Comboni Lay Missionaries

Way of the Cross

Way of the cross

A couple years back, we joined Fr. Sixtus Agostini, Comboni Missionary, to journey through the Good Friday “Way of the Cross” liturgy in the small rural mission parish of ‘Kege’ about an hour south drive of Awasa city.  Good Friday is the commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ and the Way of the Cross is a retracing of Jesus’ Passion, the final events leading up to his crucifixion.  What a precious blessing it was to “walk” this Way of the Cross as guests with our brothers and sisters of Kege.

The Kege area has a soupy, clay valley floor that delivers beautifully fertile soil to the farming community, and is flanked by rocky hills.  We turned off the main asphalt highway and as we drove through the final 20 km to our destination we began passing more and more people walking with large crosses they had made of wood.  We wondered if they would be joining in for the Way of the Cross procession and also wondered how far they had come from and whether they were going to make it?! We packed as many people as we could into the truck but we looked with astonishment out the window at small groups every few hundred meters diligently walking, crosses in hand.

We arrived around 9:00 am at the local chapel. To our surprise there were about 200 people already gathered praying in silence in the simple chapel. No one peeped a word when we entered. The chapel was constructed using the local method of mud (chika) and chopped straw (chid) packed and smoothed onto a wooden skeleton.  Your nostrils filled with an intense earthy aroma upon entering.  Maggie and I took a seat on a plank of wood at the back.

Soon we were leaving the chapel on procession. Realizing that we were the only ones without a cross, Maggie picked two small branches from the ground and a piece of grass which she tried to use to fasten the two pieces together.  The children understood what was happening.  Instantly, numerous teenagers came to the rescue with dried palm leaves and they tied Maggie’s cross tightly together.  She shook the mud off the sticks and raised it into the ready position.  This spontaneous fabrication triggered giggles and huge smiles around us.

Teenage boys carried a massive cross at the front, along with backpacks carrying a megaphone, receiver, and batteries. The megaphone crackled and Fr. Sixtus began the Way of the Cross procession with the first ‘station’ or moment of the Passion. The Gospel passage was read, followed by a reflection and prayers.  The tone was solemn and penitential with the people singing responses to the prayers. As Fr. Sixtus began to read the blessing to conclude the first station, to my surprise, everyone knelt down right where they were standing – be it, the mud (it had rained hard the night before), cow dung or onto rocks, depending on one’s chance.  People had dressed up to attend the service, but without hesitation plunged their knees into the mud in humbleness of heart to the whole purpose and penitential spirit of the day, Good Friday.

Everyone stood up and we began walking. The congregation scattered loosely behind the central wooden cross continued in procession with somber song. We repeated the above prayer service 13 more times through all the stations of the Way of the Cross. The procession journeyed maybe 5 km weaving through the town of Kege and surrounding farms. Along the way, Maggie and I were quite a novelty and many young children scrunched in close to walk with us.  As we walked and prayed, all the people that we had seen on our drive joined group by group. By the end the congregation grew from 200 to 750.  Maggie and I could only feel very touched at how passionate people were about being present on this holiest of days. People had walked hours in order to walk some more. They desired to be present to Jesus and walk with Him.

During the final stations, the procession turned up the valley wall, symbolically mirroring the ascent of Calvary. The pitch was astoundingly steep, demanding your hands to push up on rocks and pull on small trees.  This was the way to celebrate the Way of the cross! It was quite the sight to see this large group slowly scurry up the rocky slope, suddenly stopping along the way to pray a station. Maggie and I climbed too.  Everyone around seemed very concerned that we were not going to make it. Tiny children and old women would extend their hands at tricky boulder locations to us! At one moment, I made the tinniest of slips on some loose gravel and 100 people all gasped in unison.

We arrived all together at the top of the slope and everyone sat down amongst the brush and rocks. The procession now flowed into the celebration of the Good Friday service which Fr. Sixtus started over the megaphone.  A few minutes later, the sky flipped from sunny to stormy and it poured. It poured hard.  Everyone huddled under the few umbrellas that people had brought. Maggie and I soon had 7 children piled in tightly under our umbrella.  The liturgy continued and everyone did their best to listen to the megaphone above the sound of the rain.

After communion had been distributed under umbrellas, the rain and the liturgy both ended together.  There were smiles all around – both from the happiness of having completed the 3 hour procession and from a humorous knowledge of having endured together the sun, mud, steep pitch and thunderstorm.  Roasted dry peas were passed around in celebration.

This story is not original or unique. It is the recounting of a scene which is played out in countless unknown places in the developing world – a scene where people who live in extreme material poverty gather together and turn their hearts to God.  The people did not come to hear a theological lecture on Jesus’ Passion or to participate in the Easter journey out of obligation.  They came simply to walk because they love Jesus and want to express their gratitude for the love He has shown them.

In front of this kind of faith, I could only but feel humbled.

– Mark & Maggie Banga

Comboni Lay Missionaries serving in Awassa, Ethiopia

Aspirants CLM meeting in Ghana


We held our meeting this 14th Feb. We first have a talk on Comboni Spirituality which was presented by our Spiritual Director Fr Godwin Kornu. First of all, he showed us the books that can help us in our journey: The Writings of Comboni, The passion of a life of Don Lozano, We the Heirs of Francesco Pierli. He then explained the word Spirituality by the way a person experiences God, him or herself and the world he/she is part of. The spirituality must be shaped by Christ but it is influenced by the time and our environment. And talking about the spirituality of a person demands to pass through the life, the history of the person, the way he experiences God. And this experience of an individual is unique. Father led us to discover that the “loving heart is a suffering heart” and “what is good is not relative” which means what is good cannot be determined by a tradition or a culture. What is good is good by itself. The relativism is one of the points that the Pope Emeritus Benedict condemned lots. (The theme is very broad so for now it is just an introduction).

GhanaAfter the presentation, we moved on for some discussions. The minutes of the last meeting was read and few corrections made. From the matters arisen, we agreed to levy ourselves with an amount which can be paid from now up to the next second meeting. At last, we decided to have a recollection on the 14th March to redo ourselves in the Lenten Season. The meeting was then moved to closure with prayer and benediction. After this, we had an agape.

Justin Nougnui, coordinator.

Wilderness, an opportunity to make a change

A commentary on Mc 1, 12-15: Firs Sunday of Lent, February 22nd 2015

The continuous reading of Mark’s first chapter, that we have been doing during the last four Sundays, has now been interrupted due to the beginning of Lent time, which in the Roman liturgy is a special time with its own readings’ system. Anyhow, in this first Sunday of Lent we remain still with this same first chapter of Mark, reading four verses of a great intensity. For my part, I Just recall here three brief reflections:

1) Wilderness: “talking is not the same as actually doing”
After being baptized by John and receiving the Father’s great declaration – “This is my beloved son”– Jesus goes to the wilderness “driven” by the Spirit. Why? Because between the word (vocation/declaration) “you are my beloved Son” and the fact (real, concrete life), there is a way to follow with faith and perseverance, discipline and work, clearness of mind and strength of will; a hard battle against the spirit of evil that surrounds us everywhere, pacifying the “wild beasts”, overcoming difficulties, doubts and temptations. Wilderness, as we know, represents in Jew history a place where to learn how to leave behind slavery times and attitudes, how to purify from infidelity, how to grow up as a people free and faithful.
Surely, we have also our own wilderness experiences. Which are the difficulties and tests we are going through in this time in our life? Which are our temptations? It is quite probable that we, as Israel and Jesus himself, see that our dream of living a truly Son’s life is still far away from reality; we are far from living a live that corresponds to the teachings of Jesus and our deep desire to live in truth and love, justice and generosity, peace and service. All of us have the experience that between our “word” (meaning good wishes) and our “facts” (good works) there’s still so much way to follow. Lent time is a good opportunity to re-affirm ourselves in this fight to make facts correspond to desires, to renew our hope and our decision to go own in the way of discipleship, that is proposed to us by Jesus.

2) Take the opportunity
Jesus comes out of the wilderness as a winner, confirmed in his vocation as a Son and sure that He is living a special moment in history, for himself and for the world. Jesus has experienced the loving nearness of the Father, not only in times of happiness and blessing, but also in times of difficulty, testing, temptation and spiritual fight. With that experience he comes out to mingle with people and convey a clear message: “The kingdom of God is near”, take the opportunity.
When we say that the Kingdom of God, what do we understand? Where’s the kingdom of God? Is it in the temple, in the working place, in the street, where? Certainly, It’s not a geographical place. The Kingdom of God –that is, his loving presence- is in us and around us, in the temple, in the family, in hospital, in the playing ground… Everywhere. Have you seen it? Look well. If y you have not seen it, it means that you have to wash your eyes, to clean your ears, to open your heart… Alas in this the Len time can help: a time for reading the Bible, to put order in our lives, to be generous in helping other… a time to open our spiritual eyes and see what maybe we are not seeing at this moment, due to the dust of fatigue, routine, repeated failures, wounded pride…

3) To change direction
Jesus invites the people of Palestine to believe in the presence of God among them and, as consequence, to change life, to abandon their condition of “slaves”, to assume their being children of the Father and to live up to that reality.
As a matter of fact, what is preventing us from seeing-hearing-touching the Kingdom of God in us and among us is our the attitude of Eve and Adam, when, having fallen in the trap of Satan, they dreamt that they could be “equals to God”, hiding behind “the fig leave” themselves and their naked arrogance, instead of acknowledging their error, to ask for forgiveness and to renew their friendship with the Creator. To believe is to come out of oneself and open our reality to the Other, the source of our life.
Len time is a good time, an opportunity to change our way, to leave behind our stupid wounded pride, that keeps us apart from our neighbour and the best part of our inner selves; an occasion to renew our faith that the Father’s Love is greater than our sins and errors and that in that Love we can renew ourselves, start again our journey toward the goal of a more serene and pacified life, transparent, generous, humble but confident… a life of God’s children on the way to a goal that is awaiting us besides the wilderness.
This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist, remembering the One that came out of the wilderness as winner and announcing that God wins also in each one of us and in our world, if only we believe and change our life to live accordingly.
Fr. Antonio Villarino

Make your hearts firm


“Make your hearts firm” (Jas 5:8)

papafranciscocuaresmaDear Brothers and Sisters,

Lent is a time of renewal for the whole Church, for each communities and every believer. Above all it is a “time of grace” (2 Cor 6:2). God does not ask of us anything that he himself has not first given us. “We love because he first has loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). He is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him. He is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us. Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others (something God the Father never does): we are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure… Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well off. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference. It is a problem which we, as Christians, need to confront.

When the people of God are converted to his love, they find answers to the questions that history continually raises. One of the most urgent challenges which I would like to address in this Message is precisely the globalization of indifference.

Indifference to our neighbour and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.

God is not indifferent to our world; he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation. In the Incarnation, in the earthly life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the gate between God and man, between heaven and earth, opens once for all. The Church is like the hand holding open this gate, thanks to her proclamation of God’s word, her celebration of the sacraments and her witness of the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6). But the world tends to withdraw into itself and shut that door through which God comes into the world and the world comes to him. Hence the hand, which is the Church, must never be surprised if it is rejected, crushed and wounded.

God’s people, then, need this interior renewal, lest we become indifferent and withdraw into ourselves. To further this renewal, I would like to propose for our reflection three biblical texts.

1. “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor 12:26) – The Church

The love of God breaks through that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference. The Church offers us this love of God by her teaching and especially by her witness. But we can only bear witness to what we ourselves have experienced. Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others. This is clearly seen in the liturgy of Holy Thursday, with its rite of the washing of feet. Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet, but he came to realize that Jesus does not wish to be just an example of how we should wash one another’s feet. Only those who have first allowed Jesus to wash their own feet can then offer this service to others. Only they have “a part” with him (Jn 13:8) and thus can serve others.

Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ. In this body there is no room for the indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts. For whoever is of Christ, belongs to one body, and in him we cannot be indifferent to one another. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).

The Church is the communio sanctorum not only because of her saints, but also because she is a communion in holy things: the love of God revealed to us in Christ and all his gifts. Among these gifts there is also the response of those who let themselves be touched by this love. In this communion of saints, in this sharing in holy things, no one possesses anything alone, but shares everything with others. And since we are united in God, we can do something for those who are far distant, those whom we could never reach on our own, because with them and for them, we ask God that all of us may be open to his plan of salvation.

2. “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9) – Parishes and Communities

All that we have been saying about the universal Church must now be applied to the life of our parishes and communities. Do these ecclesial structures enable us to experience being part of one body? A body which receives and shares what God wishes to give? A body which acknowledges and cares for its weakest, poorest and most insignificant members? Or do we take refuge in a universal love that would embrace the whole world, while failing to see the Lazarus sitting before our closed doors (Lk 16:19-31)?

In order to receive what God gives us and to make it bear abundant fruit, we need to press beyond the boundaries of the visible Church in two ways.

In the first place, by uniting ourselves in prayer with the Church in heaven. The prayers of the Church on earth establish a communion of mutual service and goodness which reaches up into the sight of God. Together with the saints who have found their fulfilment in God, we form part of that communion in which indifference is conquered by love. The Church in heaven is not triumphant because she has turned her back on the sufferings of the world and rejoices in splendid isolation. Rather, the saints already joyfully contemplate the fact that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, they have triumphed once and for all over indifference, hardness of heart and hatred. Until this victory of love penetrates the whole world, the saints continue to accompany us on our pilgrim way. Saint Therese of Lisieux, a Doctor of the Church, expressed her conviction that the joy in heaven for the victory of crucified love remains incomplete as long as there is still a single man or woman on earth who suffers and cries out in pain: “I trust fully that I shall not remain idle in heaven; my desire is to continue to work for the Church and for souls” (Letter 254, July 14, 1897).

We share in the merits and joy of the saints, even as they share in our struggles and our longing for peace and reconciliation. Their joy in the victory of the Risen Christ gives us strength as we strive to overcome our indifference and hardness of heart.

In the second place, every Christian community is called to go out of itself and to be engaged in the life of the greater society of which it is a part, especially with the poor and those who are far away. The Church is missionary by her very nature; she is not self-enclosed but sent out to every nation and people.

Her mission is to bear patient witness to the One who desires to draw all creation and every man and woman to the Father. Her mission is to bring to all a love which cannot remain silent. The Church follows Jesus Christ along the paths that lead to every man and woman, to the very ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). In each of our neighbours, then, we must see a brother or sister for whom Christ died and rose again. What we ourselves have received, we have received for them as well. Similarly, all that our brothers and sisters possess is a gift for the Church and for all humanity.

Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!

3. “Make your hearts firm!” (James 5:8) – Individual Christians

As individuals too, we have are tempted by indifference. Flooded with news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness?

First, we can pray in communion with the Church on earth and in heaven. Let us not underestimate the power of so many voices united in prayer! The 24 Hours for the Lord initiative, which I hope will be observed on 13-14 March throughout the Church, also at the diocesan level, is meant to be a sign of this need for prayer.

Second, we can help by acts of charity, reaching out to both those near and far through the Church’s many charitable organizations. Lent is a favourable time for showing this concern for others by small yet concrete signs of our belonging to the one human family.

Third, the suffering of others is a call to conversion, since their need reminds me of the uncertainty of my own life and my dependence on God and my brothers and sisters. If we humbly implore God’s grace and accept our own limitations, we will trust in the infinite possibilities which God’s love holds out to us. We will also be able to resist the diabolical temptation of thinking that by our own efforts we can save the world and ourselves.

As a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency, I would invite everyone to live this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 31). A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart. Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A heart which lets itself be pierced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters. And, ultimately, a poor heart, one which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others.

During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: “Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum”: Make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.

It is my prayerful hope that this Lent will prove spiritually fruitful for each believer and every ecclesial community. I ask all of you to pray for me. May the Lord bless you and Our Lady keep you.

From the Vatican, 4 October 2014

Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi


The outstretched hand: God’s power

<sA commentary on Mc 1, 40-45: Sunday, February 15th 2015
We read today the last part of Mark’s Chapter one, which we have been reading from the third Sunday to this sixth Sunday of ordinary time. On reflecting on this reading, that tells us about the experience of a leper healed by Jesus, after his private prayer, I would like to stress four points:

To acknowledge our own weaknesses and to reach out for help
The first thing that calls my attention in this story is that the leper –with a sickness considered at his time grave and a public disgrace– does not hide his reality; on the contrary, he acknowledges his sickness and his need to be helped out. He does not close himself up in bitter lowliness and despair; he comes out and decides to trust in himself, in his neighbour, in Jesus.
We certainly know that the first step to get healed is to accept that we are sick, not to deceive ourselves denying reality in sheer pride. The second step is to accept that we, by ourselves alone, are not able to overcome sickness or an addiction that is enslavering us, or any other situation of conflict. In our time, there’s much talk about self-esteem and self-help… That’s OK: each one of us, as a child of God, has his/her own dignity, talents, and resources…
But my experience is that self-esteem and self-help are not enough. In some moments, one has to know how to ask for help, how to reach out to somebody else, who can give us a needed material help, a good and clarifying word, a moral push… In that line we can understand the prayer of petition, that only the poor and humble understand. The rich and proud ones, of any type, do not ask for anything; they just command or pretend to. But if somebody considers himself/herself always rich, he or she is just lying, hiding his true reality. The leper’s prayer is typical of a humble person: “Lord, if you wish, you can heal me”.

The outstretched hand: God’s power
Confronted with the sincere leper’s prayer –a prayer made with the heart and the entire life, more than with words– Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. “To stretch out the hand”, over situations and people, is a gesture that in the Bible is related to God’s saving power. It is done by Moses over the Red Sea, by the prophets over their disciples and heirs, by the Apostles over sick people and their successors. But we know that the real power of God is his love. Indeed, as Pope Benedict the XVIth said, “only love redeems”. Love as a gentle pat, love as an encouraging gesture, love as a bandage over a wound, love as a clear word, love as understanding and solidarity in its many ways.
In Jesus, this healing love of God becomes a concrete face, a look that encourages, a hand that touches and heals. Also the Church –community of missionary disciples, extension of Jesus in Today’s history– becomes an outstretched hand to touch the sick, the feeble, the humiliated… a hand that touches and accompanies the voice that says: Do not be afraid, courage, “be healed”. Certainly, sickness is a part of every human experience, a part that cannot be avoided, but the worst of it is the feeling of being valueless, a kind of “nobody”, a useless individual. It is there that the hand of Jesus, the hand of the Church, in the name of Jesus, touches sus and says: Do not be afraid, your are most valuable in the eyes of God, your Father.

To be re-integrated into community’s life
Jesus commands the healed leper to go and present himself to the community leaders and perform the necessary rites to his re-integration. Those rites are quite simple –and we could disagree on its isolated worth– but together they help to keep the community united.
I remember, from my times as a missionary in Ghana, when a lady accused of sorcery was taken to me. After performing some rites and a long dialogue with the community, I went with her to the place where she was living. There I realized what the real problem was: she was a kind of a “leper”, in the sense that she was isolated from the community in so many ways. So the solution was somehow to “push” her to re-incorporate into the community’s life: feasts, rites, works, joys, sorrows, even fights.
Many of us need from time to time an spiritual push to humbly re-integrate ourselves again into our community: family, group, Christian community, parish, Church. To achieve this we need Jesus hand and word, which we can have in many places, especially in the Eucharist.

The messianic secret
Jesus commands the leper to keep silence on what has happened. He is enforcing the famous “messianic secret” to, according to the experts, protect himself from a false (political or triumphalist) interpretation of his mission.
I think that in our times, quite often, we are too much worried about our presence in the Means of Social Communication. Jesus shows us another way: the way of authenticity, of truth an transparency. If then the Media spread the news, we shall see how to react, but to look for publicity at any cost… does not seem to be the Jesus’ method.

Fr. Antonio Villarino