Mags Gargan speaks to a missionary priest from Congo based in Dublin
As Mission Sunday approaches, October is a busy month for Fr Jean Paul Cirhakarhula, because he is responsible for mission awareness for the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in Ireland.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, his base has been Dublin’s Templeogue for the last two years. From there, he ventures out visiting parishes across the island of Ireland promoting the work of the missionaries in Africa.
“We work with a different diocese every year and we are given the opportunity to speak at Mass about our work,” Fr Jean Paul says.
“My experience of Ireland is very good. The first few months everything was different, especially the weather, and this got me down. But I like the people – they are warm and very welcoming.”
Fr Jean Paul grew up surrounded by beautiful green countryside, in the city of Bukavu, in the east of Congo where it borders Rwanda. It is a region that has seen brutal warfare and incredible hardship in his lifetime, but on a recent visit home he was shocked at how overcrowded it had become and how life had deteriorated.
Green and beautiful
“It was lovely growing up in Bukavu,” he explains. “It used to be called Bukavu la Verte in French, because it was so green and beautiful. However, politically-speaking things were not good at all. After we got independence from Belgium in 1960, in less than a year we had a civil war and that was the start of the troubles.”
In a few short years Congo went from being under colonial rule, to civil war and then over 30 years of brutal dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko.
After the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 Hutu refugees fled across the border to camps around Bukavu, which then became a centre of an insurgency against the new Tutsi-led government in Rwanda. This led to years of warfare involving the Congolese army, Rwandan army, Ugandan army and various rebel groups. The rape of women and young girls and the forced recruitment of boy soldiers became common factors in this brutal war, which tore the area apart.
Rebel leader Laurent Kabila deposed Mobutu, only to be assassinated himself in 2001. He was succeeded by his son Joseph, who signed a peace deal with rebel leaders. However, fighting has continued over the years by rebels and outside countries still keen to exploit the Congo’s rich mineral resources, and thousands of refugees still live in poverty.
Fr Jean Paul says the trauma of war is still evident. “Many people had to run from their villages and they all came to Bukavu. So people have no jobs and they are squeezed together in shelters. The town is so populated that you have to ask what is the future for these people, but the government does not seem concerned.
“The government can’t afford to pay teachers and this has become a great burden for parents. Some students will finish their studies in school, but most cannot afford to go to college. This makes me suffer, because it’s not that we can’t afford it – the country is rich – but is it down to greed and corruption. People do not care about their own people.”
Fr Jean Paul’s description of Bukavu when he was growing up in the 1980s sounds like a completely different place, one of idyllic beauty and a strong sense of community. It was here that he discovered his vocation at an early age.
“Small children were not allowed to go to our main parish church so, as a child, I went to the local village church,” he explains. “But at the age of eight I decided to go to the main church. On Sunday I got ready as if I was going to the normal village service, and I went to the main church. As soon as I arrived at the main door, I saw a white priest lifting up his hands and saying ‘Let us pray’ in my local language. I was very taken by this and that image remained deep in my heart.
“I decided to tell my mother, but she told me to never go there again and that I could never become a priest. I think this was because in my culture a man is expected to get married and have children,” he says.
“Later when I was about 15, this idea came back to me and I told my mum again. This time she took me to my parish priest and asked him to explain to me why I could not become a priest.” However, some local men were studying for the priesthood and the priest told Jean Paul to come back next year to join a group who were discerning. A White Father became his spiritual director and he began to tell him about the order and their missionary work.
“I was touched by the image of the founder [Archbishop of Algiers, later Cardinal Charles-Martial Allemand Lavigerie] who, during a terrible famine and cholera outbreak, used to take his own cassock and clothe the people. And I thought I would like to be like this man.”
Fr Jean Paul studied locally at first, then in Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya before being ordained in 2007.
His first parish assignment was the Orange Town township outside Johannesburg in South Africa. After five years there, he was asked to go to Ireland to do mission awareness and is here almost two years, travelling through the green countryside that reminds him of home.
“Your country is very beautiful,” he says. “Recently I was in Ballycastle (Co. Mayo) and one thing that struck me when I was being shown around the area was the number of churches – every five miles, every town and village. I know things are changing now but, for me as a priest, it was a very good feeling to see this and it gives me hope.”