I SPENT the evening with Bishop Martin of Ngozi trying to
grasp his problems. He read me part of his annual report. It was
heart-rending: the words of a shepherd who cannot cope with his
is about the size of Yorkshire and Lancashire combined and about
the same shape, but it has half a million Christians and catechumens.
The Bishop had opened nine very large churches in the past five
years. The smallest of them held 3,000 people.
"We need at least thirteen new missions urgently," he
said. "I have thirteen mission posts with more than twenty
thousand Christians in them; one of 40,000 has only four priests;
another of 29,000 only three priests. We cannot cope with it; yet
we give our neophytes only the minimum of spiritual help. I don't
know how they keep their faith," he continued. "We have
almost no personal contacts with our people outside the brief moment
with each one in the confessional. They wait in their hundreds for
a priest to visit them and have to be content with a catechist.
Yet they do wait, faithfully. What can we do for our young people?
They need help. The bride-price system is one great problem. I have
started parish councils everywhere. They do great work with Catholic
action groups, and they are trying to change the rigid attitude
of local custom towards the marriage dowry; they organise material
help and keep an eye on local social problems."
"We can only choose from among the many things we ought to
do," he said, echoing the words of Bishop Grauls.
I am afraid to start any new activity, afraid to add to the
burden of my priests; I have had to slow down the movement of the
League of the Sacred Heart, because the monthly general Communion
added so many extra confessions that the priests were unable to
do other work. We do what we can, but it is heart-rending to see
what could be done if only we had more priests, brothers, and laymen."
His Lordship then repeated what Bishop Grauls had said to me:
"The brothers are so few that priests, who can ill be spared,
have to give their time to building. I can never send a brother,
for example, to build a bush station. All the brothers are at work
in the central missions and the schools. Take Brother Marcelinus,
for example, he has been here five years, and during that time he
has used 6,000,000 bricks and 250,000 tiles, all made by hand."
I looked round at the work of those five years; a beautiful church,
convent, schools, mission station . . . what a satisfying record
for five years work!
"Each of the six brothers in this vicariate has at least one
big church to his name. I'll take you out tomorrow morning and show
you what it's like," he finished. Ngozi Cathedral was being
packed a second time for Mass when I left the mission with Bishop
Martin: "to see what it was like", on that Sunday morning.
"I always go to confession before a long drive," said
the Bishop, "it's safer!"
I made a hasty act of contrition, just in case, and thought of August
22nd. I wonder why all these Bishops drive like men possessed. I
suppose they are possessed with the urgency of their apostolate.
All along the roads we met gaily dressed groups of Christians either
going to or coming from the church.
"Ten years ago they were all wearing animal skins, now look
at them," said His Lordship.
Whenever we stopped, the people dropped on their knees smiling and
waiting for a greeting and a blessing. Some twenty miles out we
came to the central bush station of Mivo, where a young priest was
at work. This was not a mission, it was an out-station, visited
about once a month. Yet there were two thousand Christians on the
spot and five thousand more in the sub-stations dependent on this
central bush station.
We drove into the clearing. Hundreds of people were assembled. It
was almost time for the second Mass. The "church" was
a long thatched building completely open on one side to allow those
who could not get in to assist from the outside. It was packed to
the door. A priest was giving out Communion, a catechist was leading
the people at prayers. It was impossible to move up the church to
the altar, so the young priest was slowly moving through the tightly
packed masses giving Communion to anyone who asked. About twenty
yards away, in another long hut-like building, another catechist
was conducting the special Sunday service of the catechumens, who
were not allowed to assist at Mass.
While we waited, four carriers brought in a rough litter. On it
lay a paralysed old woman. She was called Antonia. They had carried
her from Shango, six miles away. The Bishop went over and knelt
beside her to hear her confession as she lay on her stretcher, just
outside the back entrance to the sanctuary. Then he called the priest
to bring her Holy Communion, and she lay there quietly all during
I had a word with the young priest before Mass started. He was half-dead
with fatigue but somehow radiant.
"I arrived here on Tuesday evening," he explained. "I
heard 1,475 confessions before Saturday. I've distributed over two
thousand Communions this morning; I feel half-dead but it's worth
I looked into the single hut which had been his "presbytery"
since Tuesday; he probably did not notice the grimness of its poverty,
being too busy with his beloved Christians.
The Bishop preached, then we drove straight off without waiting;
he wanted us to see all we could on this Sunday morning.
Half an hour later we were at Busiga, a mission of25,000 Christians.
We just had time to look into the church which holds 5,000 people.
It was packed to the doors. Then we went on to another mission a
dozen miles away.
On the way we passed through three large central bush stations exactly
like Mivo. All these stations are visited once every four to six
weeks from a Tuesday to a Sunday evening. We did not stop, there
was no time.
We arrived at Muhanga. It had three priests to look after thirty-three
thousand Christians. The last Mass was just finishing; 3,000 people
were pouring out of the church. A tired priest came over to the
mission to find us sitting there. I felt guilty. I had done so little
to help and here I was "'sitting".
"We're going down to Rukago out-station," said the Bishop,
"we'll probably be late."
"Mind the bridge," said the priest, "there's a hole
in it, but you'll be all right if you take a good run at it!"
We left for Rukago and at every bend I looked out for the bridge.
"There it is!" shouted the Bishop, putting his foot hard
down on the accelerator with unholy glee. We shot over and just
kept to the road on the other side.
We reached Rukago. The crowds had already gone. "If I could
put a priest here," said the Bishop thoughtfully, "he'd
have 20,000 Christians and catechumens to look after. It must be
made a mission soon."
We had done about eighty miles, but what I had seen could not be
expressed in eighty pages. I had seen a miracle of grace: priests
struggling to cope with those who want the sacraments, who want
the Mass, who want instructions. "The little ones seek bread
and there is nobody . . ."
The system of the central bush station is the key to the apostolate
in the huge Missions of Uganda, Ruanda and Urundi. The area of a
mission is covered by building a ring of large bush stations, some
three hours walking distance in each direction from the mission
proper. These form the central bush stations. Around each such station
within a radius of one and a half hours walking distance, are the
sub-stations; six or eight to each centre. Every four to six weeks,
the bush centre has a priest in residence from the Tuesday to Sunday,
and all the Christians of the dependent sub-stations come in for
confessions and instructions during the week and for Mass on the
Sunday. The small sub-stations, of which there are from forty to
ninety in each mission or parish, are visited only once a year,
except for sick calls, but there is a resident catechist in each
one. On the Sundays when there is no priest in the bush centre,
the Christians still assemble to recite the prayers of the Mass
and to listen to an instruction read by the chief catechist.
"Thus," said Bishop Martin, "I manage to multiply
the action of the missionaries by five or six; in some cases by
ten, according to the number of bush centres to each mission. "
Father Jim Meade, an American, drove up soon after our return
to the Bishop's residence. He had been happily at work in Mwanza,
Tanganyika Territory, when he got a letter calling him back to the
States to take charge of publications. No wonder he looked a bit
glum! As we sat on the verandah, came a laughable anti-climax to
my busy day.
"I think I've got jiggers," I said, pointing to a couple
of lumps on my foot.
The Bishop let out a whoop of delight:
"Let's see ! " He yelled for the cook, a pin, and a match,
and the jiggers were taken out by the African as neatly as any surgeon
would have done the job.
We borrowed the Bishop's car and set off for Busiga Mission which
I had passed through the day before. I found the Ladies of Mary
at work, and edged my way through the crowd into a tiny clinic to
meet Mother Marie Joseph who was patiently dealing with a
long line of sick people.
"In the afternoon we run a post-natal clinic with at least
six hundred consultations a day," said Mother Marie, "Brother
Anthony has promised to build a bigger clinic as soon as he
The said Brother Anthony had just completed the church, which he
had built in six months; exclusive of making the bricks. It held
5,000 people. At Ngozi, Mother Candide of the same Congregation
had taken me round the hospital of which she was the matron and
the mid-wife. Then I visited the teachers' training college and
the secondary school. I saw Mother Imelda from Limerick,
who had a social centre for the women every afternoon. Then I spent
a short time with the Bana Maria, the African Daughters of Mary.
They were a happy crowd of ten novices and twenty-six postulants,
with their Mistress of Novices of the Ladies of Mary, who started
the Congregation a few years ago.
Bishop Martin said later: "One of our most urgent problems
is the improvement of the home and the raising of the standard of
the African women. Nobody can do this work like the nuns. The teachers'
training college run by the Ladies of Mary, not only forms the teachers
who complete the work of the home, but it also prepares excellent
Christian mothers on whom so much depends.
"There is something wrong with this car, the steering is queer,"
said Father de Decker, who was driving.
Leo gave me a quizzical look! We went very slowly back to Ngozi
and into the mission garage.
"The main chassis is cracked right through and one of the front
wheels is loose. You cannot use it," said the Brother.
I did not want to, but I thought, just for a moment, of the bridge
with a hole in it. We must have a special legion of Guardian Angels
looking after us all on the missions!
I walked down behind the mission at Ngozi to look at a long line
of brick-kilns, some already "fired" and open, ready to
be turned into churches, schools and hospitals. Others were still
burning, still more were being skilfully built up and the wood fires
prepared. In that little avenue were about a million bricks, all
hand-made; a team was at work all the year round. As the Bishop
had already told me, Ngozi Mission alone (not the diocese) had used
6,000,000 bricks, a quarter of a million tiles, and 2,000 cubic
yards of stone. One brother, Brother Marcellinus, used all
this in five years. Such is an example of what can be done by a
man who consecrates the labours of his hands to God.
Thirty years ago there were three missions here with four thousand
Christians. Now there were four thousand in the Legion of Mary alone,
and half a million Christians.
We borrowed the car of the kindly Ladies of Mary to go to Katara
Mission. As we approached we saw the beautiful church peeping through
the trees. It is appropriately dedicated to St. Theresa. It holds
6,000 people! This mission was founded on December 8th, 1929, and
now numbered 43,500: there were four priests.
"Look out of that window," said Father Schwartz,
"there are 12,000 Christians within ten miles, and it's the
same out of each window! "
"Last week in the out-station of Lambamba I heard 2,840 confessions.
They sit and wait from six in the morning till three or four in
the afternoon for their turn."
Father Superior did not come in to lunch, he had a queue of hundreds
waiting to hand in marriage details.
I went out with Father Schwartz to visit a local sorceress. She
was out: perhaps word of our coming had gone ahead! We paid a visit
to several Christian families hidden deep in their banana groves:
all gave us a charming welcome. We came back to find two women waiting
for Father Schwartz, holding their faces. He sat them down on a
low wall and soon they went off smiling, each one holding an extracted
tooth in her hand.
We sat and chatted, and soon we had a hot discussion going about
the need of a vernacular liturgy. The Father contrasted the wonderful
attention of the people at Low Mass when a catechist leads the people
in the prayers of the Mass, and the apparent boredom, especially
among the youth, at a High Mass, when all the singing was in Latin.
Having had the privilege of being present with the Africans at
Mass, many times, throughout my tour, and having experienced their
remarkable power of entering into the Holy Sacrifice, I am convinced
that we must be at pains not to stifle their natural desire to participate,
in their own way, in the mysteries and wonders provided for them
by Mother Church. Otherwise, how can we hope to hold all the African
Christians if we oblige them to express, in our European fashion,
the Faith which we share in common.
I was greatly impressed by the quiet calm of these huge missions,
yet a colossal amount of work was being done. I think the secret
of it all lies in the regular life and good organisation. Without
these it would be impossible. But even so, the strain is apparent
on the faces of many missionaries. They cannot go on hour after
hour in the confessional, day after day; yet they must.
The sheer numbers to deal with would frighten a man who did not
keep on turning his eyes towards God and eternity. Nevertheless
these missionaries turn their eyes also towards us wondering what
we are going to do to help.
Statistics are often difficult to grasp; those of the missions must
be studied with the heart as well as with the mind. I am afraid
of boring readers, but how, otherwise than by figures, can I hope
to bring home the magnitude of the task which faces the White Fathers
and the African clergy in these parts?
In the area I had just visited; Uganda, Ruanda, Urundi, there was
on average a new group of 1,500 adult Christians added every WEEK!
But the number of priests did not change.
No wonder the Bishops looked worn and grey.
Bishop Martin drove us down to Usumbura. He drove cautiously, for
he remembered the cracked chassis. Once he asked me to get down
on the road some distance ahead and watch the car advancing.
"See if the front wheels are wobbling!" he said.
Just as I finished my inspection we saw a group of people ahead.
They came up to us.
"My Lord, when are you going to keep your promise and give
us a priest?" It was the leader of the small group of Christians
who spoke, as they knelt down in the road for a blessing.
" Abasacerdoti ndabakure hehe? . . . And where am I to get
the priest from?" answered the Bishop. "You hurt me by
"We are sorry, My Lord, but we were afraid you would forget
The Bishop turned to me and said what I had thought so often during
these last few days: "Parvuli petierunt panem . . . the little
children ask for bread and there is no one to give it to them."
It was the shepherd speaking, a shepherd who does not know what
more he can do for his flock in spite of their obvious needs. All
the way down through Uganda from Rubaga to Kabale, from Mutolere
to Kabgayi and now in Urundi I heard the same thing, I saw the same
scenes: thousands, not hundreds but thousands of men, women and
children seeking the priest, hungry for the Sacraments . . . "And
there was nobody to give it to them".
About thirty-five miles from Usumbura we stopped. The road was built
along a narrow ridge, and a hundred feet below me I saw a small
stream which I was told was one of the sources of the River Nile.
Away to the right was another small stream, a source of the River
Congo. Two small streams, the beginnings of two mighty rivers. They
are examples and symbols of mighty things which have small beginnings,
like the missions in this part of the world.
At Usumbura I said goodbye, not only to Bishop Martin and the Ladies
of Mary, who presented me with eight lovely spears, but also to
my own Expedition. Our job was over. On Sunday our photographer,
Leo, was to fly back to his beloved Antwerp. He said he never wanted
to leave it again! Father de Decker was going back to Kabgayi to
set up a museum before returning to Brussels. I was no longer needed
and, unfortunately, I had to use the return half of the ticket they
gave me in Brussels; but I was to return via Tanganyika and Uganda
to see all I could of their wonderful mission lands.
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