Africa Still Beckons Me

By Fr Enrico Eusebio SJ

Nigeria is one of the largest and richest countries in Africa yet it has more problems than most. Its famous oil fields are in chaos and it has just emerged from a series of military dictatorships which were very destructive and corrosive. At present it is faced with an entirely new danger: many Muslim areas wish to introduce Sharia Law, the law based on the Koran, into daily life. Naturally the Christians are against this; for example a woman (not a man!) caught in adultery will be stoned to death. Being on mission in Nigeria today is no easy task though Fr Eusebio, in his story below, rightly looks on the bright side of life, as indeed a Christian should.

When I was a novice in 1986, the superior of the Jesuits in Thailand came to Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches, Quezon City. During one of our recreation nights he shared with us about missionary work in Thailand. He invited us and encouraged us to consider the foreign missions in the future. That night I didn’t think about foreign missions at all.

Pope in Manila

Things were basically the same during the next few years of my formation. But that mode changed in 1994 when I was in third year Theology and soon to be ordained. The Pope was coming to Manila for the 10th World Youth Day in January 1995. Everybody, including me, was excited to see Pope John Paul II on Philippine soil for the second time! Who could forget that theme song, “Let us tell the world of his love”? In fact, during his 1981 pastoral visit, Pope John Paul II confided to us Filipinos his deep special desire to see us become the foremost missionaries of the Church in Asia.

My own offering

I recall that when I was a young boy I used to pass by St. Andrew’s Church in Parañaque, either on my way to school or during my free times. I would always pray, “Lord, I offer to you all my thought, joys and sacrifices of this day…” And when I entered the novitiate in 1986, my one clear desire was to offer myself to the Lord. Though the intensity of that desire in terms of feelings varied during the years of my Jesuit formation, that one clear desire for the Lord to “take me and receive me” never waned.

Ready to be sent

And so when the Pope told us that Jesus was sending us out to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and mercy to all peoples, I was listening to him as if it was Jesus himself speaking. That morning of his memorable final Mass with us, as he was delivering his homily, I was listening as if it were just the two of us present there at the Luneta, with him in the midst of the multitude of four million people. I remember murmuring within my heart at that very moment, “Here I am Lord, send me.”

Turning point

That very personal and communal experience of mine with the Pope, together with four million other people, became a turning point in my life. I desired to abandon myself to Him, in a rather “total” way, by being a missionary, yet, to Africa. However, there was something about Africa that beckoned me and yet repelled me. Africa, from my own perception, was the great frontier for evangelization, with people eager to hear the Word of God and to accept it. It was inviting me and challenging me to let go of the world I had enjoyed and loved. But the thought of leaving it behind and going to Africa also brought chills and fear in my bones.

Not new to Africa

I had been in Africa before, in 1984. My father worked as a certified public accountant at the Nigerian Ports Authority in Lagos from 1983 to 1986. During that span of time, all of us brothers and sisters took turns in visiting him. When I visited there for three weeks, I thought that was the end of my African sojourn. During that short period in Nigeria, I did not get malaria, but I brought home something else in my system, something which incubated within me for 10 years.

Final Decision

After the euphoria and great spiritual desires of the World Youth Day, I came back to my usual fearful, questioning self. “What if I am making a wrong decision to go to Africa? I won’t have my friends to turn to when problems will arise…” One night, after sharing my usual litany of doubts, Fr Charlie, my spiritual director, with his smiling eyes, looked straight into mine and in his usual non-threatening way, asked “Would you like to go to the missions or not?” After hearing those words from Fr Charlie, I really got tongue-tied. I said to myself, “Teka nga muna. Oo nga ‘no? Ano nga ba talaga?” I looked back at him, smiled and let out a relieved laugh. I said, “Yes, Father, I would like to go.” From that time on, I knew I wanted to go, and that I would go.

And so I wrote a letter to Fr Noel Vasquez, SJ, then Father Provincial, volunteering for an initial two-year mission in Nigeria. On the day of my ordination to the priesthood, April 20, 1996, I received the Lord’s confirmation when the Father Provincial announced my first assignment as a newly ordained priest.

Faithful in Nigeria

I arrived in Lagos on Friday, June 20, 1997. In the next two years of my missionary life, I had many joyful experiences with our parishioners and with the Filipino community there. But more than any particular experience, what gave me so much joy in being a missionary – being in a far away land, among the people whose culture is totally different from my own – was the conviction that I was responding to a call, and that I went with a lot of trust in God. I brought with me the consolation of knowing that I went to the missions on account of a deep desire to offer my life to the Lord. In Nigeria, I experienced a share in the dying and rising of the Lord, which every missionary experiences. In my experience, suffering remained what it is – painful, even if it is borne out of love. But it became an experience which made me stronger and my love for God more dedicated, more committed.

Bouts with loneliness

The most difficult months I experienced in the missions were the first two of my parish work at Christ the King in Lagos, where I was assigned in my first year. After the first week of my arrival, after all the excitement of touring around, I began to experience uncomfortable and disconcerting feelings. Being the only Filipino Jesuit in Nigeria, I felt so alone. It suddenly dawned on me that I was actually on the other side of the world, so far from home. One of my points of struggle in the missions was my pride and impatience. I knew missionaries go to the missions with the disposition of humility and openness to learn, and not as “saviors” of all. But even if I knew that, I was beginning to set my “agenda of evangelization” on my own terms.

Light unto my path

Those were some of the lowest points in my mission life. But what were most consoling and liberating for me were those moments when I felt the Holy Spirit working through me, helping me to be more patient, accepting the reality around me and those moments when I met people who blessed me with their own faith and courage in facing the tides of life. Some of these people were the lepers of Ossiomo Leprosarium, an hour’s drive from my parish in Benin City.

These lepers, even in their broken bodies and decaying flesh, never fail to give praise to the Lord in dance and song! Every time I would visit their cottages to bring Holy Communion, a man with a very bad case of leprosy which made him blind, upon hearing that I was coming with the Blessed Sacrament, would always exclaim with his hands raised in praise, “Father! You are welcome! Thank God, Jesus is with us!” He reminded me of the blind Simeon at the Temple who recognized the child Jesus and said, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.”

It has been a while now since I came home from Nigeria. I have been praying that I may have the privilege once again of going back to the missions in Africa or in Asia, at the opportune time. I know that as I offer myself to the Lord. He is blessing me and this blessing means no other than His promise to be with me at all times, and behind me in every circumstance.