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Alumni assemble

alumni_01Fr General made his second visit to Africa in mid-July to attend the Seventh World Congress of Jesuit Alumni/ae, which took place in Bujumbura, Burundi. WUJA holds a Congress every six years since its founding in Bilbao in 1956, each time on a different continent. In 2003 the venue was Kolkata and the previous one was in Sydney. Ireland had four representatives at this congress, all Clongownians: Michael Sheil SJ (OC’56), Barry McStay (OC’04), Richard McElwee (OC’05) and Tim McNamara (OC’06). Tim as part of his university course had been working as a physio in Zambia, so he travelled via Addis Ababa and Kigali, to Bujumbura. There he met the other three, who had made the journey from Paris. Continue the journey below.  The Irish quartet took part in an “experiment” proposed to the Youth Group in the pre-Congress programme. The assignment to the town of Bukavu, in the Dem.Rep. of Congo – involved a seven-hour journey across the Mitumba mountain range, along the Western Rift Valley, at a point near the border with Rwanda. A lot of the road was a sort of dirt track, full of potholes and dangerous bends – and the dust managed to permeate everywhere, with the mini-bus having to stop every so often when the driver could no longer see after meeting a car coming in the opposite direction. The obligatory puncture on the return journey only underlined the challenge of such a trip – and one can only bow in homage to Richard O’Dwyer when reading his latest account of his travels in Sudan [cf. AMDG 01.09]. The College of Alfajiri, founded by Belgian Jesuits in 1937, provided B+B – and the quartet was warmly welcomed there by Fr Louis Gallez, who was due to return to Belgium after 47 years spent in Burundi.

The “experiment” took place in Ek’Abana a house in downtown Bukavu, where a bustling and energetic Italian lady, Natalina, looked after a rather special group of young children. There were about 40 children, aged between 3 and 15, all of whom had been rejected by their families – simply because the local witch-doctor had said that they were possessed. This, to the European mind, incredible situation can arise from a tragedy in a family, where a child (usually a girl) is designated as being its cause – or where the second wife of a man does not like a child of the first wife – or it may be a child too many – or simply poverty. A group of young Alfajiri past pupils joined the Irish quartet and all took part in the running of the house, where, each day, everyone is assigned a specific task. There was a lot of sweeping and cleaning, cooking and wash-up, games and Bible study. Ths children are quite remarkable, happy and friendly in spite of the dreadful experience they have had (although some must have been so young when abandoned that they may not remember the circumstances of their rejection). As they grow older, Natalina finds schooling and sometimes a foyer for them. She is a remarkable lady, who manages to run the whole enterprise mainly on donations from her friends and benefactors in Italy.

As Fr General later explained when he met the Youth Group, St Ignatius’ idea of the “experiment” was to test his young companions – and Barry and Richard and Tim gave witness to how true that was for them. But overall it was a very enriching and enjoyable experience. Daily Mass in the local (college) church, at 6H30, was attended by about 500 people, all of whom had arrived on foot – and the Sunday Mass, in the centre of a slum area, gathered about 2,000 faithful for a two-hour celebration in song, dance and prayer. One came away with great memories – and with two abiding conclusions: (a) a happy and welcoming people who are willing to share the little which they have, and (b) a people who still have what the west is in danger of losing – a sense of community.

On returning to Bujumbura the group paid a visit to the Apostolic Nuntiature to pay respects to the memory of – and to pray for – a past pupil of Clongowes, Michael Courtney (OC’62) who, as Papal Nuncio was assassinated in 2003, when returning from a trip to negotiate peace terms with a rebel group. The Congress itself began in the Jesuit Retreat Centre of Kiriri with a special concelebrated Mass led by the Archbishop of Bujumbura. The meetings took place in the Collège du Saint Esprit, founded in 1952. Different aspects of the problems and challenges facing Africa to-day were presented in a number of well-documented papers: “Our potential outweighs our problems” by Peter Henriot, S.J. from JCTR in Lusaka; “Africa is rich – Africans are poor” by Frank Turner, S.J. of OCIPE in Brussels; “Peace and Development issues in the Great Lakes Region” by Ferdinand Muhinguirwa, S.J. & Rigobert Minani, S.J. from CEPAS in Kinshasa; and “Jesuit Alumni and the struggle against Aids” by Michael Czerny, S.J., from AJAN in Nairobi; finally, the Youth Group presented a series of reports on their various “experiments”: Ek’Abana in Bukavu – Aids victims with the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa) and a hospital and the disabled in Bujumbura.

Fr General, in his address, underlined some of the challenges facing Africa – and therefore Jesuit Alumni/ae – at this time: justice for all – good education for all – a healthy open environment for all – and life with a purpose and hope for all. He stressed that challenges make demands: for personal values – for service to others [Men-and-women-for-others] – proper structures [e.g. for WUJA] to attract young people, both locally and globally. He would give to Alumni/ae the same advice as to young Jesuits: look for creative solutions to problems/challenges – ensure indepth analysis of available information – and seek for a deep spirituality, without which work will have little value. Fr Nicolás led the closing concelebrated Mass in the College Chapel – and the Congress was formally ended after the election of the new Council, the choice of venue (Medellin) for the 2013 Congress, and a final plenary session.

The experience of meeting, from all over the world, so many people who share the common bond of being Alumni/ae of the Society was both encouraging and pleasant. Sharing a few days with other Jesuits in Kiriri reinforced the companionship with which the Society supports each one’s vocation, and was a telling witness to our union of minds and hearts. The Irish trio of recent Alumni made a great impression both on the Youth Group and the Delegates of the Congress. Their helpfulness, ability to express themselves, cheerfulness and good humour brought many compliments to their “elder” companion. They themselves were inspired to want to do something concrete to share their enthusiasm with other Alumni/ae – and one awaits further developments with interest and hope.