World War, with the arrival of Oblates, Capuchins and Jesuits missionaries. Local personnel are still scarce. Yet, despite its young age, it is a very active Church, particularly in the social sphere. There are justice and peace committees at diocesan and parish level. Their aim is to increase public awareness of human rights and help them become familiar with the law, so they can defend themselves against injustices perpetrated by the military authorities or traditional. Time and energy are used in attempts to resolve conflicts between the traditional nomadic herders and farmers in the south of the north: these groups are committed to bring the two sides to talk, without resorting to violence.
“It is amazing the amount of energy, both financial and personnel, we invest in this sphere – says the bishop. We manage a number of schools – nursery, primary and secondary schools – at parish and diocesan level. In our educational institutions we cooperate with government authorities and civil society. We are entitled to carry out programs of religious education”. Significant efforts are also in the formation of catechists and leaders of small communities. “Evangelization and catechesis are the two cornerstones of our pastoral action. We have opened a centre where catechists and other pastoral agents spend an entire year in training. Catechists must be able to communicate accurately and enthusiastically the cornerstones of our faith and the Word of God. We expect that they guide and inspire the faithful by engaging responsibly in every type of initiative”.
Catechumens undergo a four year formation course during which they are asked to memorize much of the Gospel and the most significant parts of the Old Testament. They must have clear in mind and heart of the fundamental aspects of Church life, the sacraments, and the liturgy. They follow weekly classes for the first three years. The fourth year, instead, is used to enhance their spiritual preparation with retreats and meditation of the Word of God. When they are ready, they are baptized during the Easter Vigil. “We follow a simple principle – says the bishop – no one is a born Christian, we are all called to become followers of Christ united in a community, a community that generates life”.