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Religious Life

Order ceding work to African church

Tenafly, N.J.

Fr. Thomas Wright said he was “surprised, very unhappy, even angry” when he was chosen last July to head the U.S. province of the Society of African Missions, sometimes known as SMA Fathers. If he had had his way, he would have wanted to finish his term as the society’s vocations director, then return to missionary work in Africa.

But Wright felt “a sense of peace and rightness” descend on him about three hours after the provincial assembly named him provincial superior. Wright said he thought of Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis of Monrovia, Liberia, at that moment.

“I knew he’d been a bishop for 25 years under very trying circumstances. Here was I complaining about having to do a job for six years,” Wright told NCR at the order’s provincial headquarters here. In 1921 Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress who was recently canonized, gave the African mission society $5,600 to help them purchase the 11-acre property about six miles from New York City, which is currently home to 15 members of the order.

In an earlier era, Wright -- age 42 and ordained in 1992 -- might have been deemed too young or inexperienced to lead the society. But with only 35 priests in the American province, with an average age of 70, his time has come.

Wright’s vocation to missionary work arrived first as a call to Africa and later as an invitation to priesthood. Raised as a Congregationalist in Warren, Mass., Wright attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. “I got excited whenever we touched on Africa,” he recalled. He also thought about becoming a minister. He volunteered for the Peace Corps in Ghana.

When he tried to find a Protestant congregation to join in Ghana, he discovered that the nearest church was Methodist, and its Sunday services, in a local language, lasted three hours. A nun at the Catholic school to which he’d been assigned invited him to Mass in English whenever an Irish priest would arrive. She also gave him a missal.

During two years of attending Mass, Wright felt his call to Africa and to ministry was meshing into a call to become a Catholic missionary. He entered the church on Easter 1984 and the Society of African Missions seminary a few months later. He spent another six years in Africa -- two in the seminary and four working in Ivory Coast and in Monrovia, Liberia.

Wright recalled the time in 1992, in the midst of Liberia’s seven-year civil war and following the murder of five nuns, that rebels were overheard saying that a “Father Tom” was not a real missionary but a CIA operative. The rumors got to Bishop Francis, who sent Wright into neighboring Ivory Coast where he assisted Liberian refugees.

It was during this time that the young priest began to see the great courage of the Liberian Christians and of Francis, who was attacked by rebel soldiers, his home ransacked and his possessions taken. Francis continued to condemn all atrocities, to preach forgiveness and reconciliation and to rail against violence and human rights abuses in his radio broadcasts and his hour-long sermons.

The bishop survived the bloody coup that toppled President William Tolbert’s government in 1980 and resulted in Tolbert’s assassination and the execution of many of his cabinet. Francis ministered to the 140,000 Catholics in the Monrovia archdiocese and worked ecumenically during the brutal rule of Samuel Doe (1980-89). Francis also weathered the civil war (1989-96) brought on by Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia.

The war destroyed the church’s infrastructures though not its spirit, Wright said. He wondered aloud how many thousands of Liberians lost their lives because of their faith. In all, 200,000 citizens -- about a tenth of the country -- died as a result of the war. “Catholics stood up to the rebels because of their Christian beliefs,” he said. “They recited the 23rd Psalm or the Our Father” when captured.

Wright said that people frequently confuse his order, the Society of African Missions, with the Missionaries of Africa, formerly known as the White Fathers, whose U.S. base is in Washington, D.C. Another misperception, Wright said, comes in the form of the question “Why is Africa so violent?” That perception and the fear it inculcates in parents of potential missionaries is misguided, Wright said.

He points to Liberia where about 15,000 people from a population of more than 2 million constituted “the rebels.” Most often the fighting was local, not affecting those in other parts of the country. Still he noted similarities among Liberia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some young boys, although educated in Catholic schools, nevertheless took up the gun and the machete.

The dangers faced by missionaries in Africa and elsewhere rarely compare to those that confront local people daily, Wright said. “Sure, priests give up a lot of stuff when we go to the missions, but we get all the press and the pats on the back, too.” By contrast, it’s catechists and lay volunteers who maintain the African church, he said. “The laity have always taken responsibility in Africa. It’s your faithful band that keeps the church together and builds it up.”

The Society of African Missions has about 1,000 priests, 250 seminarians and 100 lay missionaries worldwide. Fewer than 5 percent of them are in North and Latin America. In the United States, members of the Society of African Missions serve in the archdioceses of Baltimore, Boston, Newark and Washington. In addition to working in Africa, they work with people of African descent in Southern states. A few priests are based in Argentina, and 10 serve in Montreal.

Overwhelmingly the society is European, with a third of its members coming from France, where the society began in 1856. Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Poland and England have contributed most of the other members. However, in recent years the society, while graying and diminishing in vocations in Europe and the Americas, has experienced strong growth in Africa as well as in India and the Philippines.

When Wright does the numbers, he projects that within a decade, “we could be down to 15 guys in the U.S., and Europe could be down [from 775 priests] to about 400.” Of all the new men coming into the society, about 100 will be non-European, and they will be under age 50. “We’re working ourselves out of a job,” he said.

But Wright is certain that the work can be done by an indigenous African clergy and trained laity. One of his goals during his tenure as provincial is to organize a multicultural formation program for lay missionaries. He envisions gathering a group of Anglos, Latinos and African-Americans who have worked in Africa and who could bring their experience to the society’s formation center in Takoma Park, Md. Lay volunteers attend seven months of classes and training in Maryland before leaving for Africa.

African clergy and seminarians frequently visit the society’s headquarters in Tenafly, its mission in Dedham, Mass., and other facilities across the country. Often they stay for two or three months. “Why not train them to do the mission collections each summer?” asked Wright.

One of his biggest concerns upon being elected was funding, with so many priests in retirement and few new ones joining.

Many missionary orders report that they feel confident leaving the church in Africa in the hands of native clergy and lay leaders. Still they worry about how African Catholics can tap the resources that were available to Western missionaries in North America and Europe. Wright believes that assisting African clergy to feel at home in U.S. parishes might be one way to facilitate the transition.

While many U.S. Catholics report that they are attracted by the holiness and spirituality that African priests and nuns bring to their work, they also indicate that frequently they cannot understand them. Wright cautions patience in such cases, noting that for a century and a half Africans have been subjected to missionaries who did not or could not learn the native language. “We’re getting a little of our own back now,” he said.

Mission work has changed tremendously during the order’s 146 years in service to Africa, Wright noted. While baptizing newcomers into the church remains important, “the idea of mission today is more about witnessing and sharing the love that Christ brings us than it is about conversions.”

“At the grassroots level missionaries are very welcome,” he said, noting that “people don’t have a lot of confidence in their own government, but they know that missionaries have the interest of local people at heart.”

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002