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Sowing Hope in Sierra Leone

Interview With Xavierian Missionary Father Bongiovanni

By Victor Suma

ROME, JAN. 20, 2008 (Zenit) - After 30 years of missionary work in Sierra Leone, Xavierian Father Victor Bongiovanni says the youth of that West African nation need someone to listen to them and put hope in their hearts again.

In this interview with us, Father Bongiovanni speaks of the lessons learned after three decades in Africa.

Q: How did the idea of working in Sierra Leone ever come about?

Father Bongiovanni: I belong to a missionary congregation. When I was a theology student, in my final year, my superiors asked me where I wanted to work. I chose Africa and these were my preferences: 1. Congo, 2. Burundi, 3. Sierra Leone. They decided on Sierra Leone: Thanks be to God!

My friends in Italy were telling me: "You are 'great' because you are going to Sierra Leone to carry Jesus to them; you are going to promote social development and to help needy people." I was so nave that I believed them. I was thinking about being 'great' I arrived in Sierra Leone to discover that Jesus was already here waiting for me, that Sierra Leoneans were the ones promoting the development of their country. To help the needy I depend very much on benefactors from abroad. But I discovered that my service in Sierra Leone was not one of filling empty bottles, but one of removing the caps and pulling out of the people what they already had. I am here, grateful to them, that they have accepted me as a "guest of honor"; I am here at their service, working for them, with them.

Q: How did your early training in life prepare you for this assignment?

Father Bongiovanni: When I found out about my assignment to Sierra Leone, I asked Bishop Azzolini, the first bishop of the diocese, and some missionaries about the necessities of Sierra Leone and what kinds of services they needed from a missionary. I was told that there was a need of pastoral catechesis. So I started studying catechesis. I attended the Pontifical Salesian University of Rome. It was supposed to be a four-year course, but because I had just finished studying theology, I did it in two years. I found that course very useful. It really prepared my mind for service in Sierra Leone.

Q: Where have you worked in Sierra Leone, and what ministries have you offered?

Father Bongiovanni: My first mission was Port Loko, where I worked as assistant priest to Father Milan. He asked me to go to Sanda Magbolonto chiefdom and to start a Catholic mission there. In that chiefdom we had only two [] primary schools but no church. So I met the [] teachers and few of them were Catholics. I decided to rent a room in Sendugu village in the same house of the Catholic teacher Anthony Sesay, to meet the local authorities and the common people. Wonderful people! I will never forget those beautiful years!

In that place, I began my work of catechesis. In the evening, while we were sitting in the veranda, I was asking Anthony and the other Catholic teachers: "If I want to pass an idea to people, what stories of life situations do you have that could help people to understand a given Catholic principle?" And they began telling me stories. I collected them and I prepared several booklets: "The Ten Commandments: 40 Stories"; "The Sacraments: Many References to Life Situation"; "Preparation for Catholic Marriage: 40 Stories" Then with Anthony, we started meeting people of the nearby villages.

To cut it short, after 10 years of work, we built in Sanda Magbolonto 11 communities with 11 churches. Note that I am not a "mason" or a carpenter. All these churches have been built by the people. I assisted them with the zinc for the roof; all the rest has been provided by them. My service to them was to motivate them, to assist them to understand that they needed to come together, to support each other in practicing their faith, and that they will enjoy their faith if they spread their faith.

Sierra Leoneans must be the missionaries to Sierra Leoneans.

I am so grateful to Sierra Leoneans: They gave me the joy of being a priest.

After 10 years in Port Loko parish, I spent 16 years as director of the Pastoral Center of Makeni. But before taking over this new area of service, I attended a one-month course in South Africa on the Lumko Program -- an excellent program of pastoral catechesis. I got so much from it.

As director of the Pastoral Center, all my efforts were aimed at creating Christian leaders who will make the Church of Sierra Leone a self-reliant Church, both socially or spiritually. Here I have prepared several other booklets for the first announcement [of the faith] and for ongoing formation, for Illiterate people, for children, for youth, for adults.

And I can say that I have prepared all this material together with people, listening to them, ...

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