A priest who has spent 50 years ministering in the east African nation of Burundi has emphasized that the primary focus of the missions is to help spread God's love, rather than caring for merely material needs.
“It's not about building homes or hospitals, but about teaching how to interpret life from the dimension of God's love,” Father Germán Ancanada, a member of the Missionaries of Africa, told CNA Oct. 22.
Fr. Ancanada is 76 and a native of Palencia, in northern Spain. While in seminary in Palencia, he learned of the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers, for their habit. The order was founded in 1868 by the Archbishop of Algiers.
The order's commitment to priestly fraternity was a draw for Fr. Ancanada. “They said that they lived in communities of at least three members, and I knew that I wanted to live in community.”
He said he has spent 50 years in Burundi, one of the world's poorest countries, because “when you go to be a missionary, you take on the destiny of the people.”
“It is more important that people become aware of the beauty of love than that we build bridges or roads that could be destroyed by hatred later,” he explained. “We need to raise (that) awareness.”
Burundi is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Its adjusted per capita income in 2012 was only $625, according to the International Monetary Fund. Most of its population is Hutu, though there is a sizable Tutsi minority.
Fr. Ancanada noted that nationality of missionaries is changing, saying that “up to now, Africans were considered the receivers of the missions, but now they are beginning to be the transmitters.”
In the case of the Missionaries of Africa, the congregation has 1500 members and 450 seminarians. Of these, 95 percent come from Africa.
“We need to erase the idea that the only thing Spain has to offer African countries is money. We know very well that the faith has diminished greatly. But there are people who truly believe, and that faith has made them happy and it is the same faith that can also bring happiness to Africans.”
“Perhaps Africa does not have the same material means as other continents, but maybe that is not as necessary as we thought. But … we can create a more authentic vision by sharing the faith,” he said.
“As the Pope says, I need to have ‘the smell of the sheep’, and in my case, the smell of African sheep. For this reason, if you are with them, you have to suffer with them.”
During his half-century spent in Burundi, Fr. Ancanada has witnessed a 12-year civil war, as well as the mass killings of both Hutus and Tutsis.
The civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005, was the worst violence, he said. Many areas were left devastated, and therefore his archbishop charged him with rebuilding an area where 67,000 homes had been destroyed.
“During that period,” Fr. Ancanada recalled, “a reporter got me condemned to death for publishing that I had said that all members of the military are thieves and corrupt, which is something I never said.”
The Spanish ambassador then asked him to leave the country because of the tensions created by the article. “The ambassador told the superior of the White Fathers to take me out of Burundi, because I would be the next victim.”
“When this happened, my bishop told me: ‘You are not in any more danger than anyone else. If you are unsafe, then I am unsafe as well.’”
“In fact, that archbishop was killed soon after. When I visit his tomb it is like visiting the tomb of a hero, because he had qualities and a commitment that was far superior to mine.”
“The mission is very interesting and it makes you very happy, but you always need to convert, because we always do foolish and dumb things.”
He added that suffering is a necessary part of mission work.
“A missionary that does not have crosses is not authentic. Precisely because of this, it is normal to suffer with (the people), it is a sign of authenticity, it is natural to demonstrate the vision of the Gospel in my life.”
“The missionary should be a source of unity and communion in the places in which he lives,” Fr. Ancanada concluded.
“For this reason, in areas affected by wars, the way the faith teaches us to respect and live together in peace is a formidable solution for participating in the healing of that area.”