It was an interesting conversation in a small parish office – talking about RCIA – initiating adults – how challenging it could be to sort out irregularities in marriages of people coming forward to join the Church- the process of ensuring that people had begun to conform their lives to Christ – marking the journey to Baptism with various rites and making sure that the new Catholics were well-supported during the period of mystagogia.
We are all familiar with the process – but this was somewhat different as the office was in the parish of St Vincent de Paul, Koko, Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. (If you’re not sure where Burkina is or what it is like, click this link to see what Wikipedia says about on Burkina Faso). I had gone out for the ordination of a new Missionary of Africa (White Father), Anselme Tarpaga, in the cathedral there and the opportunity to chat to people about the inculturation of liturgy and Christian Initiation was irresistible.
Among those who spoke of the culture in which the White Fathers and Sisters were evangelising was Père Albert, a German priest with 37 years experience of living and working among the peoples of Africa. He invited me to spend a few days out in the mission station of Konadougou in the south-west in the Diocese of Banfora. This is pretty remote and Père Albert said that when he first came people hid behind trees as he passed in his truck… now they clamour for a lift as he passes at the end of the day! In such a place, evening meetings are impossible – people are understandably reluctant to risk meeting snakes on the way home! So much of the catechesis is done in basic Christian communities with leaders coming together for formation and to discuss how their catechumens are progressing. As the leaders can travel up to 20 km, meetings take place during the day and the people obviously need to be fed before returning home. Catechumens are brought together for a 7-day retreat each year with a two-week one during the Lent before their baptism – a chance to reflect together and deepen their spiritual lives… and a hefty commitment of time for subsistence farmers at the hottest time of year. Each week in Lent has its own rite – but given the distance between the Mass centres, not all can happen in every centre every week (as indeed Mass does not always happen).
The process takes 3-4 years – a one year pre-catechumenate and three year catechumenate – though this can be slightly less where candidates are literate and can undertake study and reflection at home.
Most of the people coming forward are animists, brought up with fetishes and animal sacrifices – and polygamy. It is the latter that often exercises the catechists and clergy and questions about the marital status of the catechumen form a significant part of the questionnaire the leader of the Basic Christian Community fills in to state the readiness of any given candidate. Where a man or woman is in a polygamous marriage, they cannot be baptised but, after their four years of formation receive a blessing during Eastertime. Where the marriage is to one other person, it is regularised as a religious marriage (to go along with the traditional and civil ceremonies that most people also have).
In the town, catechist Georges described a very similar process with candidates following a course of books which opens with the very simple question – who/ what is a catechist? (It prompts the thought about whether people coming to our sessions actually know who or what a catechist might be!) At the end of each year, the prospective new Catholic receives a small token to make the stage in their journey:
End of pre-catechumenate – a miraculous medal
Year 1 of catechumenate – a rosary
Year 2 – medaille croix – a cross with small images of the miraculous medal, St Christopher, the Holy Spirit, Christ and a Madonna
Year 3 – a crucifix
The main responsibility for the formation of the new Christian rests with the Basic Christian Community.
Lent is again marked by rites for each week – and, being in a town, means that people are more able to participate. Week 1 is the call of the candidate who seeks baptism and the vouching for them of the Base Community, catechists and clergy.
Week 2 is the formal renunciation of animistic practices and an exorcism of “esprits mauvaises”.
Week 3 is the giving of and recitation of the Creed by the catechumens.
Week 4 has the “Rite du Sel” – where candidates take salt as a sign of being salt of the earth. There is also the signing of the senses.
Week 5 is the choice of Christian name – where the catechumens give the name they have chosen and why.
The catechumens stay in Mass throughout their catechumenate – there is no dismissal after the Liturgy of the Word – and take full part in the liturgies of Holy Week.
The Easter Vigil starts at 21.00 with the Liturgy of Light and of the Word – and is timed so that the baptisms take place at midnight. There is then a thanksgiving Mass for the newly-baptised on Easter Monday with a blessing for those whose polygamous marriage prevents their being baptised.
Confirmation is deferred for a year and further instruction continues, reinforcing the new way of life the Christian is establishing. Various pictures are used for discussion and particularly significant seemed to be the emphasis on Christ as the perfect sacrifice and the need for the new Christian not to revert back to the sacrifice of chickens, sheep or goats of their animist past. There was also the interesting picture of a man beating a woman – with the explanation that this behaviour too is something that is not appropriate in a Christian marriage.
Of necessity, this really is just a brief summary of the conversations and experience of the Church in Burkina Faso – a country in Africa that prides itself on being an integrated nation where Moslems. Christians and animists live side by side. More snippets can be found on the blog I kept during my time there… including the experience of going to a place sacred to animists. Click here to read more: http://www.bilbosjourneys.blogspot.com/