Getting a first whiff of 'the smell of the sheep'.
"You must meet the students to listen to their experience of pastoral work. Pay attention to their body language. You'll come away inspired", Sr Colette McCann (MSHR) tells me when I visit the Mill Hill Missionary Formation House in Bamenda, NW Province, Cameroon. A total of 37 students are enrolled here in a formation program of one year of basic formation and three years philosophy (first cycle). The initiation into pastoral experience is an essential component of the integrated formation program. Students take a month's pastoral placement during their long holidays. They also visit local parishes for various duties during weekends.
I arrange to meet the students in small groups according to their year of formation to give everyone a chance to tell his story. What I hear is ample confirmation of Sr Colette's assessment.
'No matter how hot the water, it still quenches the fire'. Age-old Cameroonian wisdom speaks of the importance of using your talents whatever your perceived or real limitations.
'How will I cope in this new and unfamiliar environment?'
For most the pastoral placement means stepping right out of their comfort zone. Cameroon's North West Province is multicoloured quilt of widely differing tribes and assorted languages, cultures, types of food.
Felix shares that he was sent to a village where he was put up with a family whose living conditions were less than basic. He was appalled that the room he was given to stay in was squalid and smelt after urine. The food tasted unfamiliar and quite unpalatable. In a word he felt totally out of place and was sorely tempted to do a runner. But he persevered. What was it that kept him there? Sheer bloody mindedness and a glimpse of inspiration from the Bible as he now recalls? An echo from St Paul: 'I have been crucified for the sake of Christ…'
But very soon a sense of gratitude for the warm welcome received, and for the often amazing openness of the people they meet, takes over. Simple people in far flung villages share whatever they have, sometimes depriving themselves. It instills a sense of gratitude for what seems undeserved.
The instructions they received when sent on their mission echoes the story of the sending of the 70 disciples in the gospels. 'Do not suppose that you know everything. Be aware that Christ has gone ahead of you. Discover how Christ operates in the hearts of the people you meet'.
It is clear that everyone in his own way has passed through a steep learning curve. The shy and timid have been challenged to come out of their shell. All have grown in self-awareness and ability to listen, their hearts have expanded.
Some tell of particularly challenging experiences.
Ronald shares how he was assigned to a school for physically challenged pupils, mostly orphans. His initial reaction to working with blind or deaf youngsters was one of considerable unease. He felt totally unprepared and helpless. But gradually he learnt to just be with them and 'walk' with them. "In the end I did not want to leave".
Brian recalls how one day he was called to the bedside of a very sick man. He went accompanied by some catechumens. They prayed over him, and soon after they had left the man died. When he hears this news he overcome by fear. Will he be implicated in this death? The catechumens tell him of a priest who had a similar experience and was subsequently accused of 'having killed' the person. (Such accusations are not uncommon within the context of traditional African beliefs). A few days later the wife of the deceased comes to the Mission. He hides in his room afraid to see her. Then somehow he manages to calm his inner panic and goes to visit the family. To his utter amazement and grateful relief, rather than blaming him for the death of their loved one, they thank him for having accompanied him in his final hours!
Others report how they often have to resist being put on a pedestal by simple villagers who tend to look up to them or attribute to them knowledge they do not possess.
Nor are they always being made to feel welcome when they move around a community to visit people at home. 'There are people who simply switch on the TV and leave you there on your own!'
Would they react like the apostles and shake the dust from their feet, I wonder?
Sometimes they find themselves challenged in their very vocation. What do you do when you receive a marriage proposal? With some humour one of the students shares his experience of being propositioned twice during his stay in a particular village community.
I find myself inspired and impressed by the joyful awareness I sense in these young men and also their identification with what they perceive as a typical Mill Hill missionary approach: take people where they are and accompany them to where the gospel invites them to go.
To love and to serve. Amen to that.
Fons Eppink mhm