Social and Pastoral Bulletin_No. 85 Aug. 15, 1998


Noma Junko
(Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary)

I started missionary activities in West Africa in 1979. While in retreat one day I was deeply touched by the following words of Scripture: “Go into the world to spread the gospel”. At the time I started missionary activities I must confess that I held an arrogant attitude, as a nurse, of teaching Africans medical techniques. As a result, I experienced several trials in my daily contacts with them. Confronted by quite different cultures and languages, values, historical backgrounds and life styles I felt a culture shock. I was surprised at the many differences we had and with deep hesitation I really doubted whether we could go along together.

I was lost and went to prayer to find some guidance. There the words of Christ revived inside myself: “Do not be afraid. Trust in me”. Those words gave me strength and by joining action with prayer my commitment to the people changed little by little. In other words, I was able to have an attitude of accepting what people had to offer, instead of giving out things from myself, to learn and to accept differences and difficulties, to reflect together in meeting them, to live as they do and to dialogue with them, to mutually share goods and spiritual experiences, to work with them and to grow together trying to pursue the same objectives.

Although there are external ethnical differences, all human persons possess the same substantial elements like life and love, the pursue of human growth. As a missionary I am convinced that mission means a loving attitude to build up environments where local people develop their personalities in free and responsible ways, by not imposing on them medical knowledge, education or ways of evangelization. In order to live such a loving attitude, it is essential to make efforts to find the absolute love of Christ and the needs - social and psychological, material and spiritual of each person following the example of Christ, to vitalize within oneself the words of Christ.
The Country of Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso is a country situated in West Africa with a territory of about 274,000 square km. Although its size is about 2/3 of Japan, its population is only 10 million. From June to October there is a rainy season and the March-April months are extremely hot. It is not unusual that the temperature raises over 45 degrees at that time. Natural resources are scarce and 92% of the population is rural. Famine hits the population badly especially because of a lack of water. The degree of literacy, about 7%, is far below world standards. 62% of the population is composed of various ethnic groups and religiously speaking, 45% are considered Moslems, about 30% believe in traditional natural religions and the rest are Christians. The foreign policies of the country are moderate and neutral, and it keeps strong economic links with European countries, mainly with France. In December of 1994 it opened an embassy in Japan and it is in very good relationship with Japan. It is a country at peace and without wars, in spite of the many ethnic groups which are in friendly communication with each other.
Medical facilities are extremely poor and only two public hospitals are running. At the time of entering a hospital people must bring with them all needed medical supplies and medicines, because without them there is no way to use medical facilities. The main diseases are infant malnutrition occasioned by lack of food (this is mainly due to low agricultural production because of the unstable fall of rain). Malnutrition weakens bodily strength, and as a result, many patients hit by malaria and other endemic diseases get weakened and die. On top of this, people do not have an understanding of what vaccination is for, and there is a strong tendency of contracting poliomyelitis, measles, TB, anemia and pneumonia. Recently, the problem of AIDS has become quite serious.

Living the Christian Faith

The Catholic Church is very active in Burkina Faso and Christians increase rapidly every year. My parish is one of the biggest in the diocese, and every Christmas and Easter over 100 children and 200 adults get baptized there.
When an adult wants to be baptized he/she must go through a 4-year study of the Catholic faith, and after receiving baptism one more year of training in the faith is demanded before receiving Confirmation. The initiation period takes place in the liturgy every Sunday mass, in front of the Christian community, so that in that way people to receive baptism get a strong awareness of belonging to the same Church family. When a person is not yet considered suitable, baptism is postponed.

About 100 persons attend daily mass before the day starts. On Sundays and feast days the liturgy of the mass is conducted solemnly with the introduction of typical traditions and customs of various ethnic groups. Although the mass on Sundays might be as long as 3 hours, people do not feel it long. There is a procession before mass, and also at the time of the liturgy of the Word, then the readings of Scripture are sung by all in the common language representing all different ethnic groups. There are also times when the words of Scripture are shown in pantomime in front of the altar or even plays are played in Church. During the offerings people present with rhythmical dances the agricultural products harvested, livestock, textbooks and notebooks used in school.
This way the mass permeates their lives. Once the liturgy is finished they leave the church together with the parish priest and dance in joy outside the church. Due to the problem of illiteracy especially in villages, the committee members for liturgy or some selected Christians ask the opinions of others with regard to liturgical songs, in order to write the words and music suited to people's daily lives. The community creates in original ways its own liturgical songs. The results are that people enjoy participating in all kinds of meetings scheduled after mass.

The parish I belong to has 4 more circuit chapels. Villagers expose to the parish priest their wishes to build a church in their own village and they construct it by building simple mud walls. Since priests can not stay in those villages the role played by the catechists is great. In fact they become the center of the church, and thanks to them the families pray also fervently at home. The usual morning greetings of the people of Burkina Faso are similar to this: "May God bless us today" and "The peace of God be with us today"or "May God be always with you". God plays a central part in daily life, and even when they work in the fields they sing songs of praise to God.

My Experiences as Novice Master

Vocations to religious life or to the priesthood in West Africa start early, from about the age of 12. As soon as they leave primary school they are accepted in religious houses of formation. They leave their villages and families and come to live in houses of formation of the congregations they select. Many commute to middle and high school from there.The introduction of parish priests is needed to enter such houses. My own congregation owns two such houses in West Africa. Young people who want to join us come to live together with us, they study and pray together, and consider carefully their own vocation. By turns they cook their food, clean the house, prepare together their common prayer, so that all of them work in a group sharing responsibilities.

The first step is to improve their knowledge of society and their human growth to graduate from school. Once every two weeks they meet the person responsible for formation to discuss together various important matters, like the actual status of their vocation, school life and their relationship with others in the same house of formation, how they meet God in their daily activities.

On Sundays they share together their spiritual life, like prayer, knowledge and familiarity with Christ, devotion to our Lady, etc., so that their Christian attitudes may become deeper. Evening prayers are done together under the direction of the person responsible then.They share the readings of the Scripture and common prayers suited to their daily life situations. In summer they attend special courses of 10 days on human and spiritual themes, and after each academic term they have three-day retreats.

Girls who graduated from High school and want to join our congregation stay for a year living together with us in a period of probation. That way they can directly experience our lives and we can also foster their vocation and help them to discern their future. A year later they move to a Novitiate to receive two years of training. The first year they go through a course where they are given lectures on human social problems, psychology, spirituality and the bible, theology, history of the Church and of our congregation, mysticism, etc, Saturdays and Sundays are dedicated to pastoral activities with children's groups, chorus, youth groups and leading common prayer. Many opportunities are given to them to experience a life of prayer, share human and spiritual experiences in community, common work, and meet with the novice master.

During the second year, following their talents and wishes, the novices are sent three days a week to various welfare institutions, like centers for children suffering from malnutrition, leprosaria or centers for Aid patients, or to nearby villages to take care of the sick. Through such activities they can continue the process of deepening their vocation.
After two years they make their religious vows following a liturgical service adapted to their own ethnical culture that they themselves had prepared beforehand, together with the liturgical committee and the lay people of the parish.

Common Formation Program in West Africa
Since about 10 years ago, religious vocations have sharply increased in West Africa. In 1989 at a general meeting of Major Superiors of women and men religious congregations there was a common understanding of the necessity to train Masters of novices. As a result, a priest of a religious congregation specializing in religious formation in Africa was asked to lead programs for religious with lectures on formation of novice masters. I attended the first course.
Actual novice masters and future ones, in all 30 sisters from all over West Africa, gathered for the program. 15 different nationalities were represented.

Half were African-born and the rest expatriates. We divided ourselves in 5 groups of 6 persons each, and left for a retreat house far from town, where for 5 months we received training as if we were novices.

The main thing we learned in that program was that, our main role as masters of novices was to help the novices to foster their own vocation by cooperating with the dynamic gift they have received. While the novices are in formation they need to realize, in a spirit of prayer in front of God, the depth of their vocation. There are two main approaches to cultivate one's vocation: a human approach and a religious approach. By human approach I mean, standing in the cross roads between the traditional and the modern world, myself living in an insecure economic situation or a life orientation towards a global world, etc. A religious approach brings me to the need of inculturation, of giving witness as a religious person in the Church and in society. Novice masters must grasp the human and spiritual development of the novices under their care. They must be like mothers or elders sisters to their novices, they must lead in discernement their growth with warm care, realizing that the initiative of a vocation comes from God himself.
Since 1993 I am a member of the team responsible for the formation program for women religious in West Africa, and I strongly feel that it is of utmost importance for the African candidates to receive a formation based in their own cultures and life experiences.

Finally, my own attitude as a novice master is to conduct a formation which is based on mutual respect, trust and freedom. The starting point to foster a vocation is to have a clear view of the human and spiritual situation in which each novice is living at present. I believe that with humble love and patience everyone can answer a call received from God.