In Central African Republic, a jubilee celebration marred by violence

THE CARMELITES IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC were planning to initiate a jubilee year Dec. 20. 2020 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of their missions in the Central African Republic. However, the celebrations could not be held because of unrest following elections.

It was to be a great celebration of thanksgiving and joy. On December 20, the oldest mission station of the Carmelites in the Central African Republic, in Bozoum, was planning to begin celebrations for the golden jubilee year of the presence of the order in this country in the very heart of Africa. Carmelite fathers from all the missions and many faithful were going to come together to thank God for these 50 years and to ask Him for His blessings for the future.

However, on the morning of December 18, a disturbing message suddenly spread like wildfire: a group of armed rebels driving lorries and motorcycles had invaded the city that night. They had looted the offices of an aid organization and broken down the door of the police station. Shots had been fired in the streets. Other rebels had blocked one of the country’s major traffic arteries.

Fear and terror spread, and the children of the local orphanage fled into the church. Those who were already on their way to the celebrations turned back. It was a particularly grave disappointment for the two young religious who were planning to take their perpetual vows on this great day. This celebration, which was first cancelled and postponed, was finally held instead with a small number of people at the Carmelite monastery in the capital city of Bangui.

Feast of the Infant Jesus of Prague at Bangui
Feast of the Infant Jesus of Prague at Bangui

Father Federico Trinchero, the provincial delegate of the Carmelites for the Central African Republic, said: “It was not easy to accept that we would not be able to gather together to welcome the two young brothers as they took the final steps to becoming members of our family of religious. But we made this sacrifice for peace in this country to ensure that the elections could be held without disruption. In the end, despite everything, it was beautiful.”

In fact, the parliamentary and presidential elections held on December 27 did unleash further unrest in many cities. On the day after the elections, the residents of Baoro, where the Carmelites run another mission station, were awakened in the early morning hours by sustained gunfire which subsided only after an hour. On the evening of the same day, two rebels climbed over the walls of the mission station and forced the guard to call for the missionaries.

The 58-year-old Italian Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera came out of his room to find himself suddenly face-to-face with two armed men. These demanded that the fathers hand over motorcycles belonging to the government party because they believed that these were being kept at the mission station. They threatened Father Aurelio, but he managed to convince them that the motorcycles were not at the mission. Although they continued to make threats, ultimately the priest was able to get them to leave the house and premises.

While working as a priest in Bozoum during the civil war, Father Aurelio had on previous occasions protected the people by risking his life to negotiate with rebel groups. He is known to the people there as the “man who forced the guns of the rebels into submission.” In his new position in Baoro, which he only began a few weeks ago, he now had to live up to his name again. Meanwhile, in Bozoum, gunmen looted and laid waste to the Caritas offices.

However, on the Sunday before Epiphany, the Carmelites in Baoro and Bangui were able to celebrate without disruption the major feast in honor of the Infant of Prague, which is attended by large numbers of faithful each year. On World Mission Sunday in October, Bishop Miroslaw Gucwa of Bouar had dedicated his entire diocese to the Most Gracious Infant Jesus, whose statue brought to the Central African Republic by the first Carmelite missionaries. The bishop presented each parish of his diocese with a copy of this statue and personally blessed them. Many faithful took part in the processions.

 Children with a statue of the Holy Infant Jesus of Prague

Children with a statue of the Holy Infant Jesus of Prague

Today, eight Italian Carmelite missionaries serve at five mission stations. To date, the order in the Central African Republic has ordained twelve local priests—and the number of vocations is growing each year. Thirty-eight young men from the Central African Republic and the neighboring country of Cameroon are currently in formation. They are being supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The seeds that the first Carmelite fathers sowed 50 years ago have germinated and borne rich fruit.

—Eva-Maria Kolmann