Sunday, July 15, 2012

St. Luigi Orione and Africa

In 2010 the 19th FIFA World Cup took place in South Africa, which then became the first African country to host this tournament. During the championship, the eyes of the world were fixed on Africa and its people, as they sang together with Shakira: “This time for Africa”
Consequently we, too, concentrated our gaze more closely on our African confreres and houses, especially in view of the flowering and growth of Don Orione’s congregation in that continent. Perhaps we had not shown such interest before, but already many years previously our Founder had looked towards Africa and its peoples, and entertained dreams and plans for the future.

Brazilian Vocations for those of African Descent
            One of St. Luigi Orione’s first thoughts about Africa concerned the situation and problems of vocations among those of African descent. Vocations, especially among the children of the poor, had always been his goal, and were one of his reasons for founding a new congregation. He used to say, “My one and only ambition is to be the “priest of vocations”[1].
       At that time, he faced two obstacles: poverty and canonical impediments. It was thought that such candidates should not become either priests or religious because they had only recently embraced the faith, either having come from mission lands or been slaves. Additionally, some European congregations had experienced difficulties in bringing African vocations to Europe, where the concept of inculturation was hardly known and was not yet readily acceptable by the people.
       When the first group of Orionine missionaries reached Brazil in January 1914, black people still struggled for recognition, both in society and the Church, even though slavery had been abolished 26 years previously. However, Don Orione had other ideas about vocations among those of African descent.
The Congregation had been invited to carry out pastoral work by Silverio Pimenta Gomes at Mariana in 1907. The first group of missionaries had reached that country in 1914, but the Founder only arrived in Rio de Janeiro many years later, on 20th August 1921.
After some months in Brazil Don Orione met Bishop Silverio, and both worked in favor of vocations among people of African descent. It should be taken into account that Bishop Silverio was himself of mixed-race and a very learned man.
Because of the reluctance of some dioceses and congregations to accept black people, Don Orione proposed to the Bishop that he should found two new branches of his congregation, one male and the other female, only for black people. Today, this may sound like discrimination or xenophobia, but at the time it was the only way to help black people to become either religious or priests.
Regarding the main topic discussed at that meeting, Don Orione wrote:
“As for the matter of black priests, Archbishop Silverio told me that it would be an act of justice to them, as it was they who, as slaves, had colonized Brazil. I know that some Bishops will oppose me, but “in nomine Domini” I will throw myself at their feet and let them walk over me. Another Archbishop has already spoken ill of you to me because you had admitted black people and those of mixed race. But I will either work for the vocations of black people “in Domino”, or I will leave Brazil. Will there be disappointments? I am sure there will, but I will not give up working with you for vocations among black people.”[2]

From then on, Don Orione was resolved to work for vocations among those of African descent, even though he was well aware that he would be misunderstood and criticized, and efforts would be made to stop him.
He also saw the mysterious ways of Divine Providence in it:
“And this is what I believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ desires and is asking of us: that black people from this land of His Holy Cross should go to redeem their former brothers (...). There, where these beloved black brothers of ours were taken into slavery, it is there they should return to bring the freedom of the children of God, and also labor so that that continent, which so far has seemed to resist the work of the White Fathers, may be conquered for the Cross by the preaching, the sacrifice and the blood of black missionaries.
           Thus, the black people who were so brutally seized and deported from Africa, who are still the victims of anti-Christian and uncivilized prejudices and a social injustice which has dragged them down for centuries, will set out on a new crusade, and God will be at their head…”[3]
But his dream was not to come true yet, because Archbishop Silverio passed away on 1st September 1922, and with him, any hopes for the foundation and recognition of the religious institutes for black people.

A Mission in Africa
       In a very interesting letter to Fr. Biagio, Don Orione spoke about inculturation and respect for other cultures, both in formation and on the missions and the different vocations within the congregation as priests, brothers and missionaries.
         Speaking about vocations for the missions, Don Orione mentioned a mission in Africa: “Vocations for the missions: I am going to Africa soon, where we will open another mission.”[4]
        In 1920, the Congregation had only one mission in Brazil, where Don Orione had not yet been[5], so that is why he talked about “another mission”.

A Leprosarium in Ethiopia
       On 26th June 1936, St. Luigi Orione read about a leprosarium to be opened in Adwa[6]in the North of Ethiopia. The following day, he sent a telegraph to the Minister of Education, Cesare Maria De Vecchi[7], offering both female and male religious personnel for the hospital. For him, it would be an opportunity to serve the poorest.
            “Trusting in divine help and with the approval of the Holy See, I offer myself and my male and female religious personnel, all Italians, to serve in the Eastern African leprosarium, glad  of this chance to give our lives to serving Christ in our poorest brothers.”[8]
On the same day that he sent the telegraph, he also informed Fr. Sterpi about it in a letter, where he also enclosed the text of the telegraph.
      “When I read yesterday that a Leprosarium is to be opened soon in Adwa, I immediately sent a telegraph to Italy, a copy of which I enclose: “Your Excellency, De Vecchi - Minister of Education – Rome. Trusting in divine help, and with the approval of the Holy See, I am offering myself and my male and female religious personnel…”[9]
            A few days later, he wrote to Fr. Bonetti and informed him about the telegraph and the acceptance of the Leprosarium in Abyssinia: “I have telegraphed the Italian Government and, in the name of God, accepted a big leprosarium which is to be opened in Abyssinia.” [10]

St. Luigi Orione on African Soil
            St. Luigi Orione wrote and sent three letters[11] from Dakar,[12] (Senegal, then a French Colony) on 27th June 1922, where his ship put in during his return voyage to Italy from South America. In a Letter to Fr. Contardi, he wrote: “Greetings from Dakar.”[13]
            In another letter, written after reaching Italy, he said that he had gone ashore in Dakar and seen “those who sweep”. “I reached Dakar and went ashore, where I saw those who sweep.” [14]
            We do not know what he meant by this remark about “those who sweep”. It may have been because it was an unusual job for men.[15]

Port of Dakar
Something about Inculturation
          In a letter to Fr. Pensa, St. Luigi Orione spoke about respect for other cultures, both in Italy and abroad, as well as following the customs and traditions of the place where religious were working.
          However, he did not use the word “inculturation,” though he transmitted this idea of adapting Catholicism to the customs and minds of the different peoples. 
           In this letter, he mentioned that in pictures of Our Lady in Africa, she was depicted as black, and wearing African clothes.
           “Is it likely that Our Lord wore the sort of clothes in which he is depicted today? I am sure he did not. Nowadays, he is shown dressed like this to conform to the customs and mentality of the people. And in Europe – where the white Caucasian race is dominant- the Holy Virgin Mary is fair-skinned and dressed in European style. In Africa, she is shown as dark-skinned and dressed in African style, while in China ...  missionaries depict her with a Chinese pigtail and Chinese clothes. Well, this is what we need to do to win over souls.” [16]

      We can divine Don Orione’s missionary heart from his African ideas, knowledge and dreams.
  • His concern for people of African descent in Brazil indicates a man who was not influenced by racist ideas or discouraged by misunderstandings, but rather a prophet and pioneer.  
  • He desired to go to evangelize Africa and to care for lepers, praising the missionaries’ work and practice of inculturation
  • He felt strongly about and lamented the effects of colonialism, such as bloodshed, wars, conscription, etc.
  • He knew something about the history of African religions, both pagan and Christian, as well as the lives of saints related to Africa and its people.
  • He spent a brief period on African soil.

       Africa was present in St. Luigi Orione’s thoughts and dreams. But the story was not to end there, for in 1971 his children came to perpetuate his missionary and charitable legacy there. 

Divine Providence then caused the Orionine family to grow, and African sons and daughters have come to enrich the Orionine family and charism with their ancient wisdom and traditions.

Today the Don Orione family is no longer in Africa, but it is already African.

 Fr. Facundo Mela, fdp

[1] Papasogli George, The Life of Don Orione, IV ed. (updated) Gribaudi, Milan 1994, p. 365.
[2] Letter to Mother Teresa Michel. Mar de Hespanha, 14th October 1921. Scritti 50,112ff.
[3] Idem.
[4] Letter to Fr. Biagio. Tortona, 5th August 1920. Scritti 32, 5 and 32, 9.
[5] His first trip to South America was in 1921.
[6] Adwa (Adowa, Aduwa, or Adua) is a market town in northern Ethiopia.
[7] Cesare Maria De Vecchi was governor of Italian Somaliland from 1923 to 1928 and the first ambassador to the Vatican after the Concordat of 1929. Don Orione knew him personally.
[8] Draft of the telegraph to the Minister of Education, Mr. De Vecchi. Scritti 93,509 and 93, 377.
[9] Letter to Fr. Sterpi. Buenos Aires, 27th June 1936. Scritti 19, 43 and 19, 83.
[10] Letter to Fr. Valentin Bonetti. 7th July 1936 (there is no mention of the place, but it was Buenos Aires). Scritti 38, 216 and 38, 224.
[11] Letters to Fr. Francesco Casa, Fr. Enrico Contardi and Fr.Giuseppe Zanocchi. Dakar, 27th June 2010.
[12] Dakar is the capital city of Senegal, situated on the Atlantic coast of the Cap-Vert Peninsula. It has one of the largest deep-water seaports along the West African coast. Its position, at the crossroads of the major sea-lanes linking Europe to South America, makes it a natural port of call for shipping companies
[13] Letter to Fr. Enrico Contardi. Dakar, 27th June 2010. “Ricevete un saluto da Dakar.”
[14] Letter to Fr. Enrico Contardi. The date of the letter is 4th …. 1922. There is no mention of either the place or the month, but because of the context of the letter, immediately after his arrival to Italy, it is supposed to have been written from Genoa on 4th July 1922. He mentioned having seen “those who sweep.”
[15] In Italian, the word quelli is a plural male pronoun.
[16] Letter to Fr. Pensa. Tortona, 5th August 1920. Scritti 20, 64 and 20, 89. There is another version of this text in Scritti 20, 97d.

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