Africana Plus

No45 April 2001.3

The Centenary of the Missionaries of Africa in North America


One hundred years ago, to quote the words of the Archbishop of Quebec of the day, "there began Africa’s peaceful invasion of the Canadian continent." On 5 March 1901 the first Canadian White Father, Father John Forbes, asked permission, in the name of his Society, to open a house in Quebec. On 11 March the Archbishop gave permission and wrote: "I agree to your request, dear Father, with a full heart…It is an honor for a diocese to offer fraternal hospitality to a Congregation like the White Fathers…I look forward with pleasure to seeing your young philosophers and theologians among our seminarians. Come then and rejoice our hearts by taking your place in our midst." One hundred years later there are 304 Missionaries of Africa, Fathers and Brothers, belonging to the Province of North America. Of these, 188 are living in Canada, 27 in the United States and 89 in Africa.

Why did the White Fathers wish to make a foundation in Canada? Their Founder, Cardinal Lavigerie, who was born in Bayonne, France, in 1825, wished the community he was founding to be international. "I deliberately planned that all the countries with interests in Africa should be represented in my Society…I declared that I would not be prepared to keep any one of you who did not embrace all the members of the Society with equal affection, whatever his nationality…My ambition is that when people speak of out little Society, they will be able to say that it is at least eminently Catholic." By this word the Cardinal clearly meant "universal, belonging to all nations". In 1890 the Society had no more than 300 members, the vast majority of them French; nevertheless even then it was already international in principle. There was one Canadian, the future Bishop John Forbes, and it was he who eleven years later was the founder of the White Fathers’ American Province. In the space of one hundred years it would produce about 700 missionaries.

Internationality is one of the special characteristics of the Society of Missionaries of Africa. Forty-eight nationalities are represented in the present membership, and each of the five hundred communities working in Africa is international. The Society has therefore been faithful to the wishes of its Founder. In world in which the voices of racism compete with the prophets of universal brotherhood, like the bad and the good seed growing together, the Missionaries of Africa proclaim the unity of God’s family by living in intercultural and intercontinental families. It is part of their special missionary vocation to accept a wide variety of persons into their brotherhood.

In addition to Canadians, Americans and Europeans, the Missionaries of Africa now have members from Mexico, Asia (India and the Philippines), and Latin America (Mexico and Brazil). Openness to the other and respect for difference is a basic principle of the Society. When we speak of Catholicity in this context, we do not mean simply the material presence of many nations within the Society; we are thinking rather of a characteristic of the mission which it seeks to carry out. The mission itself becomes catholic. We are no longer thinking of a handful of bearded European missionaries leaving to evangelize Africa. The young Churches of Africa and other parts of the world are beginning to be conscious of the missionary dimension of the Christian vocation; they too are beginning to look beyond their own national frontiers. The mission covers all five continents, and all five continents have the responsibility for it. The Missionaries of Africa aspire to be especially Africa’s voice in this five-voice choir.

A team of White Fathers in Africa aspires to reflect the universal face of the Church. Living, praying and working together, they try to get to know each other and to respect their differences. Thus their life in international communities becomes a sign of the Kingdom of God. Their Founder had left them this command: "My final recommendation, beloved sons, is the most important of the three, the one without which the other two would be useless. It is the recommendation of St Paul, Love one Another. Remain united, in heart and in thought. Form truly a single family, and cultivate esprit de corps, in the Christian and apostolic sense of that term."

Who then are they, these Missionaries of Africa? They are in the first place men who are in love with God. They have responded to the loving call of Jesus Christ and have offered their life in the service of the Good News which the Lord wished to bring to the human family: a message of hope, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of compassionate love. By His life He proclaimed to all that they are children of the same loving Father and members therefore of a single family.

The Missionaries of Africa are also in love with Africa. It is there that they are sent. At a time when many people are wondering about the credibility of Africa, the Missionaries of Africa wish to stand at the side of the people among whom they live, close to them and to what they are going through. They remain signs of hope for all those who have despaired of Africa. This nearness to the poor is not some kind of romantic dream but an austere demand calling for daily conversion. It requires from the Missionaries a style of life which makes them welcoming and approachable. They learn the people’s languages and seek to penetrate their mentality. They share personally in the joys and sorrows of their African brothers and sisters. They work in collaboration with them and share their cultural and spiritual riches, for they did not come to Africa simply to teach but also to learn. They believe that the Spirit of God was already active in the hearts of these people long before their own arrival. They seek therefore to listen respectfully to the Africans, trying to discover with them the presence of God in their lives.

The Missionaries of Africa believe too that plan of God for the salvation of his people concerns more than life after death. That is why they get involved in works for justice, progress and development in Africa. In this way they accept the prophetic dimension of their vocation wherever they may be sent. Like Jesus, they share not only the compassionate love of the Father but also his indignation at their deplorable situation. Many Africans lives in regions torn apart by wars, exile, injustice, tribal discrimination, poverty, famine; while others may live in rich countries but still experience squalor and isolation, marginalized and treated as outsiders because they are Africans or Muslims. It is always the weakest who suffer from all these miseries, and it is they who claim the Missionaries’ time, help and friendship. So the Missionaries turn into prophets who raise awkward questions:

Missionaries are called to be people who take the first step to meet persons, whatever be their convictions or their religion. They try especially to enter into contact with their Muslim brothers and sisters in order to discover the Spirit of God at work within them. They respect them and take an interest in them, even when they encounter incomprehension and hostility. They are not afraid to enter into dialogue with them and to share with them their own experience of faith.

Africa is however bigger than the geographical continent. It is present in North America, and Missionaries wish to help people from different African countries to preserve their identity and to live here with their own culture and way of life. They listen to the calls and the appeals of immigrants, and seek to create a spirit of openness and fraternity towards them. Even in their own home countries, the Missionaries of Africa want to live out their missionary vocation and to build bridges between peoples, cultures and local churches. They wish to fight all forms of racism, and they offer their services to the churches of North America in helping to integrate immigrants and to bring all believers together.

Sister Marie-Hélène Blais, a Member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, formerly known as the White Sisters, who were founded like the White Fathers by Cardinal Lavigerie, gives us a good summary of the missionary ideal of both Societies: "Since my return from Algeria, I have tried to co-operate with a reception organization and to be more present to the world of refugees. I try to give friendly support and to understand the needs of these men and women who have been uprooted from their homes, often after painful experiences, and are now trying to come to grips with the problems of adaptation and integration. We who have worked in Algeria know what it means to be classed as a foreigner, and we try to make the people of Quebec aware of the real life of these refugees and immigrants who arrive in never-ending streams. Do they disturb us? Do we really regard them as brothers and sisters who are bringing with them spiritual riches as well as differences? Building bridges, making connections, breaking down barriers, living daily life in sharing and solidarity: this is the meaning which we who have been marked by Africa attach to our mission here in Quebec. "

How do the Missionaries of Africa see themselves in North America? Hélène Lussier, a close collaborator, has spoken of this. "When I think of what the White Fathers are, I am filled with wonder. They give me a taste for the missionary life in my own family and social circle. These missionaries whom I meet in Canada do not ask how many ‘pagans’ there still are out there to be converted; they are only interested in bearing fruit wherever they are sent. They have a keen sense of adaptation, and that is what helps them to fit into their milieu so easily. They are men with shining eyes, welcoming and listening, men filled with the same charitable ideal as their founder. The Missionary of Africa appointed to Canada teaches me the meaning of local incarnation: ‘grow and flourish where you are planted,’ they say to me by their whole way of life."

What then is the future of these men who have been bitten by the missionary bug, so to express it? Mission does not belong to a world gone by. The world today, and Africa in particular, still has a terrible need of it. That is why the Missionaries of Africa believe that God is still calling young people to make Christ known in places where He is not yet known. The shortage of Gospel messengers is not being made good by the Africanization of the Church. The case seems in fact to be the reverse, for the African Bishops, and through them the whole African Church, are continually making pressing appeals for personnel to the universal Church. The tasks involved in the Kingdom of God are innumerable: the evangelization of non-Christians; the training of clergy and catechists; the promotion of the autonomy of the local African Churches; the building up of a more human society; education; the struggle for justice and peace in and with the African Church.

The African continent today has a human population of 770 million. It is expected to reach 1.2 billion by the year 2015. Such growth has a number of consequences. There may well be explosions in urban populations, along with a progressive depopulation of the rural areas. This spectacular demographic growth helps us to understand why in most African countries most of the population is under fifteen years of age. The dynamism of these young people constitutes Africa’s vitality and promise. The Africa of today and tomorrow is still calling us as insistently as ever.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.


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