The mission: simply being there
An interview with Teresino Serra, Superior General of the Combonians
Interview with Teresino Serra by Stefania Falasca and Davide Malacaria
Father Teresino Serra in Khartoum for the celebrations in honor of Saint Daniele Comboni
TERESINO SERRA: To me it seems that the mission must be reconceived. It seems to me that the time is altogether over when people went to bring our God to people who did not know Him, our way of life to the savages... I’m exaggerating, of course, but it was a bit like that. Today instead it seems to me that going is no longer important, but being there is. It’s no longer us who have to take our God to others, it’s we who are to meet God, who goes before us there, in the mission lands... Today I believe the mission is essentially that of being there, of going along with, of walking with the most needy. To be without any pretension of having to save the people to whom we come near: Daniele Comboni said: “It’s already a lot if I save myself...”. So I thought I ought to be the first to be called to give this witness to the members of my Institute: my travels have had no other purpose than to be with them, an attempt to accompany them in the task that the Lord has entrusted to them.
You speak of simply “being there”, while the active engagement of the Combonians is famous.
SERRA: The fact is that in this business I see a danger: the work we do is important, of course, but we must not reduce the mission to just works. We did not go to Africa to dig wells or build hospitals. Of course, we also do that, but it is not the essential thing. Otherwise we risk becoming agents for non-governmental organizations. Now, differently from before, a lot of money comes in for this kind of work, but when there’s a lot of money going around it’s dangerous, there’s a danger of corrupting the spirit of the mission, of changing “being with” for “doing”. We are in danger of becoming mere benefactors. I emphasize that the quality of the mission depends on the quality of the missionary and the missionary has quality when his heart is inhabited by Christ, by the Gospel. When that happens, the works also get constructed, as happened to one of our missionaries who by himself, thanks to the help of his people and his friends, built a hospital in a poverty-stricken region of Brazil, Rondonia. But what counts, what comforts, more than the work itself, is the witness of love for Christ and his people given by that missionary.
You mentioned differences from before...
SERRA: Many things are changed. In the first place the situation into which the missionary comes has changed. It’s a matter of coming among people who know the western world altogether too well; the West that, in the eyes of the Third World, is looked at as hostile because it drops bombs, it exploits, oppresses, closes the frontiers to its refugees. The West that now more than ever shows the face of the conqueror. Therefore we’re received with hostility. Faced with this attitude, very comprehensible for that matter, words are useless. Once upon a time, perhaps, it would have been enough, now all the credibility of the missionary depends on his witness. Only a convincing witness can break down this wall of hostility. And then, different from what happened previously, today the missionary finds himself in a situation in which a Church already exists, a local Church that we ourselves contributed to creating. Of course, like all human products, it has its limits: in some expressions it seems to me that it tends to copy the negative aspects of the western Church, that is excessive triumphalism, a certain ostentation of power, but, obviously, I’m speaking about restricted milieus. As for us, we can’t but be glad of this new ecclesial truth. The local Church must be left free to perform its proper function. We must keep a pace behind.
And has the stationing of missionaries also to be reviewed?
SERRA: We are, as you say, reviewing our presence in several areas. There is a felt need to look at some things again. Let me give an example to make myself clear: in Nairobi there is a neighborhood where a series of religious institutes, religious schools and so on, are located. The neighborhood is called, in an expression translated from the local language: “The most beautiful houses”. We are all crowding together there, in this species of African Vatican. Certainly this decentralization also has its reasons, given that Nairobi has drawn millions of people from all over Kenya, spread around for the most in miserable slums. But in the areas of the north, on the border with Ethiopia, where very poor people are living, there are only two Combonians. I believe the moment has come to abandon places where there are other missionaries and go where nobody wants to go. I believe that it is in these places that our presence is more important.
The Combonians began in Africa and are now present in Latin America and Asia.
SERRA: One of our missionaries, Ezechiele Ramin, was killed in Latin America, and we would like his martyrdom to be recognized by the Church, although our missionaries in Latin America are a bit reluctant: for them and the people who knew him, Ramin is already a saint. And that’s enough for them. But I believe that Father Ezechiele is a treasure for the whole Church, which is why we would like to promote his cause...
The Combonian Father Raffaele Cefalo among Turkana nomads, in Nakwamekwi, Kenya
SERRA: A continent full of life, people full of life. Who see rules as an obstacle. So the missionary must go along with them, without imposing anything, evangelizing more by giving witness than by the imposition of rules. When one reads the documents from the Aparecida meeting, when Pope Benedict XVI went to visit those lands, one sees that the verbs “being there” and “going along with” appear from the first to the last page. Of course our work among those people has not been free of error and sin, but nobody can accuse us of not having gone along with the people that the Lord had entrusted to us. Now in Latin America, after the period of Liberation Theology, it was decided to put the stress on theological and liturgical discipline. Probably there is also need of that call to order, but we must be careful not to create a Church distant from people.
Are you present in any quantity in Asia?
SERRA: No, still not. There one feels an ant faced with a titanic enterprise: an entire continent, billions of people who still do not know the Gospel. But there, more than elsewhere, it’s obvious that we must be there without having the ambition of doing things. We must wait for the Lord’s good time.
Have you also suffered a drop in vocations like the other Orders?
SERRA: Currently there are 1,745 of us, spread over 29 countries, in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Obviously not all are active, because the number includes the sick and the old. Vocations have diminished, certainly: according to a survey conducted some years ago, on various religious orders, our Institute is claimed to have approximately seventy years of life left in it. But, obviously, we could end tomorrow or last very much longer, according to the designs of God. I’m not interested in numbers: if a tree dries out it will be good for making firewood and giving out warmth. God throws away nothing... what interests me is having authentic missionaries, who give their life for God and the poor. The rest doesn’t much concern me. Nor am I interested in swelling the ranks with bogus vocations: it has happened, and not only to us, that people have chosen this bizarre way of getting out of their country... I have asked for double checks on aspirants.
A summary of your travels...
SERRA: I must say that I have seen that our missionaries are much better than I expected. The visits that most saddened me were those to northern Uganda, where I found a tragic situation indeed: a people destroyed by the long war between the rebels and the government, ended as soon as it was decided it should end (and that says a lot about the nature of that conflict...). For years our missionaries have been caught up in a strange war, that flared up at night, with surprise attacks. They are worn out, like all the rest of the population... And then there is the Sudan, the situation is explosive there: peace has been signed between north and south but the profiteers have already arrived to make money out of reconstruction and the minds are in no way at peace. I fear that sooner or later the conflict will flare up again... but what has remained to me from those travels is something else.
SERRA: I wouldn’t know how to put it if not like this: when I began I had everything clear... now everything is confused. In particular, in seeing such suffering, pain, it comes to one to ask: but why does God allow all this? Why must injustice always win? In short, it’s the silence of God that disconcerts...
Two Combonian Fathers in a school in Nyala, Darfur
SERRA: No, it’s that reality poses questions... And at times gives answers. Often unforeseeable. A particular episode brought it home to me. When I taught in Nairobi I had a Ugandan student, called Francis Bakanibona, whom I advised against going on with his studies. He didn’t seem to me suited to our life. Back in his parish, however, the lad soon became a focal point for the young people of the place. It didn’t take long for his work in the parish to cause annoyance. The government troops went to seek him out, surrounded the church, and waited for him: he came out and, in front of everybody, he was tortured and killed. And I had judged him unsuitable for the seminary!... A week passed and it was baptism time in the parish. Thirty couples presented themselves. The parish priest asked the first couple: “What name do you give your child?”. And they said: “Francis”. Then it was the turn of the second couple, and they too said: “Francis”. Then the third... All decided to call their children Francis. Happenings of the sort make one realize that God’s answer is different from what we imagine. And often it comes from the people to whom we have brought the Lord. We have brought Him, but now they show Him to us in a more convincing and moving way.
I imagine the history of your Institute is full of similar episodes.
SERRA: Oh yes... there was one of ours, in northern Uganda: child-soldiers attacked the mission where he lived alone and threatened to kill him. He yelled at them: “You can’t kill me. The customs of your people say if you kill an old man, his ghost will haunt you and your kin for all eternity!” They looked at him in fear, but then said: “Let us at least steal something, otherwise our leaders will get angry”. So he let them in and waited outside. As soon as they came out, he blocked their way and showed them where he kept his bottle of whisky hidden. “There”, he went. “At least your leaders will be happy... What would they do with four candlesticks?”... Then there are our missionaries in Iceme, again in northern Uganda, the Lyra area, who suffered seven attacks and yet never left... Those are just some of the episodes of the witness our missionaries give. Then there are the old ones, the sick ones...
SERRA: On the anniversary of Comboni’s first mission I was in a reception center. People live there who after years on the mission come back a bit worse for wear, to use a euphemism. There’s one with progressive paralysis: he understands everything, but he can’t move. He’s always got a smile on his lips. That too is a form of martyrdom, just slower. Then there are brothers who no longer remember all the good they’ve done. But that’s of no importance, because the Lord, instead, remembers it well. Very well...