A tale of two Churches: Young African priest ordained in south Italy

Reggio Calabria, Italy, Jul 8, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- Last month three men were ordained to the priesthood in a small city in southern Italy. Among them was Fr. Jerome Pascal Ombeni, a young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Ombeni, 29, is one of about a dozen seminarians and priests from African countries studying in Reggio Calabria. Now ordained, he will minister as a priest in Italy for three years before returning to his home diocese of Uvira, to serve its approximately 700,000 Catholics in a territory of 14,000 square miles.

The Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova, which sits on the southernmost tip of the Italian peninsula, has a population of around 285,000, of which 98% are Catholic, and covers just 388 square miles.

“For me it’s been very important to see and to experience another [local] Church,” Ombeni told CNA. “To discover another style, another way, because the Gospel is the same…”

“I can say that for a priest to be well-formed is good not only for the Diocese of Uvira but good for the entire Church, because if you are a priest, you are a priest universally.”

Before his ordination, the new priest studied at Reggio’s theological seminary for five years, capping his 10 years of priestly formation. He should have returned home for his ordination, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to travel, and was ordained in Italy instead.

Ombeni said that receiving his priestly ordination June 27 was the realization of a dream which began in childhood.

“If I could close my eyes and maybe think of all the other things: to get married, to do other things like play the cello, be in politics, the only thing which makes my heart pound is to be a priest,” he said.

“It was something I couldn’t understand, but it’s the only thing which gives me happiness, gives me joy.”

“I was called to live this gift of priesthood,” he said.

But five years into his seminary formation in the DRC, he received another call — this time from his bishop, who asked him to travel roughly 3,000 miles north, to another continent, to finish his studies in Italy.

Ombeni said this call felt like “when God called Abraham, [saying] there is your land, you need to leave your connections, your nation, your friends.”

It was something completely unexpected, the new priest said. Being a diocesan seminarian, he never expected to leave his city, let alone his country.

“To discover Europe… there was that joy. That was the exciting part,” Ombeni explained, but leaving his family and everyone he knew was incredibly difficult: “I started really from zero to insert into this life [in Italy].”

The second greatest challenge was learning to speak Italian, he said. “When I arrived, I did not speak a word of the language, not even ‘hello.’ I learned it here.”   

But Ombeni said the welcome from the seminary community helped him overcome these challenges, guiding him through integration into the diocese and giving him the space to learn and adapt at his own pace.

The Pius XI Seminary in Reggio Calabria assists in the formation of priests from the DRC and Madagascar, but “it’s a reciprocal gift, because their presence enriches very much both the formation in seminary and the local Church,” the seminary’s rector told CNA.

Fr. Salvatore Santaro, who is also the vicar general of the archdiocese, said he thinks the faith of the men exemplifies Pope Francis’ call to spread the Gospel “by contagion.”

Reggio also sends a few seminarians to the Diocese of Morondava in Madagascar for several months every summer.

The time in a different country and culture is formative for the Italian seminarians, the rector said, and noted that “the presence of the Malagasy priests … has enriched the archdiocese a lot.”

About the cooperation with African dioceses, the rector said, “the very clear objective is this: to never impoverish a Church which sends its seminarians here.”

“Reggio does not welcome foreign seminarians so that they can become priests of Reggio. Reggio welcomes them to help form them so they can return to their dioceses.”

In the Diocese of Uvira in the DRC, according to 2017 statistics, 680,000 Catholics — around 40% of the population — were served by just 68 total diocesan and religious priests.

In comparison, in 2017, the Calabrian archdiocese had 157 diocesan and religious priests.

“Clearly also the south, also Calabria, is affected by a difficult moment in respect to vocations,” Santoro said. “I would say, however, that the Archdiocese of Reggio goes a bit against this [trend].”

Ombeni said that being in Reggio he has noticed a lot of differences from his home diocese. For one, “the African Church is a young Church … a nascent Christianity,” he explained.

He pointed to the fact that his diocese has existed for fewer than 100 years, whereas the Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova can trace its founding to the first century, with the landing of St. Paul the Apostle on its shores.

In Calabria, “the way to believe is very different … even the way of living the faith is very different from ours,” he stated.

The priest praised the popular acts of piety, such as processions of religious images, as “a treasure” he would like to share with Catholics in the DRC. The city’s traditions are part of the identity of the people in Reggio, he said, and they tell a story of Catholicism’s deep roots in that place.

He also said he appreciates Reggio’s “family atmosphere.”

But he noted there can be a tendency for the Catholic identity to be more of a biographical fact than something concretely lived out. Ombeni said he was shocked to learn some parishes in Calabria only have five to 10 baptisms a year, for example, when his home parish in Kamanyola baptizes no fewer than 100.

There are also weddings every Saturday in Uvira, he said, and thousands of people attend Mass. “So, you see, for a pastor there is really that joy to administer the sacraments,” he stated.

Having fewer priests also has a big impact in the DRC. For example, Congolese who live in remote towns may only have the presence of a priest once every six months or may have to travel a week on foot just to attend Mass and receive the sacrament of penance, he recalled.

“Instead, it’s different when you have the Eucharist right under your house, a priest who lives right under your house.”

But Ombeni stressed that he would never say one Catholic community is better than the other, and each has its own riches to share with the universal Church.

“I am here to see another way of living in the Church,” he explained. “I know I have a responsibility. I was sent here to share what I learned here with my people.”

He underlined the importance of inculturation, urging people to avoid prejudice. Faith must be reciprocal, he said, with Catholics understanding both that “someone else has something to give me, and I have something to give.” 

Ombeni acknowledged what his diocese has received from the Catholic faith in Europe, for example, noting his gratitude to the missionary priests who have served in his home country.

Xaverian Missionary priests from Parma, Italy, arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1958, four years before the Diocese of Uvira was erected in 1962.

Now, Ombeni said, it is time for Africa “to return the faith it has received.”

Africa has “many things” to give to the Church in Italy, he suggested, but people must be open to receiving it.

Spending time in Italy has been a blessing for his vocation, the new priest said, adding that it has been a beautiful experience, and one that has already changed him.

“There is something I acquired for my vocation and for the people I will meet and for the responsibility I have,” he said.

“The ‘other’ is always a blessing for me.”

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