Christmas and New Year approach and we exchange greeting. The exchange of greetings brings in thoughts, serious and banal, spiritual and human, high level or down to earth. A curious coincidence made me think of life with a hint of humor. In the USA they call it Golden birthday, when, if I understood correctly, the number of years completed is the same as the date of birth.
I was brought back to the end of my first year in Africa. While speaking French, I had being teaching Latin and Greek at the Kanyosha Seminary, near Bujumbura, Burundi. At that time, I had become friends with a group of volunteers who invited me to take a trip to Tanzania. It was even planned to climb Kilimanjaro, an extinct volcano of 6,000 meters. More than sympathy, it seemed to me, the invitation was coming because I was driving our mission car. However, since then we have always been friends and some of them today collaborate in my commitment on the issues of Justice and Peace. The fact is that we arrived in Tanzania on a day of celebration. To our question of curious tourists, someone answered, “It is the Saba Saba.” Inquiring among the people, there was neither Google nor mobile phones yet, we discovered that it was National Industry Day, celebrated on July 7 and that Saba Saba rightly means seven of seven.
Well, I smiled, celebrating this year my 77th anniversary on December 7th. USA Golden Birthday and Saba Saba Saba Swahili.
Memories are like cherries, one invites another, or like the sheep, that one counts in the nights of insomnia and eventually come in like a flock. Thus, from the bottom of my memory, one of my most beautiful memories of mission and perhaps the most significant of my life as a priest blossomed up. I shared it in preaching and in personal encounters, but never in this annual Christmas letter. Perhaps because at that time the internet did not exist: actually, we have to go back to the time of my first mission in Burundi, just after the 1972 civil war, when communications were rather precarious.
It was in Gitumba – literally the great hill-, a small community of Cibitoke, my mission up in the hills, 20 miles from the parish by car and three hours on foot. In the afternoon, after all day in the chapel, we went out as usual to visit the sick.
That day, it was raining. I was already tired and I felt sick. We went out in the rain, up and down the hills for more than two hours. Almost three times I stopped, wanting to give up. I didn't though, because the catechists who were with me kept repeating “She is waiting for us.”
At last, when the sun was setting, our path came out into a small valley. “Here we are,” they told me pointing to a small hut made of mud and straw lying beside a dark river. As I entered, I felt ill. I had met a lot of poor people in my life, but never such misery. The only thing there was a young girl on a rush mat lying on the muddy ground.
She told me her very simple and miserable story. She was 20 years old and her name was Lucy. She came with her old parents from another part of the country looking for a piece of land to till, carrying on their heads all that they had. They began to build the hut when she got sick. For the last three months, she had stayed in that mud hut, lying on the ground.
I felt very uneasy and I asked what I could do for her. Did she need some medicine, some money, or some food?
I was waiting for you, father, she said. Listen to my confession and give me Holy Communion.
I knelt on the mud and she made her confession. I don’t remember even whether she needed to confess, but what happened next will be carved in my memory forever.
I gathered the parents, the catechists, some neighbors and we began the short liturgy provided for these cases. I was in a terrible mood; I was asking to myself how God could allow such a situation. We began to say the Our Father. Suddenly I stopped: how could a young girl in such misery pray thy will be done? Everyone present was following me in the prayer; they also stopped. Then some special thing happened.
Lucy went on alone in a clear voice: Thy will be done on earth… Fascinated we follow her as it is in heaven. I looked at her: a peaceful smile was enlightening her face. I couldn't help but smile with her and all the people there did the same. That miserable hut became for me as a Bethlehem grotto. I felt God was there, God was becoming flesh in that humble girl.
When we started our way back, all seemed beautiful: the rain was past, the last clouds were slipping away, and a full moon was shining.
Two days after, back to the Parish, I collected some money, clothes, medicine and food and sent a young man to Lucy. He came back several hours after with the packet. What’s the matter? I asked.
Lucy died that same night you visited her, was the answer.
In my journal, I wrote a comment. Why did I become a missionary? At first, I may not really knew it . Life, people like Lucie, experiences like the one of Gitumba, have told me who and what made me a priest and a missionary.
May all of us, for Christmas 2019 and the year 2020 receive a life experience that gives us or gives us back the joy of hope.