Photo: Marian Archives
Father Francis Filipiec, MIC, with parishioners in Cameroon, Africa.
'Sent on a task'
Marian Mission in Cameroon Large in Challenges, Mercy
By Dan Valenti (Oct 1, 2012)
For Fr. Francis Filipiec, MIC, merciful actions are, in a beneficent sense, "self"-ish actions, that is, works that involve spiritually healthy self-care. That truth, he says, explains why the message of Divine Mercy has found a foothold in people's hearts and accounts for its growth around the world.
"Through works of mercy," Fr. Francis says, "we do good not only to others but also to ourselves. By helping others, we become a gift to them and experience fulfillment in our lives. That kind of inner peace can only be found through charity."
Father Francis should know. He has for many years headed the Marian Fathers mission in Cameroon, Africa, which the Congregation established in 1999. He has been a priest for 31 years and a missionary for 22 of those years, serving first in Rwanda, Africa, for 10 years and 12 in his present assignment in Cameroon. In that country, he served as seminarian rector, vicar general to the local bishop, a diocesan administrator. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The Marians have had a mission in Rwanda since 1984]
In 2002, he took over a closed parish and spearheaded its revival. Today, he is rector of the Divine Mercy Shrine and official promoter of the Divine Mercy message for the east province of Cameroon. The Divine Mercy Shrine is that country's first and only such site.
An 'Eager Acceptance' of Divine Mercy
"In Cameroon, we find an eager acceptance of the message of Divine Mercy," Fr. Francis says. "For one thing, the culture is heavily based on The Family, with the father as head of the household. But you have to understand: Africans see 'family' in a broad aspect It's not only a father, a mother, and their children, but also aunts, uncles, and cousins. In the case of a polygamist father, the family will include all his wives and children. Sometimes, the entire village is one big family. It was difficult for us at first to understand how some of our associates could go twice or three times to their mother's funeral. That being said, it is in the African mind to have one village chief. That translates well into our merciful God, as 'Chief,' caring for us, His children."
In Cameroon, there are 240 separate tribes, with all the issues and challenges one might expect. Other problems include local beliefs that involve superstition, sorcery, magic, and voodoo. Also, in the northern section of the country, Islam is the dominant religion.
Another problem is a strong cult of death. "Somehow," Fr. Francis says, "it seems at odds with the generally accepted idea of love for life that the Africans seem to possess. Rituals and customs celebrating birth are almost non-existent, while those associated with death are numerous."
Nonetheless, says Fr. Francis, "We have a place for Divine Mercy in Africa."
"In our diocese, we find that people accept the message of Divine Mercy with joy," he says, "but unless we remain vigilant and consistent with our presentation, they often will revert to their [superstitious] ways."
The Marian Fathers have three priests in Cameroon, including Fr. Francis, at their parish house in Atok. The Congregation also operates a formation house in Ngoya, in which there are currently eight seminarians studying for the priesthood; a Divine Mercy Shrine; and conducts about 40 retreats a year. In addition, they have asked permission of the Very Rev. Fr. Jan Ozga, bishop of the Diocese of Doume Abong Mbang, for permission to organize a National Divine Mercy Congress in 2013. Father Francis says he hopes to have 200 delegates from all parts of the country over the four days of the meeting.
'To be Sent on a Task'
Father Francis keeps the enormous job of sharing Divine Mercy and performing pastoral work in the Cameroon in perspective: "A mission means to be sent on a task. We took it literally and went to people living in the midst of the tropical forest, lost and forgotten in their little villages and settlements that are almost inaccessible at times."
Father Francis says one of the Marians' first pastoral programs involved personal visitations of all the houses in the 25 villages that belong to the Marians' mission area. Each village has about 100 families. He says it took them six months to complete the initial visitation:
"Traveling by small dinghies and crossing marshlands, we were able to reach such villages that no road led to. In the blazing sun and clouds of dust, we went from one mud-hut to another, from one shanty to another. We met people who lived without tables and chairs, who slept on primitive bamboo beds or on palm leaves on the ground. To cook their meals, they have three stones. They do not have any identification documents and live communally, usually without marital vows."
The locals make their living by hunting and primitive farming, with manioc and corn the main crops — that's "if they're lucky enough to clean up a small piece of the tropical forest that tries to take over, which it often does because of high humidity and frequent rain."
Rolling up Their Sleeves and Digging In
The visitations, Fr. Francis says, "brought out in us the desire to do works of mercy for those people who desperately needed help. Having considered our possibilities, we started two programs, one of social assistance and one of pastoral guidance. Translated into real actions, this meant 'getting dirty' — help with digging wells, building huts, and providing medical care, done with the help of a group of religious sisters. Spiritually, it meant forming catechists to become our helpers in reaching people with outreach and evangelization. We were looking at people who had never received any help from anyone."
The Marians organized prayer groups in the villages. They also led people in religious instruction and taught them simple prayers, including the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which, Fr. Francis says, "was accepted fast enough because it contains Christ's
The Marians have done several more visitations, penetrating even further into the dense, vast jungle. They helped treat the sick as best they could, purchased wheelchairs for handicapped people, took several dozen to the hospital for surgery, and provided food for abandoned old folks. The visitations will continue, Fr. Francis says, since it provides invaluable personal help for those who might never receive it or who, having received it once, might otherwise revert to their previous ways.
In addition to this work, the Marians also visit the local prison. Some 300 inmates are confined there. Father Francis says half of the inmates stay there for about a year. Their crimes included fighting, "doing magic, stealing, or being put there because of their relatives' jealousy and envy." Father Francis says many of them steal, "because they do not have any understanding of private property." The imprisoned, he says, "also need mercy. We sent them some food and bailed out some of the wrongly imprisoned. The others still wait for mercy, forgiveness, and conversion."
How You Can Help
Presently, Fr. Francis says, the Marians are building a new seminary, where future Marian priests will be formed.
"There are [also] still a great number of the sick and the handicapped without any family to provide held," says Fr. Francis. "We would like to continue the formation of more than 100 children at school, to receive pilgrims and groups for sessions and retreats, and to continue visiting villages as part of our evangelization program. These are only a few of our current needs. We invite everyone to participate in evangelization with their contributions. We thank you in advance for each gift and for your prayerful assistance."
Those wishing to contribute to the Marian mission in Cameroon can contact the Marians at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 413-298-3691. You can also access the Cameroon webpage at divine-mercy-mission.org. Those wishing to contact Fr. Francis directly can e-mail him at FFilipiec@marian.org.