Tomorrow, December 17, we will begin our worldwide Novena. This introduction, a letter to ACN from the Bishop of Bangassou, is meant as a homage to the priests, the men and women in religious orders, and to so many laypersons who have taken in hundreds of thousands, especially in Bangui parishes as of late, in order to protect , care for, help, grieve and pray with those suffering and to sow seeds of peace and of hope.
Thursday, 5 December: A day without peace in Bangui, the capital. I would say it was almost an apocalyptic day with dozens of deaths. I saw some of these examples of “collateral damage” who had collapsed in the street in a grotesque fashion. Where did peace hide itself in this country? Evening is falling on this country with four and a half million inhabitants. Christmas is coming. Will it be a Christmas with cribs and carols, or one with Herod, machetes and the presidential guard?
I stood on the lawn of Bangui middle seminary and observed the 5,000 people who were distributed over the meadow, the veranda and the football pitch. They even occupied the church. There came whole families, women with enormous bundles on their heads, young pregnant women with children on their backs, groups of infants with bundles as baggage. Their hearts were pumping adrenalin and were constricted by fear. Fear is the opposite of peace. Together with mistrust and suspicion this fear is the seed of hatred, which in turn is also the opposite of peace.
I went to a woman who was weeping and was slowly letting the rosary beads pass through her fingers. Together with her husband Jean Bosco she is responsible for the 40 children and young people from the San Pablo orphanage, three stone throws from here. She was thinking about her empty house with all their belongings which could be looted tonight. With the rosary beads of phosphorescent plastic she wanted to prevent a possible violation of her privacy. The rosary is an appeal for peace.
I told her she should repeat like the Mother of God: “Do whatever he tells you,” so as to charge the batteries of her hope. Hope leads to peace. Central Africa must leave its past behind, look for peace and live in peace. She answered that she was just praying to fill her heart with a drop of hope, with the first drop for her empty glass. I said to her that when hope is lost, there is still the hope that you will regain hope, which is the twin of prayer. She asked me to pray for her and her children, and also for her husband. They want to form a prayer chain on the meadow tonight to ask God for peace.
As I made the sign of the cross on her forehead I promised her my prayers. I also told her that I would ask others to pray for her. A prayer chain, called a novena of prayers in other countries, for peace to return to Central Africa.
After 35 years in Africa I know from personal experience that the power of prayer can cause hatred to melt. Hatred makes people bitter. Peace makes life sweet. To forgive without further ado loosens all knots. Unconditional forgiveness cancels out the bitterness and sadness between people.
On the television scenes are still shown with young people looting and committing acts of violence. A people cannot nourish the seed of hated in its heart for a whole life. A district, a family cannot live for ever with mistrust and suspicion and divide its neighbours into friends or enemies, Muslims or people of a different faith. You can’t live for years with the lump of hatred in your throat, with a knot of anger in your belly.
Central Africa has lived for ten years in a state of “coup d’état”, ten years of unrest and attacks on power, ten years of the smell of gunpowder in a final stage, ten years of growth without any real development, life in the midst of death.
Before Christmas the international Catholic pastoral charity “Aid to the Church in Need” wishes to hold a novena of prayers for peace in Central Africa. I join with you in my heart.
That’s what I promised the woman with the phosphorescent rosary. She is the image of the Central African people, who have hit rock bottom in their poverty. But this Central African woman, mother, sister or wife, is the only one who can inject a trace of level-headedness into the hearts of those who sow the seed of hatred instead of stars of peace.
+ Juan José Aguirre, Bishop of Bangassou
Stay with us over the days to come, as we pray for peace in Central Africa.