The World

Monsignor Masondole: "In Africa there is no shame in saying 'I am a Christian'."

Monsignor Simon Chibuga Masondole is bishop of the diocese of Bunda, Tanzania. He comes from a tribe of the Ukerewe Islands, a community that has been sustained by catechists, since there were no priests in the region. In this interview with Omnes, he talks about the Church in Africa.

Loreto Rios-August 20, 2023-Reading time: 12 minutes

Monsignor Simon Chibuga Masondole ©Jean Luc Habimana

Monsignor Simon Chibuga Masondole had a visit in May to ad limina with the Pope and then was in Spain visiting Tanzanian seminarians who are studying in the country. In this interview with Omnes, he tells us about the main challenges and strengths of the African church, the differences in the experience of faith between Africa and Europe and the current situation of his diocese, which shares characteristics with many others on the African continent.

How do you perceive the situation of the Church in Africa and in Tanzania in particular? What strengths and challenges do you see?

One of the main characteristics of the Church in Tanzania is that it is a young church, it is growing, it has just celebrated 150 years of its evangelization. There are a large number of conversions, both of young people and adults. The families that converted the longest time ago are also characterized by the fact that they are the best rooted in the faith and are the seedbed of vocations for the Church.

In this context, there are many apostolic movements, for example the Missionary Childhood or TYCS (Tanzanian Catholic Students). In addition, many young people who are in university form choirs. The choir in Tanzania is like an apostolic movement, they have their registration, their rules. Their way of evangelizing is through singing. It is not just like the "parish choir" in Europe, it is a concrete apostolate.

Monsignor Simon before the Confirmation of the children (in red and white) of Murutunguru parish.

In the face of this blessing that is the increase in the number of Christians, and the hope of seeing the Church grow, we have the difficulty that we lack pastors, both in terms of numbers and formation. Not only in Tanzania, but in Africa in general.

On the other hand, it is also noted that in Africa there is a kind of syncretism. There are no frontiers of saying: I am a Catholic and this is what is proper to Christian life. Therefore, there are many situations in which there are people who come to the Catholic Church asking for help or prayer because they are sick, but if the problem is still present and they do not see this need satisfied, they have no problem in going to other confessions or elsewhere.

They can spend a morning in a Catholic church asking for the anointing of the sick, but then go to a Pentecostal healing prayer, and if that does not work for them either, they go to a shaman or a healer. So, it is true that there is a need of the Lord, but also a daily need to overcome these difficulties. So the challenge is also this evangelizing task, to deal with this syncretism, which in part comes from a faith that is not yet firm, which is still developing, and on the other hand, from a tradition of millennia that is very anchored.

This group of Christians who "wander" with their problems from one place to another is growing and has a certain size. It is a challenge for the Church in Africa to attend to them, but also to help them to become more firmly rooted in the Catholic faith and in these frontiers of faith.

Another difficulty encountered not only by the Church, but also by the African population, is the proliferation of groups that call themselves Christians, but who are basically preachers of falsehood, seeking personal gain. For example, with formulas such as: "If you step on this sacred oil, you will be rich".

They take advantage of that human need that people have. Recently we have had a case in Kenya: at Easter, the pastor preached that the encounter with Christ is through death, and he has influenced people to the point that they have been fasting to death, and the police have had to intervene. Another case has been the one we call the Jesus of Tongaren, a man who has proclaimed himself Jesus saying that he has come to earth at the Second Coming, and he has a group of followers.

Or a few years ago another preacher who said it was the end of the world and made people smear themselves with oil and set fire to the church with the people inside, and there were deaths. They are usually Pentecostal groups, although not only, there are other branches. So another challenge for the Church in Africa is the increase of these groups, who say that the Holy Spirit has spoken to them and asked them to found something new. Through preaching they also raise funds. There is one particular group where each type of blessing involves a different amount of money: if it's just a few words, it's a certain amount; if I have to lay hands on you, another amount.

The Catholic Church must take care to preach the authentic Gospel, but also help and attend to these people who are deceived, abused and swindled using the name of Christ.

We must also ask for more vocations, promote vocation ministry, but, at the same time, strengthen the formation of priests, who are children of their time and can come with traditions or customs that are not proper to Christianity.

But the good thing is that the number of Christians is increasing, in Tanzania in particular there are more Christians than Muslims. The positive thing is that there is no fundamentalism, there is a freedom of relationship between confessions, but we must also set the limit of, without being fundamentalist, being able to recognize what fits in the Catholic faith and what does not.

What do you consider to be the main differences between the Church in Europe and in Africa?

The first difference is that the Church in Africa is growing rapidly in the number of Christians, while in Europe growth has slowed down.

In Spain, in the parishes where I have been, I have seen that there are young people, while, in what I know of Italy, this is very difficult to find. Although it is a bad thing, I think that in general, in Europe, I was happy to see that in Spain there is still a living seed of the Gospel.

Also, in Africa, there is no shame in saying "I am a Christian" or "I am looking for God". Young people at university are not ashamed to say that they are Christians, that they are going to church, to choir rehearsal... Catholic professionals are not ashamed either, you can be a doctor and it is known that you are a Christian and there is no problem. In Europe I do see this embarrassment when it comes to saying that you are a Christian, or announcing the Gospel. And there seems to be a belief that you cannot be a good professional and a Catholic, that they are incompatible.

Another difference with respect to what I have already said is that in the Church in Africa, in the liturgical celebration, the expression of faith through the body comes into play very much. For example, in every hymn there is always a choreography, it is not only music. Or there are also the children of the Missionary Childhood, who are in charge of dancing in the Eucharist. In the European liturgy, everything is more static. It is the death of emotion, as opposed to the liveliness of expression in the Church in Africa: dancing, clapping, the vigelegele or shout of jubilation, and also in the entrance procession the choir has an entrance step.

It is a liturgical dance, of course, but you don't just walk in. In Europe, to see emotions there has to be an accident on the road. But if not, they are not expressed. The other day, speaking with the rector of Jaen, we were commenting that nowhere in the Bible is it written that the Mass has to be a rigid body Mass. The important thing is to respect the liturgical rite, but that does not prevent emotional or corporal expression.

Perhaps in Europe we are seeing more exaltation of the body through tattoos, piercings... But not in the liturgical celebration. Recovering corporeality in the celebration is also a way of purifying the conception of corporeality among young people, instead of piercings and tattoos.

The Church in Africa I am able to provide this slackness within the rite, to understand that my faith is also manifested through the body. Man is body and soul.

Another difference is the meaning of the offertory in the Mass. On the one hand, there is the economic offering. I am not so familiar with the situation in Spain, but my experience in Italy, where I have lived for ten years, is that the normal thing is to give 50 cents. The meaning of the offering is lost as an expression that you unite your life to the Lord's surrender, and this has a material meaning. This is very much alive in Africa. If a community sees that it needs a church, it does not wait for the bishop to order it to be built. They set about it, take up collections, and build it.

Perhaps this is because in Europe people are used to the fact that priests receive a salary, but they lose the connection that it is the people who support the priests. On the other hand, there is the material offering. In Africa, along with money, they also offer things: chickens, eggs, matches, salt, flour, fruit... These things are really an offering, the person is giving it up and gives it to the church, and then the priest administers it: some things he will use for his own sustenance, because he has no other way of supporting himself, and others to distribute to the poor.

However, what I have observed in Europe is that when something that is not money is offered, in youth or children's masses, it is a symbolic offering, for example: "I offer you these shoes in representation of our Christian walk". But after the mass the shoes are taken away, there is no offering so that at least those shoes serve a poor person, it is not a real offering.

Is the whole Church in Africa supported by offerings, no one receives a salary?

No, no one receives a salary. In Africa there is no such thing. Unless it is a priest who works in a school, then he receives his teacher's salary. But a parish priest, or a bishop, does not receive a salary, they live on the offerings of the masses and what the people give, either financially or materially. There is also the payment of the tithe at the end of the month, which is another form of offering. Depending on the type of work that is done, there is an assigned amount, which is not really the 10 %, it is symbolic. Civil servants have an allotted amount, which is different from farmers or students.

What the priest does is that what he receives through the tithe and the offering he administers: for his own sustenance (from food to gasoline for the car to go to celebrate mass in the villages or to attend to the sick), for the development and repairs of the Church and for the needs of the poor. The problem is that the city parishes are wealthier and live more comfortably, and the parishes in the villages are in greater need.

You have sent several seminarians to study at the University of Navarra in Pamplona. How do you think this experience can enrich them?

I started sending priests and seminarians to study in Navarra when I was studying in Rome. There I met a priest who told me that he had studied in Navarra. He gave me the contact to talk to the bishop and we got a place for the first Tanzanian priest who went to Navarra. Bidasoafrom my diocese of Bunda. While he was in Navarra, he discovered that seminarians could also go, so we asked for them for the following year and began to send them as well.

The bishop with the Tanzanian seminarians studying in Bidasoa, Navarra.

There are many benefits in seminarians and priests going to study abroad. In the first place, in this way they see that the Church is one, catholic, apostolic and Roman. They see the universality and unity of the Church. All the institutes or universities are a good of the Church, so they are for everyone. Going to study at any university is a way of experiencing in the flesh that the Church is one, and that everywhere there are Catholic universities and the theology is the same.

Not all seminaries have a system that allows them to welcome foreign students. Bidasoa is one of the few international ones, it is expressly designed for the formation of seminarians coming from different parts of the world, it is not a diocesan seminary.

On the other hand, teaching also involves a tradition. You cannot compare the tradition of Christian life and Christian universities that the Church in Europe has with that of Tanzania, which has just celebrated 150 years since the arrival of the first missionaries.

The Church in Europe has a treasure of teaching, libraries, books, well-trained teachers, who are also researchers and writers, which is not available in Africa. It is useless to say that we are in the same conditions.

The idea is for them to receive this training so that they can bring it to the African church and enrich it.

I have had the opportunity in this visit to Spain to see many libraries, and it is the first time I have seen a parchment book. Or I, for example, I have a doctorate in Liturgy from the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm, and I have seen for the first time a sacramentary, the first liturgical books. I had studied or memorized things that I had never been able to see physically. The Church in Africa does not have that wealth, or a library in which to see these things.

On the other hand, in Africa we are of the Latin rite. There is the Coptic, in Egypt, but basically we are of the Latin rite. However, in Europe there is the Roman, the Mozarabic, the Ambrosian... On this trip to Spain, I had the opportunity to attend for the first time a Mass of the Mozarabic rite.

In addition, in every local church there is a form of popular piety. To be able to leave home and see other cultural ways of living and expressing the faith is a great richness, because there are many things to learn. It also helps to know what is negative, in order to prevent it from happening in the diocese of origin.

Tradition is deepening, it is development. In Africa we still don't have it. You study what a basilica is, but in Africa there are no such large buildings. I think there are two in all of Africa that could be considered basilicas. In Europe there is so much history, and so many architectural styles, with Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, Neoclassical churches... That is a wealth.

Or the canons of a cathedral, in Africa it is a figure that does not exist, but here I have seen that it is very common. Studying in another diocese opens your horizons and perspectives.

There was an African Christian tradition, but mostly in the northern part, and with the arrival of Islam it was lost. So within Africa there was a communication barrier of what could have been the African tradition of the Christian faith.

I would also like to make an appeal to the Western Church to open its doors a little more. In Africa we lack these roots of history, education, liturgical tradition... If this is not known and is not deepened, there is also the risk that the African faith lacks roots. It would help us a lot if the West would open more doors to the African church and it would be easier to receive this formation. It is necessary to foster this firmness in the faith.

Conversely, it is also a benefit for the European church. The African church is young, it is not yet afraid to say "I am Catholic". That young Africans come to the European church is a testimony. It is a faith without fear. And it is also a benefit for the local church to see another way of living the faith. The exchange is beneficial for everyone. We need each other to really be universal.

What was your vocation process like and what encouraged you to become an ordained priest?

I come from a Christian family and my vocation came when I was a child. There are two key moments that I can remember. When I was 5 or 6 years old, the bishop came to my island for the first time (I am from Ukara, an island in the Ukerewe archipelago in Lake Victoria). They had just finished building the first kigango in Bukiko, my hometown, and the bishop came to inaugurate it. I remember how we welcomed the bishop, the singing... The bishop spoke about the importance of parents being committed to their children's education. Of all the children, he came up to me, put his hand on my head and said: "A child like this, if he studies, one day he can become a priest".

The second moment came shortly after. There were no priests on the island, they came only to celebrate Easter and Christmas. There was no mass even on Sundays, because we didn't have a ferry as we do now, we had to go by fishing boat. The faith in my community has been preserved and spread by the catechists, and I have been formed through them as well.

My mother took me to Christmas Mass that year and left my older brother in charge of the house. The parish is very far away and we had to walk there, so we couldn't all go. I remember entering the church and seeing a priest for the first time. I said: "I want to be like him. Then I studied in the minor seminary, then in the major seminary and was ordained a priest in 2006. I was consecrated bishop in 2021.

What are the main pastoral challenges of your diocese?

The diocese of Bunda is very young, it is twelve years old, it was erected in the last year of Pope Benedict XVI. So it is still growing.

One of the first difficulties in the diocese are some deeply rooted traditions and customs, such as the veneration or fear of certain animals considered as totems. For example, in the islands, the python snake. To the extent that if we put a python, even if it were dead, at the door of the church, no one would go, because they think it might curse them, even though they are Christians.

The belief that the python has the power to curse them is far greater than their Christian faith.

If there were a python at the door of my parish, I wouldn't go in either.


But you would fear it as a snake, not as a sacred animal that has the power to curse you dead or alive.

Then there are customs so deeply rooted that it is very difficult to extirpate. For example, purification rites: if you become a widow or widower, although it is more common in women, you have to purify yourself, and the means is to sleep with another man. Or polygamy. In certain tribes, being monogamous is frowned upon, you have to be polygamous, and that affects Christian life, marriage and families. In particular, it is very difficult for men of the Kurya tribe to come to mass for this reason.

Or there are also times when, for example, the fifth wife wants to become a Christian. She asks to be baptized, but continues to live as a fifth wife. For the administration of the sacraments, this is also a pastoral problem.

There are other administrative problems: we do not have a curia, a building to manage things. We have made in the living room of my residence a division with three small offices, but we still lack that structure, although we are trying to get it.

Moreover, the diocese of Bunda is a poor diocese. To have trained priests to train the people, you need money. That is why receiving a scholarship for us is a great help.

On the other hand, we have very few priests. Therefore, catechists in our diocese are very important, but they have to be well trained. The two big works we have in hand now are the construction of the curia and a small school for catechists, with classrooms, office, which can also serve as a place of retreat where they can go for a weekend or a month and do an intensive course in pastoral themes or liturgy. Since catechists are a key element in the evangelization of our diocese, it is necessary that they have a formation according to the work they do.

We are taking small steps to grow, but we are still in a very early stage. But we are very encouraged and moving forward.

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