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Congo: exchanging gifts

psexton_01The exotic garment on Peter Sexton was a gift from the Central African Province, in gratitude for the gift of Peter himself. He has just returned from giving two 8-day retreats to Francophone Congolese Jesuits, not a holiday by any means. It was a Province-to-Province exercise, arranged through Fabrice, the Congolese Jesuit who lived happily here in Loyola up to last summer. Peter’s first misgiving, when invited, was how to bring his French up to speed, not merely in vocabulary but in accent and intonation. However, in a land with a strong memory of colonial days, it was an advantage to be neither Belgian nor French. He painstakingly wrote out what he wanted to say, not merely on the Exercises, but on aspects of Jesuit life, such as the vows and community living. He reflects on five challenging weeks below.

RETREATING IN CONGO

Peter Sexton SJ

The scene: From the moment I landed I was overwhelmed by the mass of people. There are ten million in Kinshasa, with hardly any whites to be seen.  The city’s population has doubled in ten years – country people in desperate poverty vainly hoping that the city will offer a better life. Incredibly, we (Fabrice and I) survived the shrieking chaos of the airport with papers and luggage recovered. The traffic! Imagine the multiple crossroads at Donnybrook Church at rush hour with no traffic lights or police, hundreds of cars coming in every direction, climbing the pavement to overtake. I realised that the driver who guides the Jesuit car unscathed is a genius. There is no public transport, and no garbage collection, so the streets are littered.

Shaping the retreat: The first retreat was in Kickwit, a 90-minute flight from Kinshasa in a small plane. As we landed we saw a huge cheering crowd and a brass band playing. Alas, not for me, but for an elderly Indian guru who was calmly combing his flowing hair at the back of the plane. It was the Jesuits’ first communal retreat, and they welcomed especially the hour spent each evening sharing their thoughts on two questions which I asked each morning, one touching the individual, the other the Province, which is just 50 years old and facing huge challenges. It was a sharing without discussion or  interrogation, a new experience and much appreciated. There was a sense of vitality in the 300-strong province, including a large number in formation.
Sense of time: The Cardinal Archbishop ordained 33 to the priesthood on 31 July, including six Jesuits, and insisted on doing everything himself. It took over five hours. I was proud of my bladder control. Not much to do between retreats – the streets could be dangerous – but I had a memorable half hour sitting in a pirogue (long narrow canoe made from a single tree trunk) on the Congo river. I would not swim there – parasites and crocodiles thrive in its brown depths.
Food and weather: I stayed healthy, lost a bit of weight, got used to fou-fou (based on maize or manioc), and felt happy when it was flavoured with dark vegetables or tough meat. The water was always carefully filtered. I saw no wild animals, and nets protected my sleep from mosquitoes. The dry season meant tolerable temperatures.

The after-taste: The Spiritual Exercises, and the Jesuit identity, make a bond that transcends race and distance and touches us deeply. For the 70 million Congolese, the message of the Exercises, the love of God and the hope of resurrection, are necessary to a degree we can hardly imagine.