Two priesthoods

August 24, 2005 | 25 comments
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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.

Father Wilfried

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.

Wilf2B

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.

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25 Responses to Two priesthoods

  1. J. Stapley on August 24, 2005 at 1:26 am

    God bless you Wilfried and your brave uncle, namesake and man of God.

  2. Ryan B on August 24, 2005 at 1:30 am

    What one dedicated life can do…

  3. manaen on August 24, 2005 at 1:55 am

    Thank your for sharing so beautifully these experiences.

    The light of Christ burns brightly within my girl friend’s Catholic family. I found in the past years with them simple faith, natural charity, unflinching honesty, and an eagerness to accomodate and to respect my LDS differences. I feel like Job: having lost my own family, God gave me this wonderful family to join. Their sociality, so freely given, has blessed me.

  4. Julien on August 24, 2005 at 2:19 am

    Thank you, Wilfried, for pointing out the truth and goodness of many Catholic priests. I’m a Catholic convert myself (from Belgium, by the way….) and most of my family still is Catholic. I often get depressed about Mormons criticizing Catholicism in a most ignorant way – as a ward mission leader I was just confronted with a sister missionary telling me she was depressed about street-preaching in Koln the World Youth Day, because she didn’t understand how so many youth could be happy within the Catholic church. I have been to WYD this year myself and have found it to be a wonderful thing – almost 1,000,000 having “come to worship Him”.
    I have made African experiences with Catholics as well (in Malawi last year) and am flying to Taiwan this coming Sunday to celebrate the 90th birthday of my Belgian great-uncle who has led a hospital in Hu Wey as a Catholic priest for almost 50 years.
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. kris on August 24, 2005 at 7:52 am

    Another beautiful post Wilfried. Thank you.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on August 24, 2005 at 9:09 am

    This is a thoughtful and deeply humane story you’ve shared with us, Wilfried; we are in your debt.

  7. ukann on August 24, 2005 at 9:17 am

    Another beautiful post Wilfried. IMHO when Heavenly Father assigns mansions, there are going to be many of them given to people who have served him with love and devotion – whatever their religion. I think there will be many surprises for all of us in the hereafter.

  8. Costanza on August 24, 2005 at 9:22 am

    What might the world be like if there were more Wilfrieds? Two isn’t enough!

  9. Travis on August 24, 2005 at 11:15 am

    Why can’t they publish stuff like this in the Ensign? Or maybe they do, and I’ve just missed it since my subscription lapsed in 1994 and I’ve never bothered renewing.

    Constanza:
    Hope all is well with you and yours

  10. Costanza on August 24, 2005 at 11:51 am

    Travis:
    1. They still don’t
    2. All is

  11. -CJ on August 24, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    Wonderful, powerful, and thought-provoking words. Thank you.

  12. Jonathan Green on August 24, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    Constanza/Travis, I seem to recall a story in the Ensign, some time in the last decade, about an LDS woman who was feeling lonely and isolated after following her husband to Africa, and how she was comforted by the Christmas songs sung for her by another church’s choir, maybe Seventh-day Adventists. Is that close enough?

  13. Jonathan Green on August 24, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    Wilfried, that’s a beautiful story, and it gets at the heart of what I admire about the Catholic church, and why I feel humble when I walk around inside cathedrals, and what I find to be a personal benefit of woking professionally with the literature of medieval Europe. I see your uncle as one link in a very old tradition of ritual and service that deserves respect, an ally rather than an opponent in the things that really matter.

    Yet elsewhere, such as in the discussion of medieval visionaries, you have been a staunch defender of not relativizing the Apostasy, which is, admittedly, an important point. But can’t we accord Hildegard and her sisters the same respect you have for your uncle’s work without reducing the importance of the Restoration?

  14. Wilfried on August 24, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    First of all, thanks all for the comments.
    Jonathan, that is an excellent remark. I never saw it as a problem to be convinced of the Great Apostasy and at the same time have the deepest respect for believing and dedicated individuals. These individuals do not per definition represent the overarching system. Compare: at the time of Christ Judaic leadership was, according to the New Testament, in an apostate state. But within that same Judaism the most humble and believing people existed too, from Mary and Joseph to the humble fishermen who became apostles.

  15. Sara on August 24, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    That is a most moving, compelling, spiritual, emotional, and evocative tale. I could almost see the two men, as they talked, driving down the road, carefully finding their way, and everything else that you described.

    A very beautiful and important story. It touched my heart.

    Thank you.

  16. Mike Wilson on August 24, 2005 at 11:49 pm

    The Church of the Lamb has many and varied adherants. Thank you.

  17. El Jefe on August 25, 2005 at 2:16 am

    We owe a big debt to the Catholic Church. They have taught Christianity in much of the world, even though it was incomplete and somewhat doctrinally erroneous. But our greatest success in converting people to the Restored Gospel is where people already have a belief in God and Christ. They do not have the authority for the ordinances, but many Catholics have a love of Christ, and have lived lives of selfless service. That is truly honorable and magnificent.

    To live a Christ like life is our aim. It is a goal which is open to all, be they members of the Church or not. The ability to achieve that goal is enhanced by the correct ordinances, but not forbidden by their absence. That is why we have temples, and work for those who have gone before. It is devoutly to be hoped that we do not end up with having had the correct ordinances in our life, but not achieving the living of a Christ like life.

  18. marvmax on August 25, 2005 at 9:51 am

    Without the Catholic Church the restoration would have been much more difficult. (I would say impossible, but I know that nothing is impossible to God) My daughter left for college this last weekend, as we were getting the things that she needed together I came across my copy of the _Imitation of Christ_ by Thomas Akempis(?). I told her it was a great book and then she told me who he was, I hadn’t realized that he had started an Order, at least that is what she said. We talked about how many great people existed in the Medieval Catholic Church. While I can’t agree with everything in the book my soul thrills at many parts and I realize that I, at least, am not as good a Christian as Thomas was and am not as good a Christian as Wilfrieds’ uncle is either. The glory of the plan of salvation is that we don’t have to condemn (or believe that they are condemned since we do no condemning) christians like these to the lower levels of hell, or the good non-christians either.

  19. marvmax on August 25, 2005 at 9:52 am

    Oh yeah she took the book to school with her. I hope she has time to read some of it.

  20. Wilfried on August 25, 2005 at 10:09 am

    Thank you for the extra comments, Sara, Mike, El Jefe, Marvmax. It is interesting to see how, also in other recent posts, like here and here, Jonathan Green and Kirsten M. Christensen have been drawing the attention to the deep felt individual cases of Christian living through the ages. In fact this ties in with our conviction that in all times people have been able to live with the Light of Christ, even if the ecclesiastical system above them had departed from the original Church. And it gives extra sense to our temple work for them.

    Marvmax, thanks to referring to Thomas a Kempis (= Thomas from Kempen), a German monk of the 15th century. He actually was schooled in the Netherlands and joined an Augustian monastic order. “The Imitation of Christ”, ascribed to him, was a little book that I knew from my childhood on. My father used to read in it a lot and I still have his copy.

  21. jeanette palmer on August 25, 2005 at 12:23 pm

    Charity is the most difficult principle for many people to understand. Approaching mankind without guile, judgement or condemnation is not a common practice among mankind. I believe that charity knows no religion, it is the pure love of Christ. Christ was one man, Wilfried’s uncle was one man. Christ’s charity influenced mankind. Wilfried’s uncle had charity that effected thousands. I wonder, if we all had an inkling of charity if we would be better people -and leave hope in our paths. Mormon knowledge and priesthood are the distinguishers of our religion – they don’t automatically increase the value of the individual in posession of them. In the presence of a man such as Wilfried’s uncle, I don’t know anyone personally who would not have felt small. I can only hope to give charity to those I know, and increase my value as a person.

  22. jeanette palmer on August 25, 2005 at 12:25 pm

    p.s. thank you for sharing this personal account Wilfried-

  23. Geoff B on August 25, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    Wilfried, great post. Like you, I’ve seen Catholic priests and individual Catholics do brave and wonderful things in the Third World. How can anybody believe these people will not eventually be in one of Christ’s mansions? There are two churches, the Church of God and the Church of the devil, but many, many members of the Church of God just happen not to be Latter-day Saints.

  24. marvmax on August 25, 2005 at 7:42 pm

    Wilifried;
    That book must be a prized possesion. The one I leant my daughter was given to me by a friend I hope she brings it back.

    The guy I share an office with is a Catholic. He is really down on priests, I am constantly defending them saying they do much more good than the media makes out. (He’s told me he would probably convert to the Church if it wasn’t for his wife.)

  25. Wilfried on September 4, 2005 at 10:27 am

    Quite a few commenters drew the attention to our relation with Catholics, lauding their accomplishments and emphasizing our needed respect for them. This is certainly praiseworthy and my post aimed at this recognition of individual dedication. It is also true that in many cases the sum of those individual accomplishments has had and is still having a major impact on the social, educational, medical improvement of the people they serve.

    When it comes to the Catholic Church as a hierarchical organization, the matter is not as easy. The example of Burundi, where my uncle worked, shows this in all its ambiguity and drama. Though the matter is controversial, most analysts agree that the Catholic Church, unwittingly but still irresponsibly, exacerbated the tensions between Hutu’s and Tutsi’s, first by destituting the original Hutu “pagan” religious aristocracy and by favoring the Tutsi’s to political power. Next, other Catholic missionaries, in a competitive way, formed, over the years, a counter Hutu elite who in time became the leaders of the “Hutu nation”. The natural and dynamic balance and interchange between the two ethnic groups, which had guaranteed peaceful coexistence for centuries, was undermined. The consequences were disastrous. Fomented by various factors, it resulted in the mutual massacres of hundreds of thousands, both in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The White Fathers were expelled from Burundi in the 1980s by a government tired of their influence on the masses and of the political meddling of the Catholic Church.

    Would the Mormon Church have done things differently? I believe so. Our extremely unified top-down structure without competing factions at the base, our tight Correlation, our principled disengagement from political parties, our belief in the separation of Church and State, our support to public elementary and secondary schools over ghettoized Church-schools, our constantly changing local “lay” hierarchy without principles of “promotion” to lifelong power, and our constant emphasis on personal introspection, improvement and charity independent of ethnic characteristics — all these, and others, make us stand out. They also justify that Mormonism now enters the African scene in the wake of all those other Christian missionaries — whose individual good works and dedication, I repeat it, we respect.