Catholic Free Press

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  • Jan
  • 9

Experiencing universal Church

Posted By January 9, 2014 | 1:02 pm | Featured Article #3
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By Donato Infante
Special to The CFP

For Christmas break, two classmates and I went to Benin to have an immersion experience in which we learned about the Church in Africa. During our 13-day trip, we were hosted by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, who have custody of a Marian shrine in Allada, which is also where they have their house of formation for aspirants and postulants, and at their house in Bembèrèkè, their house for novices.
The Church in Benin is strong and growing. When on Christmas I noticed very few people came to the shrine in Allada for Mass, I began to think that either we were staying in an area with very few Catholics or that the rate of Mass attendance was low.  I asked the priest and learned that there was a parish right around the corner staffed by three priests that would be filled with people for Christmas.  The shrine is primarily used to host special events, like a two-day youth conference, very much like the Steubenville Conferences that take place in the United States, and to broadcast Mass over the Friars’ radio station, Immaculate Conception Radio, which is re-broadcast in various frequencies throughout the country, airing Christian music, catechetical material, Bible studies, and the rosary.  The friars also assist at a local orphanage.
During our stay in Bembèrèkè in the north, the friars assist with Mass at the local parish and in the villages, at which point we saw first-hand how vibrant the faith was.  We learned that while we in the United States often speak of the New Evangelization, and one might think that as a former Portuguese and then French colony Benin was evangelized once before, the north only received a full-time priest about 40 years ago.  The people are hearing the Gospel for the first time and many are coming to Christ.
The primary way in which the Franciscans evangelize is not through the parish or the radio but by their presence.  Since both houses are houses of formation, they are larger than the average Franciscan friary.  While not everyone will remain with the order to make final vows, the number of those entering to see if they are meant for life as a Franciscan is high, about 15 a year.  Because the friary is so large, the friars will make frequent trips to the market to pick up bread, vegetables, and because it was the celebratory time of Christmas, also fish and chicken.  In these encounters, conversations start about everyday life, which eventually lead to conversations about the faith.
Many Americans think of Africa as a continent that is constantly experiencing starvation due to droughts and sometimes due to wars.  This is not an accurate description of all of Africa, and Benin, a country in West Africa, is not like that.  However, that does not mean that life is easy for the average person there, where one third live on less than $1.25 a day.  It is a hard day’s work to ensure that one has enough money to buy food.  In order to alleviate this, the Franciscans have installed a giant well that anyone can use to get fresh water without cost, instead of buying bottles of water or having to boil and purify other types of water.  Similarly, for many, going to school is a long walk on a fairly dangerous road due to traffic, and so the Franciscans have raised money to buy a small school bus and to hire a driver to pick up these children.  The Franciscan sisters are in the midst of building a home and school for girls.
At the same time, because the friars rely on donations from outside of Benin, sometimes they have to make due with less than ideal. During the two-day youth event that we witnessed, which 8,000 young people attended, the equipment for the well stopped working. The event was going to have to end early, but they were able to fix the equipment in time for those sleeping outside in tents; however, for the friars living at the friary, they had to wait for the event to be over before they had water again.
Our experience in Benin was one that we all enjoyed.  The Beninois were a very welcoming and hospitable people.  When we visited people at their homes, we were always received as special guests with much warmth.  Seeing the way in which they live our Catholic faith was beautiful, making clear that we are all one Church with different cultures.  These are memories that will last a life-time.

– Donato Infante is a seminarian for the Diocese of Worcester, studying in Rome.