Since its beginnings, the Congregation of Holy Cross has been marked by its missionary character. Even when the community numbered only a few religious, Blessed Basil Moreau already was sending the first missionaries to Algeria, the United States, Canada, and Bengal (now Bangladesh). Today Holy Cross works in 18 countries, many of them among the poorest in the world.
For five months last year, I got to know the work of Holy Cross in the District of East Africa, which ministries in the countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Africa is for the Church and the world a continent of great hopes, but at the same time of great material poverty, overshadowed perhaps above all by the distrust of the political leaders.
As a Congregation, we arrived in East Africa more than 50 years ago, and today Holy Cross sees the fruits as well as the challenges that come with the work of evangelization in these countries. Over these five decades, Holy Cross has been blessed by the growth of primary and secondary schools and parishes in which lay people and grassroots communities maintain a very lively pastoral and missionary work – often serving in very poor places where the roads are almost impassable and there is no electricity or running water.
Today there are more than 60 Holy Cross priests and brothers and over 30 Holy Cross sisters working in this region. With few exceptions, almost all of them are African. They represent the real enculturation of Holy Cross in East Africa.
Currently there are over 70 young men in formation preparing to be Holy Cross priests and brothers. Many of them want to work as teachers and missionaries, and they reflect all the diversity of languages and customs present in East Africa. Each of them must learn at least four languages in order to allow them to serve in the places of greatest need, but also to convey a Christian and Catholic faith that respects and values the richness of each culture.
Before going to East Africa, I thought of the many diseases that I could contract there. I also thought of how difficult it would be to live without electricity and potable water in a hot climate full of mosquitoes. But I found it to be a quite different reality. One can easily accustom himself to live without electricity and running water when each new day you marvel at the faces that reward you with a smile and how a conversation with someone else is valued as the most important moment.
The Catholic faith is growing, and growing rapidly, in that part of the world. Much of the work of evangelization is carried out by catechists, who are mostly men dedicated to serving the spiritual and material needs of the people. They are respected as leaders in the community, and they know that means a great responsibility for them in caring for their local community.
One Sunday I had to attend Sunday worship in a community where the priest could come only once a month. The catechist presided at the celebration, and the church as crowded just like the Sunday when the priest is present. The celebration lasted more than two hours with the songs of the people and their drums, the preaching of the catechist, the offerings of real fruits grown in the field, and the active participation of all in the community, reflecting the present of the Risen Christ in their midst.
As there was no priest and they do not have the custom of reserving the Eucharist, there was no Sunday communion. Yet by no means did the people leave feeling they had lost out. For them it was normal that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was given to them by the priest when he could come and celebrate Mass with them.
At the end of the celebration, they collected all the offerings that serve to sustain the catechist and the mission of this local Catholic community. Then the community received with great joy the news that one of its young wanted to enter religious life. For them, it is a fruit of the mission they offer to God as a sign of the maturing of their Church – one that will come to have much to offer the Universal Church.
It was in seeing such joy and hope springing from faith that I came to realize that as distant as Africa may seem, it is really quite close to us. We are connected, yes, by all our modern technologies, but even more so we are connected in the Body of Christ. And if we can take advantages of these connections – which is one of the main gifts we in Holy Cross as an international Congregation have to offer the Church and the world – then we can come to know Africa and learn from it … discovering ever more deeply Christ dwelling in the midst of us all.
Fr. José Ahumada, C.S.C., is a member of the District of Chile where he serves as Rector of St. George’s College in Santiago. This past year, Fr. José spent several months on sabbatical in the District of East Africa, which was the source of this reflection that he shared with the Spes Unica Blog. Learn more about the missionary work of Holy Cross, including a video showcasing firsthand how the United States Province hastens along the God’s Kingdom in its missions. Learn more also about the particular work of Holy Cross in East Africa and in Chile.