Joy in Central African Republic!
Celebrating the consecration of the newly enlarged and renovated parish church of St Michael
October 23, 2016 was a wonderful day of celebration, when the newly extended and renovated parish church of St Michael, in Bozoum in the northwest of the Central African Republic, was consecrated and blessed.
The Church was already packed for a full hour before Holy Mass began. A huge throng of people, children, young people and adults, had converged on the church, not only from the town itself but from all the surrounding villages to be part of this historic and long-awaited event.
The Mass itself lasted three hours, and it seemed as if the singing, praying and dancing would never end. In order to prepare worthily for this feast, there were three days of preparation in advance, with confession, prayers and catechesis, with several hundred of the faithful taking part. For as Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera, the parish priest was well aware, after the bloody violence that quite recently shook this country it is not just the external, physical structures that need rebuilding but above all the hearts, the lives and the consciences of the people.
“Our church is finished, and it looks beautiful! We want to thank everyone who has contributed to this marvelous event!” Father Aurelio tells us joyfully. ACN also contributed 58,400 CAN to the project, thanks to the generosity of our benefactors. Now the church can accommodate more worshipers – which is just as well since the parish of Saint Michael is flourishing, with over 100 baptisms every year and a number of spiritual vocations, and the old church was virtually bursting at the seams at every Mass.
A solidarity challenge for the house of God
At the same time – again thanks to the help of our benefactors – it was possible to repair the damage on the older parts of the church, where over the course of time several cracks had appeared in the foundations.
To successfully tackle such a large project in a country that has been ranked as the second poorest and most underdeveloped in the world is indeed a challenge. It takes strong faith, as well as help from abroad. But the local people of the parish also did all they could to help, within their limited means, in order to see the fulfillment of their dream of a larger and more beautiful parish church. “Some brought sand, stones and gravel, while others contributed whatever money or food they could afford, while others again gave their time and labour on the project. Every little gesture of generosity, however large or small, and whether by our benefactors abroad or our own Catholic faithful here in Bozoum, is now a part of this house of God for ever,” says Father Aurelio.
Father Aurelio himself was heavily involved in the building work as well. “Day by day, week by week, month by month we pressed on with this hard, difficult and sometimes dangerous work, and at every moment we felt the protecting hand of God over us,” this Italian Carmelite priest assured us.
On one occasion there was very nearly a serious accident. As Father Aurelio and the workmen were trying to lift a huge 12-metre steel girder into place, the structure, weighing hundreds of kilograms, slipped and fell, almost striking Father Aurelio himself. It was a very near thing. “But none of us was hurt, even though we were all working high up on a 25-foot scaffold. Once again we were reminded of God‘s protecting hand over us as we worked,” 54-year-old Father Aurelio recalls.
A “Da-Nzapa” for God
The parish of Bozoum is not only the oldest parish in the country outside the capital Bangui, but at the same time has come to be regarded as a symbol of peace. During the bloody years of the war in 2013/2014 Father Aurelio was tireless in negotiating peace with all the armed groups and with the various different ethnic groups, and in this way he succeeded in preventing a massacre in his adopted town. There was worldwide media interest at the time in the actions of this courageous priest, who undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives – and on several occasions very nearly paid for this with his own life.
“Da-Nzapa“ (“House of God“ in the local Sango language), where they can praise and worship God. The two additional wings of the new building, each forming a semicircle on either side of the sanctuary and – as Father Aurelio explains – symbolizing “the embrace of God in the Sacraments, in prayer, the holy Scriptures and in the encounter with our brothers and sisters.” The beautiful cross that hangs over the altar was forged from steel bars recovered from the foundations of the old church, by way of commemorating the work of the early missionaries, who worked so hard to build the first church here over 60 years ago.
Now, Father Aurelio and all the Catholic faithful of Bozoum want to thank everyone who has helped to make this wonderful and long-awaited dream a reality. “We were only able to complete this work thanks to the help of so many kind people all over the world,” their parish priest tells us. “These months during which we worked on the building were a beautiful time, but it was still more beautiful, on the day of the consecration, to witness the joy and pride of the faithful in their beautiful new church. We wanted this to be a beautiful church, because beauty speaks of God. We thank God, and all our benefactors!”