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Photo: Dan Valenti
Father Francis Filipiec, MIC, who directs the three-priest Marian mission in Atok, Cameroon, Africa, says that despite the difficult conditions, the Marians are making headway because of the support of benefactors and their trust in God.
By Dan Valenti (Aug 10, 2008)
One of choicest tobacco leafs for wrapping premium hand-made cigars grows in a small area in Cameroon, Africa, and nowhere else. The Cameroon wrapper, which cigar aficionados treasure as among the world's rarest, loves the combination of temperature, humidity, soil, elevation, and other indigenous factors. The prized Cameroon leaf, though, isn't the only cash crop that loves the local conditions. A far more important product has taken hold. That product is Divine Mercy.
The Marians of the Immaculate Conception have been ministering to the people of Cameroon since 1999, when they first established a mission in the Diocese of Doume-Abong Mbang. The town of Atok serves as the home base for the Marians of Cameroon, who number three priests. The priests serve a local population of more than 15,000 people. Of these, less than 3,000 are baptized.
Environmentally, Culturally Diverse
The missionaries, led by Fr. Francis Filipiec, MIC, bring a rich background of service in Rwanda, Africa, and elsewhere, so that they may properly respond to the diverse challenges of this west-central nation called "Africa in miniature" for its environmental and cultural diversity. The country of 18 million is home to more than 250 ethnic and linguistic groups in an area slightly larger than the state of California.
Part of the difficulty in the evangelization work stems from the relative youth of the Catholic Church in the country. Catholicism has only been in Cameroon for about 50 years. Progress is slow, and sometimes, for every step forward, two steps are taken back. Tribal ways exert a tidal pull on many people. A large number of converts to Catholicism have gone back to the old beliefs and practices.
As an example, Fr. Francis says the Marians work in a region that practices what amounts to a cult of death. "The rituals and customs of celebrating birth are almost non-existent, while those associated with death are numerous. The attitude becomes noticeable in case of a sickness: Many Africans won't spend any money or do anything to help cure a sick person, but the very same people would go out of their way and find all means necessary to provide the most beautiful funeral."
A More Hopeful Message
Yet in a roundabout way, cultural conditions also leave people receptive to a more hopeful message. It often comes down to a matter of having the resources to bring this message to them in more than a perfunctory way.
"People [in Cameroon] accept the message of Divine Mercy," says Fr. Francis, who late this spring visited the United States to arrange for informal "partnerships" with several church parishes in the United States, including in Plano, Yorkville, and Joliet, Ill.; Great Barrington, Mass., and Lee, Mass. The "sister parishes" have adopted the Marian mission in Atok and provide desperately needed help. Those resources are doing a tremendous amount of good work, bringing a ray of light to people often enveloped in a darkness of underdevelopment, superstition, and poverty.
In 2005, the latest year for which reliable figures are available, the per-capita gross domestic product was $2,421 ($US). That figure is skewed by the disparity in income between those who live in municipalities, who are relatively well off, and those who live in regions such as Atok, where the economy is fragmented.
"The people need hope because of the crushing poverty they face," Fr. Francis says. "Cameroon has more than 250 local tribes, and in our diocese, there are five. In the local population, consequently, there can be tensions and difficulties. But once they hear about it, people usually accept Divine Mercy because it is the only way they can be united — through reconciliation, forgiveness, and compassion. People need to come together. When they do that, they can be strong, but apart, they can do little or nothing."
Father Francis says it's heartening to learn that most people believe in God, recognize His power, and turn to Him in prayer for their needs. This attitude, though, is counterbalanced by a view of God as remote, impersonal, and not interested in human affairs.
The work of the Marian missionaries in Cameroon involves laboring under trying conditions.
"Sometimes, the prayer of an African can turn into a demand for help or gifts from God," Fr. Francis says. "The person tries to dictate to the Lord what he wants to be done. Such a prayer lacks openness to God's will and His plans for us."
The Marians' 'Formative Thrust'
To counteract this and to show that God wants nothing more than a personal relationship with each of us, the Marians have established what Fr. Francis calls "a formative thrust" to their evangelization efforts. This program includes:
• Helping Families — Since they have been in the Atok region, the Marians have visited literally every home and house in the 25 villages not once, not twice, but three times. In the wilds of an undeveloped rainforest, this often involves prodigious logistical challenges, not the least of which is negotiating small rivers and back channels by boat. When they arrive at the home, the priests ask people about their needs and problems, provide pre-marital counseling, assist families with medical treatment, help families build or repair houses, and encourage people to live by the sacraments.
• Care of the Mission — The Marians have renovated numerous buildings and have built four new chapels. They have also generated income by clearing jungle land and planting cash crops such as coffee, oil-producing palm trees, bananas, pineapples, and other fruit trees.
• Charitable Help — The Marian priests share food, clothing, and basic necessities with the poor, often going without for themselves. They make it a particular goal to work with young people on various vocational and employment projects, among them farming, brick making, and boat making. As a result, many young people have been able to start small businesses and earn a living for themselves and their families. The Marians also help provide medical care, administering to the sick and, in the case of serious illness, arranging for hospitalization and surgery.
• Spiritual Outreach —The missionaries have organized more than 40 retreats for pilgrims and parish groups, have trained lay ministers to share the message of Divine Mercy in nearby parishes and communities, and have established a celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday. This year, more than 1,000 people attended Mass on that day.
• Sharing the Charism— Marians work diligently to encourage religious vocations. They began a formation program for young men who may be interested in becoming Marian priests or brothers. In addition, they have organized vocation retreats, established postulant and novitiate programs, and on an ongoing basis provide assistance with seminary studies.
AIDS Exacts a Toll
Atok lies in a lush and steamy rainforest. The jungle offers spectacular wild beauty, but it also poses infrastructure challenges. Roads are nonexistent, impassable, or, at best, difficult to negotiate. Of the few roads, only 10 percent are tarred, and because highways are poorly maintained, they are frequently devastated by bad weather. Local police often set up roadblocks for no other purpose than to extract bribes and tribute money from travelers. Banditry has also been a growing concern. Because of the poor roads, most of the travel in the Atok region is by small boats. This involves problems in navigation and an ever-present risk of getting lost.
The difficulties are enormous. The quality of healthcare is low. Medical and hygienic facilities in undeveloped areas such as Atok are often unclean, poorly equipped, and in disrepair. The list of endemic diseases includes dengue fever, malaria, meningitis, sleeping sickness, and HIV/AIDS.
"One of our biggest problems is AIDS," says Fr. Francis. "In Cameroon, between 12 and 15 percent of the population has AIDS. In Atok and throughout our parish, the number is even higher. Those numbers are probably low, because there is a strong stigma against this disease. As a result, many if not most cases go unreported."
To fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS, the Marians have established a program of medical examination, care, and treatment.
We also focus on prevention programs and education," Fr. Francis says. "For example, when an infected woman has a baby, we pay to send her to a hospital run by religious sisters. They care for the mother and baby, give them vaccinations, and we offer the children special nutritional milk. The cost of all this is expensive."
The Image Beckons
On an optimistic note, Fr. Francis says the image of The Divine Mercy seems to have a particular appeal to natives:
"People want the image of The Divine Mercy. They respond well to it. In it, they seem to intuitively recognize the risen Christ as a wonderful source of hope and light. They pray to Him and offer Him sacrifice. The people have their old traditions, of course, and they incorporate old beliefs into their Christian faith. For instance, when someone dies, they have a traditional funeral that lasts three days. It includes a vigil, dancing, a family night, rituals, and prayers. When they ask [the Marians] to attend, we comply and offer prayer. They believe in God, but not a personal God. They understand God as a higher power, but one distant from their lives. They don't yet fully understand the revelation of Christ, who came as God among us to save us, but I'm hopeful that this will come in time."
Among the ancient ways is a widespread belief in witchcraft, even though the government has outlawed the practice. Animism is prevalent, and the locals often mix Christian and animist beliefs.
Adding to the hardships of missionary work in Atok, Cameroon is largely undeveloped. "Technology is in its infancy," says Fr. Francis. "The Marians, for example, have access to the internet only because the Vatican helps us with a satellite connection. We don't have electricity, and we must generate our own power, which is limited to three or four hours a day. We own one car and a small pick-up truck."
The Marians' Most Urgent Needs
What are the Marians' greatest needs in Cameroon? Asked this question, Fr. Francis listed them:
• Providing for the great number of sick and handicapped people who have no family. These people appeal to the Marians to alleviate their suffering and to help make medical treatment available. The Marians respond to the point where that often exhausts their resources.
• Continuing the formation of more than 100 schoolchildren. For $50, the Marians can purchase texts and notebooks for one child for an entire school year. The cost of supporting one youngster in high school is $300.
• Organizing a three-day formative session for 50 people and provide them with food, lodging, and materials. Father Francis said that such a session would cost $200.
• For $100, the Marians can make one evangelization trip to another parish. The money is spent mostly on fuel and tire repair from damage done by the bad condition of local roads.
• A major need is funds to help with the building of a seminary, where the congregation will form local future Marians. The estimated cost of this project is about $200,000.
"We have just three priests in Cameroon to do all this work," says Fr. Francis. "It is a large job, but we feel capable because of the support we receive from our benefactors, and, of course, because of God's help. I grew up on a farm in Poland, were I learned a lot of handy skills. That helps me now, because often, besides a pastor and priest, I must be an architect, a builder, an electrician, a plumber, a planner, and know a little bit about many things."
Father Francis Needs You
If you would like to help Fr. Francis with this work, any amount would be greatly appreciated. Visit our "Ways of Helping" section or contact the Special Gifts Department at the Association of Marian Helpers toll-free at 1-800-671-2020.
As Fr. Francis says, any amount, no matter how insignificant to you, will do enormous good for the Marians. With enough assistance from Marian Helpers, the Marians can secure the mission in Atok in the prized "Cameroon wrapper" of The Divine Mercy. It is the world's most precious binder of wounds and hurts, small and large.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" at thedivinemercy.org.