2/3/02       Current Link: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnw/issue/cardinal.html       Eventually, in the archived columns.

Out of Africa: Lessons for us and hope for all

When I was in grade school, a Dominican friar from my home parish was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Solemn Mass at St. Pascal’s. Because his mother and mine were friends, I attended the first Mass of Father Ambrose Windbacher, O.P. Because I was also an altar server, I noticed how different the Dominican rite was from the standard Roman rite I had learned in school and as a server. Because there was a significant difference in our ages and because Father Windbacher was sent as a missionary to Nigeria, I never got to know him well as a personal friend. We occasionally exchanged notes, however, and I saw him a year ago when he came back to the United States to be with his dying sister, a Dominican Sister in Sinsinawa, Wis. After her death, he returned to Africa, where he died last November. The following account of his funeral at St. Dominic’s parish in Yaba, Nigeria, written by a fellow Dominican friar and sent to me by a Dominican sister, can tell us much about the Church in Africa, a Church to which Father Windbacher gave his life.

“On the afternoon of November 20, 2001, a delegation of Dominicans, representatives of parish societies and friends of Ambrose drove in a motorcade of 25 cars, buses and vans to the Maryland Medical Centre, nine kilometers north of Yaba, to carry the body of Ambrose back to St. Dominic’s. Father Peter Otillio, O.P., was assigned to receive the body in the Church while hundreds of people had already gathered on the compound in expectation. At 6:30 p.m., 32 Dominicans wearing their cappas began the Office of the Dead. Soon after the coffin was opened, the laity filed down the main aisle to view the remains. By this time, over 2,000 people were in the Church. At 7:30 p.m., the Vigil Mass began. Our premises and compounds were filled. Next to the Church, eight huge tents were set up for the overflowing crowds, with four television monitors for the people to witness the Vigil Mass. It was estimated that 9,500 people were present. Bishop Ayo Maria Atoyebi, O.P., celebrated the Mass with 42 concelebrants. The Bishop preached for one hour and 40 minutes. Our liturgy at St. Dominic’s is excellent, but it was even better as the choirs and soloists were outstanding.

“Masses during the wake were scheduled at 12 midnight, 3 a.m., 6:15 a.m. and the funeral Mass at 11 a.m. At the 3 a.m. Mass, the entire congregation of over a thousand people sang and danced, in the pews and out of the pews, for 30 minutes before the Mass began. It was a joyful celebration for a Dominican who served the people well. The joy was for an 87-year-old man who brought families and ordinary people closer to Jesus. The sounds and joy from a sympathetic community made me realize I was in Africa. This was all for our Brother Ambrose, who touched the hearts of so many wonderful people.

“At 11 a.m. the procession entered the Church: 72 Dominicans, 24 diocesan priests, over 130 religious of many congregations and three Bishops ... The burial site was only a few meters away, in a raised garden in front of the Church. The song Ambrose loved the most and asked to be sung at his funeral was sung for the third time: “Fade, Fade Each Earthly Joy”. It was common knowledge that Ambrose loved this song, so you can only imagine the 12,000 or more people singing from the Church, echoing out into the congregation beside the gravesite ... The dust has settled, the people have returned to their homes, towns and villages, but memories remain of a man of faith and love.”

These days, the news from many parts of Africa seems bleak indeed. We hear of the terrible civil wars and the inhuman conditions in which hundreds of thousands of refugees must live. There is great hunger. There are millions of orphans because children are left behind by parents who have died of the AIDS pandemic. There is little medicine to heal even ordinary diseases. In some areas, there is no work and even subsistence farming is faltering. There is constant political instability because peoples traditionally organized in tribes now have to manage nation states. In some countries, political corruption is as rampant as war and disease. Both history and nature seem to have made Africa a playing field for every tragedy known to the human race. These reports are true; but if we stop with these reports, we will neither see nor understand Africa.

Go back to the report of Father Windbacher’s funeral in Nigeria last November and see what it tells us. The people at that funeral were a grateful people, grateful for Father Windbacher’s life and grateful for their own. They are a welcoming people. They welcomed and came to love a foreigner who gave his life as a priest for them and their salvation. They are a generous people, able to give what the moment calls for without calculating personal benefits. They are a people in Catholic communion; any of us would have been at home at that funeral Mass. The rites and customs surrounding death and burial would have been recognized by any Catholic as grounded in faith. They have the self-confidence of a young Church, sure of what they believe and unafraid to profess it openly, even in the face of deadly opposition. They love their faith, the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Pope and the Church. It is all a source of joy and hope for them.

The sources of hope for any people have to be found and developed among the people themselves; but others can help. The U.S. Bishops approved a statement on Africa during our meeting last November, shortly before Father Windbacher’s death. The document is titled, “A Call to Solidarity with Africa.” Its careful and balanced analysis of Africa and the challenge Africa presents to the United States and the international community is well worth reading for anyone who wants to get a more complete picture than the one we get from ordinary media sources (to order toll-free, call 800-235-8722 or visit the website at www.usccb.org).

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, we have a number of African priests who have come to study and to do pastoral ministry for several years. We have other priests from Africa who have become priests of the Archdiocese. We also have African seminarians who have come to finish their studies at Mundelein Seminary and who will be ordained for Chicago, one of them this coming May. There are African religious women, many from religious congregations founded in Africa, who are here to pray and work. The faith that was brought by Irish, German, French, Italian, Canadian and American missionaries to Africa has flourished. The generosity of missionaries like Dominican Father Ambrose Windbacher is now being returned to us in the person of African priests, seminarians and sisters who have come to us in our need. They will not only pray and work; they will teach us to be more grateful and welcoming, more joyful and generous, to be people with a deeper sense of our faith and the fullness of Catholic communion. May God bless Africa and, in that blessing, bring new hope to the peoples of that continent and to all of us.
Sincerely yours in Christ,

Archbishop of Chicago

More about Fr. Windbacher.