There is a tiny village, on a remote hill in Burundi, Central Africa, committed to my memory as the place where two priesthoods, Catholic and Mormon, joined.
First I must introduce you to my uncle Wilfried, a brother of my mother. The sixth of nine children born in this Flemish Catholic family, he was ordained a priest in 1939 as a member of the White Fathers. Fully devoted to missionary work in Africa, White Fathers wear an Arabian cassock and a mantle. Around the neck hangs a large rosary with white and black beads, ending in a cross. Originally they also wore a chechia or red cap. The picture shows my uncle in the first years of his ministry.
Geared and packed for his tropical life, Father Wilfried left for Central Africa in 1940, shortly before the German invasion into Belgium. When I was born, six years later, I was named after him. I grew up with his image, brave missionary among black tribes, laboring in the very same region where the legendary Livingstone and Stanley met in 1871, and therefore, in my mind, the most distant and untamed place on the planet. His short letters spoke of gratitude to the Lord. Sometimes a small, black-and-white photograph allowed us a glimpse into his reality – teaching catechumens in a village corner, caring for lepers, celebrating mass.
Every seven years uncle Wilfried was allowed to come home for a month or two. His presents – a woodcarved toy, a handmade basket, a roughly-woven table cloth – brought the smell and the magic of Central Africa in our home. His vacation meant preaching in Flemish parish churches to collect “money for the missions”, in order to finish a church building, renovate a dilapidated school, add a wing to a dispensary, set up a workplace for handicapped children, sustain an agricultural project. His stories were never heroic. They spoke of small thresholds to overcome and step by step progress.
And then, in 1970, I was appointed to go to Africa myself, as a schoolteacher in the Congo, the neighboring country of Burundi. During the Easter holidays I went to visit my uncle. Of course he knew I had converted to Mormonism. It was the family’s talk and no doubt my mother had written him long letters to lament her misfortune and her guilt. My leaving Catholicism must have hurt him. But when we met he did not touch upon it. And he silently made sure I could respect the Word of Wisdom without embarrassment while staying in his community. He had done his homework.
Driving an old Volkswagen Beetle, he took me on a tour of Burundi mission posts. I discovered how much his three decades of labor had impacted on the country. For years Father Wilfried had been the director of a vast alphabetization program. Wherever we arrived, he was recognized, welcomed, honored. He spoke Kirundi like a native. We visited Bujumbura, Muramvya, Gitega, Ruyigi… I entered churches he had built, met local priests he had trained, saw the humblest run up to him with shouts of joy and gratitude. I took pictures of him, like this one in a dispensary.
One late afternoon, after a visit to the most Southern source of the Nile, we were traveling on a dirt road towards Muyinga. It was a winding road, like most in Burundi, meandering over the countless hills covered with pines and eucalyptus, along villages hidden between banana trees.
Near the top of a hill people gestured wildly for us to stop. A few ran up to Father Wilfried, talking pell-mell. He listened, alarmed, asked a few questions. We got out of the car and went to the edge of the road. A decrepit open truck, jam-packed with passengers, had slid into the deep ravine, overturned several times, leaving a trail of ravaged foliage, and lay now as a carcass at the foot of the hill.
Five or six people had died. Local villagers had just finished transporting the heavily wounded to the hamlet on the hill, at the other side of the ravine.
- They’ve sent for medical help, but it’s not sure when it will get there.
Uncle Wilfried paused a moment, calculating distances and times.
- We should go and have a look up there, but we can’t go on foot across the ravine. It would take too long. We can drive around. I know the backroads, it’s just a detour. But we will be late in Muyinga, after dark. Well, if you don’t mind…
About an hour later, after zigzagging for a few miles around potholes and gullies, we drove into the hamlet. Villagers led us to a rectangular shed, not more than a roof of dried leaves sitting on wooden poles. A dozen bodies had been aligned inside, on mats on the sand floor. Some lay still, others were moaning. Father Wilfried knelt down at the side of the first, grabbed his hand and started talking in Kirundi. I stood behind him, ill at ease, useless. When he moved on to the next person, I asked:
- Is there anything I can do?
- Why don’t you go to the other end. Just talk in French. It will comfort them.
I went to the far side of the shed and crouched down besides the last one in the row. He clasped my hand and uttered sounds I could not understand.
- Bon courage, I said as convincingly as possible, bon courage.
I moved to the next one. A word here, a hand squeeze there.
Uncle Wilfried and I reached the man in the middle at the same moment. We knelt at each side. Dusk was setting in. The man’s breath was a rattle. He opened his eyes, saw the rosary on the white robe and made a sound of relief. He muttered a few words. Father Wilfried answered, reassuringly. Then, to me, in Dutch:
- He feels he is going to die. He asks for the Last Rites.
From under his robe, he pulled out a little bottle of anointing oil. He continued to speak to the man, who answered briefly. I knew this was the Confession. Then the priest opened the bottle, wet his thumb and made the sign of the Cross on the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips and hands of the dying man, while saying the ritual formula. I only understood the final Amen and echoed it.
Before I could realize that my question was perhaps improper, I said:
- Uncle Wilfried, may I confirm the anointing the Mormon way?
He did not seem surprised.
- That would be nice. Please do.
I lay my hands on the frizzy hair and spoke.
Uncle Wilfried echoed my Amen with conviction.
Dusk changed swiftly to night. We resumed our journey to Muyinga. Uncle Wilfried drove slowly, scrutinizing bends and banks. The headlights of the Volkswagen cut through the dark. Insects hopped in and out of the beams. We exchanged some thoughts, with long pauses between each. We did not talk about Catholicism and Mormonism. We talked about charity, about life and death, about families now waiting for a husband and a father who would never come home.
A full moon was rising. It emerged and vanished as we took curves and hills. Contours of pines and banana trees silhouetted against the African sky.
Suddenly the moon threw light on the white robe next to me. The beads of the rosary and the Cross stood out. I felt small.