Fr Damien Fuh mhm
In Karamoja (Uganda) Br Athanasius Fambo (r) in traditional dress
Br Athanisius Fambo Ndoh mhm died suddenly at the age of 24 in Uganda on May 18th and was buried in his home country of Cameroon on May 26th. At this occasion Fr Damien Fuh, his mentor and former formator, preached this homily:
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
For to this end Christ died and lived again,
that he might be Lord of the dead and the living. (Romans 14:7-9)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the funeral ceremony that we are performing here today is not a ceremony that any formator or teacher wishes to perform for any young man/person entrusted to him for formation or education. Any formator in the Mill Hill Society, as in all formation houses, looks forward to celebrating the Temporary or Perpetual Missionary Oath of those entrusted to him because these celebrations by the grace of God are the logical end of the initial formation process. We all look forward to celebrating their diaconate ordinations and ordinations to the missionary priesthood and sending them out to different parts of the world to serve the people of God. The thought of burying our own junior brothers does not even cross our minds. We do not look forward to the celebrating funeral rites for our own students. Yet that is what we have gathered here this morning for; to pray for and bury our own mill hill brother, Athanasius Fambo Ndoh.
Three years ago, on the 19th of March, 2014, that is, the feast of St. Joseph, after 4 years of formation here in Bamenda, Br. Athanasius took his Temporary Missionary oath in this same Church. And if everything by God’s grace went according to plan, in two years’ time, Br. Athanasius would have completed his formation and come back to this same Church to celebrate his thanksgiving mass with friends, family members, the entire Mill Hill family and entire faithful. But that will not happen. Instead today, we have gathered in this church to pay our last respects to Br. Athanasius and condole with his family especially Charles his twin brother and the Amungwa’s, his foster parents. Humanly speaking it is painful, it is shocking, it is beyond words. We acknowledge our feelings of loss, grief and sadness because we have lost someone dear to us, someone we have loved and cherished. And the feelings of sadness and grief that we all feel are very real, human and appropriate at this time. And it is alright to express them to God and to console one another.
Nonetheless, we gather in thanksgiving to God for the life of the one we have loved; we celebrate his life, thanking God for the many gifts he has given to us through his short life. By human expectation, the life of Br. Athanasius was very short; he was yet to turn 25 on 28th June next month. Short as it may be, we are still grateful to God for the almost 25 years he has given him. We would have loved to have 70 or more but we must be grateful to God for what we have been given. God does not need 70 years to accomplish his mission in our lives. Even a single day is enough for him. And I believe that in his 25 years, Br. Athanasius has accomplished God’s mission for him and has been recalled by his creator.
After finishing his first cycle formation in Bamenda, Br. Athanasius started his studies in Sacred Theology in the Mill Hill formation house in Nairobi. As a member of the formation staff in Nairobi, I knew Br. Athanasius to be a very gifted student. Although he was one of the youngest members in the community of over 40 members, he exhibited a high level of maturity in the way he conducted himself and related with others. He was very gentle, sociable, peaceful and friendly to all members of the community irrespective of their cultural background: Cameroonians, Kenyans, Ugandans, Indians, Philippinos, etc. He was also very academically gifted as well as endowed with leadership skills even at his young age. According to the obituary issued after his death from the Headquarters of the Mill Hill Missionaries in the UK, all the formators who have known B. Athanasius over the years agree that: “Br. Athanasius was a mature and well measured student, committed to all aspects of the formation programme and a good steward of the responsibilities entrusted to him.” In a nutshell, B. Athanasius was an ideal Mill Hill missionary student. And by this I do not mean that he was without fault. But rather that I simply wish to hold holy the precious memories that we have shared together with him as a formation community. Therefore, although we mourn him today, the book of Wisdom consoles us with the assurance that: “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment can touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3) I believe and am convinced that He is at peace. So we thank God for the gift of his life, and we celebrate it. Although this is a sad moment for us all, let us take this chance to return him back to God who gave him to us in the first place. As Job expressed, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
How did Br. Athanasius Fambo Ndoh come to die in Uganda, and not in Cameroon his home country? Br. Athanasius was responding wholeheartedly to what he firmly believed was God’s call for him to be a missionary. He must been attracted and taken fully to heart the mission of Jesus to his disciples before the Ascension: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). His desire and determination to become a Mill Hill missionary was so strong that when he insisted on joining the Mill Hill Missionaries, his friends and siblings nicknamed him, the Mill Hill. And he has died fulfilling what was his passion. The two important symbols in his hands on the funeral booklet cover page (constitution and traditional ngong) testify to his missionary zeal and enthusiasm.
Dear brothers and sisters, as the Mill Hill Family and the Church in Cameroon mourn the death of this young courageous missionary it is worth mentioning that Br. Athanasius is not the first Cameroon Mill Hill Missionary to give his life for the Gospel of Christ. Exactly 10 years ago, in 2007, we also lost another young Cameroon Mill Hill student, Theodore Nzengung Ntengong, RIP, who died in Nairobi and was buried in Muyuka, his home parish. This is, therefore, the second time that we are being hit with sad news of this kind. What are to make of this? I believe that, sad as it may be, this is part of the maturation of the local church in the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda. What do I mean? When the first Mill Hill missionaries predominantly from Europe came Cameroon in 1922, they were ready to give up their lives for the mission entrusted to them, many of whom paid the ultimate prize and are buried in our various missions: Frs. Thomas Burke-Kennedy + Francis Woodman in Njinikom, John Kolkman in Bafut, Br. Engelbert Sora here in St. John Church, and others in Kumbo and Soppo. It was through the sacrifices of these missionaries, some of whom died at a very young age, that we received the faith.
Now that the local Church in turn has started sending out its own missionaries under the umbrella of the Mill Hill Society and other congregations. This means that we who are missionaries from the local church, we are not only ready to go out and preach the good news in distant lands where there is greater need, but we are also ready to give up our own life in the same way as the first missionaries for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. This is part and parcel of the process of the maturation of the faith in our local church. Therefore, even with the death of Br. Athanasius, we as young Cameroon, African and Asian mhms are ever more determined to walk in the same footsteps of our European forerunners to plant the seed of faith in distant lands wherever we are sent in thanksgiving to God for the faith in our homelands and in the missionary spirit of our founder Herbert Cardinal Vaughan. And so I encourage all my younger brothers in formation and other young people who would like to join us, do not despair; do not to be afraid for God himself is with us. And we also know that our Christian faithful in Cameroon are behind us with their fervent prayers and moral support for which we are truly grateful.
Dear brothers and sisters, each time we gather to bid farewell to any person, it is always an opportunity for us to make a critical self-reflection on the shortness of our human life. Psalm 90:10 says that “our span is seventy years or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain.” But even according to current UN statistics, life expectancy in Cameroon is only 55.4 years. And there is no guarantee that you and I who look strong now shall wake up tomorrow alive. Therefore we need to pay attention to the challenge that St. Luke presents to us in today’s gospel to be like watchful stewards waiting for the return of their master from a marriage feast. We must be ready for we do now know the time or the hour when the master will knock at the door of our lives, seeking an account of our stewardship. I believe that Br. Athanasius whom we shall bury today was a watchful steward. He did not die in the comfort of his family home, but in a foreign mission where he was working so hard in his Master’s vineyard. He put his energy fully in his pastoral work. He died in the Master’s vineyard with his hands on the plough. He died not looking after himself, but looking after the faith of other people. What about us? What is the level of our commitment to the duties and responsibilities that we have been entrusted with? It is only in fulfilling our tasks conscientiously and diligently according to our state of life as priests, religious, married people, single people or youth that we can remain ever watchful and prepared for the return of the Master. We must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect.
Dear brothers and sisters, As we gather today for this requiem mass for Br. Athanasius, we do so not just like any group of people but as a faith community and we hold precious the Holy Scriptures as the source of our strength and consolation. The God that Jesus reveals to us in the Holy Scriptures is not a vengeful God who punishes us for our wrongs and makes us pay for every little mistake we do. No, He is a God of unconditional love, mercy and compassion. This mercy and love is fully expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. In his bull of indiction of the extraordinary year of Mercy in 2015, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis said: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy…. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him,” (MV 1). It is this same Jesus who upon the death of Lazarus declared: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me , though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” So, it is our confidence in the unconditional love of God for us fully manifested in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ that gives us hope and consolation in this moment of grief.
Today we bid farewell to Br. Athanasius, when we are still within the Easter season celebrating 50 consecutive days of the victory of Jesus over death. The resurrection is about life not death. And so our faith in the resurrection of Christ convinces us that the life of Br. Athanasius is changed not ended. Because Christ our head, has risen and ascended to the Father, all of us, we the body hope to join one day with Jesus the head in Heaven. Br. Athanasius has just taken an early step where all of are hoping to one day go.
Therefore, with great trust and faith in the resurrection, let us together give back Athanasius to God and pray that God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead, may also grant him a share in his resurrection. This is our faith, this is hope.
For Athanasius let us sing two verses of hymn no. 193 from the Cameroon Hymnal Book.
My Lord, He died for a Kingdom
My Lord, He died for a Kingdom
To redeem the hearts of all
Now my people don’t you weep;
He has risen from his sleep
He lives again, alleluia.
Sing alleluia, the lord is risen,
He is risen indeed alleluia
My Lord came forth like the morning
With splendor of the sun;
From the darkness of the tomb,
The victory won, alleluia
May the soul of Br. Athanasius Fambo Ndoh through the loving mercy of God rest in eternal Peace. Amen
Damien Fuh, MHM
26th May 2017