Nearly three decades of service for the Church in Africa
For 28 years, Christine du Coudray has worked at the head office of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) as head of projects for Africa. In this interview with Volker Niggewöhner, she takes a look back at her time with Aid to the Church in Need.
Ms du Coudray, after 28 years of service, these are your last moments at Aid to the Church in Need. Are you feeling a little nostalgic?
There is a time to serve and a time to step down. After 28 years, I am ready for the latter. For about ten years now, a new generation of young staff members has joined our organization, one that is very dedicated and will carry on the mission.
When I started work 28 years ago, I was hardly able to locate the African countries on a map. I accepted the challenge and started to build up my knowledge from zero.
What did you learn through your work?
I learned that each continent has its own calling. Even before the first African synod took place in 1994, I had discovered that Africa is the continent of the family. This is astonishing. But even though the family is damaged there, and problems do exist, just as they do everywhere else, the family, the future of humanity, seems to be the calling of Africa. It plays a very special role there. When Pope Benedict XVI visited Benin in 2011, he again pointed out this reality, which had already been apparent to Saint John Paul II. The support for the family has been a leitmotif for me through all these years. We have done a great deal for it and continue to do so now.
Were there people who you remember as being particularly influential to you along the way?
Yes, most importantly Saint John Paul II, who over the years became and remained what you could call my “spiritual father”. I always tried to understand and implement his point of view for the Church in Africa. It was a privilege for me to be able to take part in the first African synod in 1994. I was the only woman from Europe. There were about 350 participants: cardinals, bishops and priests, experts and listeners. I was among the listeners and spent a month in Rome so that I could participate in the synod a year after I started working at Aid to the Church in Need, I could not have dreamed of a better training.
On this occasion, I shared a midday meal with the pope. We exchanged ideas and it was something very special.
The synod bore fruit and, ten years later, in 2004, I organized a meeting in Rome with bishops from Africa and Europe in an attempt to build a bridge between the two continents. On this occasion, John Paul II proclaimed the second African synod. I also consider this a gift.
What were the most wonderful moments for you?
The travelling definitely belonged to my most wonderful moments. My first trip took me to Tanzania in 1994, the last to Sudan in March 2020 right before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Situations there have changed drastically: before, you would find a hut illuminated by a single candle, now electricity is supplied by solar panels. I kept all of the journals with my notes!
Why was travelling important for your work?
You can’t find out whether a vehicle or renovations for a catechetical centre are necessary just by reading the project proposal. We have to go there and take a look around to determine what is needed. I can give you an example: a year ago, I travelled to the archdiocese of Kananga in the Kasai province of Congo-Kinshasa. Once there, I discovered that the sanitary conditions in the bathroom facilities of the major seminary were unbelievable. It was horrible. I thought to myself, “How can it be that these future priests have to live without a shower and in such conditions?” We received the project proposal this past March, but unfortunately, we had to turn down the project at that time because there was no money available due to the COVID-19 crisis. Two days ago, however, I concluded that we had to revise our decision. This was only because we had paid a visit on-site. I may never have reacted in this way had I not actually seen the situation there with my own eyes.
Do you have something like a “favourite country”?
Yes, I would say that my “favourite country” is Congo-Kinshasa. Personally, I am convinced that this country has an important role to play because of its location at the heart of the continent and because of the high percentage of Catholics. Women, for example, play a major role. Unfortunately, the country is in total chaos because of its natural resources [conflicts arising from the control over them]. There are many more mining resources here than any other place in the world and for this reason many countries – its neighbours and the West – are very interested in it. Where there are natural resources, war is unfortunately inevitable. But the people there have an unbelievable amount of courage and energy.
Has your faith helped you to fulfil your mission?
Certainly, because I deeply experienced that everything that I proposed, all of the initiatives, did not come from me, but from the Holy Spirit, such as the meeting between the bishops from Africa and Europe. That did not come from me. Through our experiences at ACN we have learned that the bishops themselves need our care. It is crucial to help the bishops so that they can be better leaders for their dioceses. In order to do this, we have to take care of them. We did this by providing them with a few days off in the form of retreats for the entire Bishops’ Conference. All those who have already experienced it have been enthusiastic about this proposal. As an example, all of the bishops from the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Libya) spent time together in a monastery in Senegal. This was a first for them all and they enjoyed it immensely.
What will you miss the most as you now retire?
First and foremost, travelling on location to gain a better understanding of the prevailing situation and to learn about the projects. Each project is unique. Our brothers and sisters in faith put their heart and soul into writing their proposals and expect to receive our help. This is why I always said to them: If you want to write an application to carry out a project and convince our benefactors, imagine yourself in a room with a hundred or so people ready to support you. You will then explain to them your expectations with all your heart. It is important that the projects really come from the heart so that we constantly strengthen this bridge between us and our brothers and sisters in faith.
Did you consider your work to be a “mission”?
Yes, definitely! Of course, every situation is unique. Each country has its own reality and special needs. We are not primarily there to provide financial support, but to listen to the bishops, the priests and the religious sisters, to share their daily lives and to find out exactly what they need. There is, of course, the moment when we have to provide financial aid, of course that moment comes! But it would be hurtful to them if we only talked about the financial aspects. There is a deep communion between us and our brothers and sisters in faith. What we carry out is not just work but a mission that the Lord has entrusted to us for the growth of the Church all over the world.