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MUSHANGA PARISH giving new life!

I think that this blog may be disconcerting for some readers, as I will embark in some theological thinking to remodel the way pastoral work could be done. Although we did face the scepticism of many, the bishop included, when embarking on a fresh thinking of our work, nonetheless, we did (I think) make a difference.

When you are two people to run a place the size of Mushanga Parish with a population of some 20,000 souls, it is difficult not to ask for the assistance of others. Of course, our two older colleagues were there, and one of the older men showed an openness to new ideas, which for us was a breath of fresh air. The fact that he was praying so as to allow us do our running around was a boost in what we did and thought. The other one continued his grumbling and reproach towards all what was new. He never said a word about the different experiments we made!

We were convinced that a shift in our activities was necessary and that the people to be consulted first were our immediate collaborators: the catechists. Their role became crucial and could not be ignored. Richard had already organized the 12 centres with the man responsible for Mushanga centre as the chief catechist. They met every two months for three days at Mushanga, the main centre. Two days were dedicated to thinking out the pastoral work and its implications for the community, the last day was spent discussing administrative matters. I was amazed at the sense of togetherness of all present and the discussions we had were frank and open. Nobody was more important than the other, and the chief catechist did have a real sense of collaborative work. Our task as pastors was made so much easier with such people willing to see the face of their communities rejuvenated.

It was during these bi-monthly meetings that an older catechist, in fact the dean of catechists, came up with an idea which would develop into something major that would give to the life of the parish a totally new dimension. His question to the meeting was: “could we not have our main centres, 12 of them, turned into Eucharistic Centres?” For him the idea was, if we could have a permanent church where the Eucharist would be kept permanently and distributed by the catechist, it would give to the community a greater sense of unity and togetherness. The seeds were sown for a radical change in our attitude towards the understanding of what a Eucharistic community would be. It was no longer a distant something which people would share occasionally, but it became a daily opportunity for each one to receive a boost in their christian lives. With Richard we sat down and discussed all options offered to us. It became clear that we had to rethink what our centres were and turn them into living christian communities, not just places where we would come occasionally and dispense teaching and sacraments. This would mean educating people, starting with the catechists. We were aware that we could not go ahead unless the Bishop agreed. We set out to convince him of the correctness of our thinking and mapped out the whole project. Catechists were trained in some sound theology of the Eucharist. They were given hints on how to behave and were made aware of the importance of their role as leaders of these communities. To our great satisfaction and joy the Bishop agreed to our ideas on condition that he himself would have some part and role in the setting up of these centres. At the end of the day, it turned out that his role consisted mainly in being physically present to install catechists in their new roles and ensure that the physical location of their community Church responded to what he considered as essential to vouch for his approval. I was amazed at how fast the catechists grasped our thinking, and soon all our centres were working hard to prepare their places of worship to receive a constant presence of the Eucharist and for the catechists to become the “ministers” of their people. Each centre set up a special committee to organize the physical infrastructure, another to arrange for the collection of funds to support the physical infrastructure, and another to teach the people the meaning of Eucharistic Centres. This gave us new wings and we were constantly on the road visiting our centres and talking to our people. I never before encountered such a sense of a living community – and with enthusiasm to burn! After one year of hard work, we could feel something new was coming, and the desire to help grew day by day. This first step was of immense importance, and seeing the enthusiasm of our people convinced us that we were really on the right path.

We called in the artistic and architectural skills of Brother Karl from Mbarara, himself an architect and artist, to help planning the 12 centre churches. They needed to be modified and embellished and turned into real places of worship. But my goodness did we run around the places as the requests from the centres were coming in each day for assistance and ideas. And so after a year and half of hard work and reflection, doubled with a serious dose of prayer not only from our old man but from of all of us, the bishop agreed to inaugurate and bless the first Eucharistic Centre of Mushanga Parish. The others would follow in the years to come. It was a day of great celebration and joy, and it is not often that you see such joyous crowds flocking to their church. New life was given to the place, and a permanent presence of the Eucharist in the centre made it a place attracting people for prayer and worship. The catechist realised his responsibilities and always made sure people would appreciate and understand the importance of the change in their local community. One of the major benefits of this setting up of Eucharistic Centres was that the sense of community grew and would definitely be the basis of all future developments. We have recorded some of our activities in a small booklet “Eucharist and Community” published by Ggaba Pastoral Papers. It is probably as rare as hens’ teeth these days so you are not likely to find it in any library!

However, taking such a major step was not without possible mishaps. Our catechists knew their role well, and we had provided them all with all the necessary training and tools to fulfil their duties. Each had a special satchel to hang round their neck when moving with the Eucharist to be taken to the sick or old people. Unfortunately, one day a catechist could not resist stopping at a drinking place and he put his satchel in a box tied to the back of his bicycle as he went into the “pub”. It did not take long for some kids to see this strange box and try to open it. The catechist was alerted by a well-intentioned fellow who told him kids were playing with his “box”. He came out just in the nick of time before the kids had helped themselves to the little wafers! News of the incident soon reached the head catechist who took swift action and our good catechist had his licence removed promptly. This was a good lesson for all of us and stricter security measures were taken. There are always risks when starting something new, and for us it was a steep enough learning curve!

In 1973 my friend Richard left for Canada for a holiday and I was left alone to cater for the place. But there was no doubt that I had at my disposal all the necessary tools to make the parish flourish. In fact, I was not alone but had 12 close collaborators to work with in this really marvellous venture. The fact that I suddenly became the man in charge gave me wings and over the next two years I would develop all our centres into small eucharistic communities. We would bring changes in the way our sacramental life would be lived and we introduced in our rituals a host of local traditions to make these rituals more than an external act and inspire the people about the value of their own cultures. There were so many elements in traditional practices which could be taken into our christian liturgies and we did not hesitate to use them to the maximum. Traditional music, dance, and new rites were introduced and suddenly we saw our people coming nearer to their Church and feeling that they were really part of it. We stressed especially the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Marriage in our liturgical reforms. But I did know that pushing all these aspects of christian life were only the tip of the iceberg and that much more would have to be done.

One anecdote deserves mention here. We had organised a youth camp at the parish headquarters, and on the closing day we had invited the bishop to preside over the liturgy. I was in for a surprise and never expected such a reaction from the man who had given his approval to the changes we had introduced. He was welcomed into the church by a group of traditional dancers and placed on a traditional throne. During the whole liturgy we could hear a soft beating of drums accompanied by traditional dances, and when it came to the offering of gifts he was overwhelmed by bananas, fruits, chicken and goats. Proudly a young calf walked into the church and was brought to the bishop as a gift to thank him for having accepted that we move forward. I can still remember his face when seeing the animal walking flanked by six male dancers! Well, one could not let a poor animal run freely in the church! He hardly acknowledged the gift and proceeded swiftly with the rest of the liturgy. Without a word, having forfeited his lunch (which was a real feast!) he left the place and jumped into his car livid at the scene he had witnessed. I was summoned to the diocesan headquarters and told by the bishop himself that such expressions of gratitude (?) were unbefitting for a church. I tried to explain but to no avail! But it did not stop me in my enthusiasm, and “stubbornly” I would continue to implant the church into a readily fertile African soil. Years later, when I met him informally, he confessed to me that he was proud of what we had done and that being escorted into the church by a group of dancers was one of the high points of his episcopal career! So much for pride! But I had made my point, and Mbarara diocese slowly became the place to be where there was no fear of experimenting with our expressions of faith. What I have drawn from this experience is that when you give your people a chance to express themselves freely, even with a bit of guidance, you can move mountains.

But in 1975, big changes would mark my life and I was asked to go and teach at the National Major Seminary in Ggaba. There I would have an opportunity to use my parish experience in my teaching, and finally use my legal training for these young men preparing for ministry. My academic career got a real start in August 1975. But before moving to the big smoke of Kampala, I had the joy to receive my parents at Mushanga. In a next blog I will recount this epic visit. Watch this space!

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