AFRICA/CENTRAL AFRICA - Coadjutor Bishop of Bangassou: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you”

Saturday, 22 June 2024 missionaries   bishops   local churches  

Bangassou (Agenzia Fides) - From Bozoum to Bangassou. From "simple" missionary to coadjutor bishop. This is what happened to Aurelio Gazzera, who worked for 17 years as a Carmelite missionary in Bozoum, in the north-west of the Central African Republic, and in February was appointed coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Bangassou, in the south-east of the country. Fides asked the new bishop to describe his experience as a missionary in a country that has been ravaged by war for years.

Leaving Bozoum was certainly not easy. What do you take with you from your experience as a missionary?
On Sunday, 9 June I was ordained bishop in the Cathedral of Bangui. In the following days we celebrated with the Carmelite religious family, with people born in Bangassou, and on Tuesday I went to Bozoum, 500 km away, where I was warmly welcomed. We celebrated Mass at 6 a.m. and despite the early hour, the church was full. There was singing, music, dancing and there were gifts from 'my people' from Bozoum. I lived in Bouzum for 17 years and in Bozoum I said goodbye but also thanked because in those 17 years the people I met there helped me a lot to live and realize what I chose as my episcopal motto: the words of Peter standing before Jesus who asks him for the third time if he loves him and Peter answers: "Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you". The people of Bozoum have helped me a lot during these 17 years, first with the reconstruction after the 2003 war, then with the refugees caused by the bandits who were active in the area and whom we managed to persuade to leave the area through conversation, and then especially with the 2013/14 war when we welcomed in Bozoum six to seven thousand refugees who had fled their homes. In the meantime, we had achieved the departure of the Seleka rebels, who were the most violent. So there is a very strong relationship that has grown over the years, as a parish priest, but also through the realization of social initiatives: schools, agricultural fair, etc. Very close relationships have been established and it has been nice to see how many people who were still children or teenagers when I arrived, now that they have grown up, have this grateful relationship with me. A very free relationship that I have always tried to manage so that it is not tied to me, but allows them to reflect on their choices and behavior. It was a great celebration with a lot of joy, but also some pain, because for the people of Bozoum, seeing Father Aurelio in Bangassou is almost synonymous with saying goodbye forever.

Can you describe your new diocese to us?
Bangassou is a huge diocese, almost the size of half of Italy. It covers 135,000 square kilometers and is 750 km from the capital, Bangui, which is difficult to reach by car. We usually travel by plane. It is a diocese that has suffered a lot in recent years. From 2017 to 2021, the seminary became a reception center for thousands of Muslim refugees. Also currently, two of our thirteen parishes, the parishes in Zako and Mboki, are temporarily closed because they are occupied by rebels. A rather difficult situation. The difficult transport links mean that the prices of essential goods such as oil, salt, sugar and cement are more than twice as high as in Bangui. So life is very difficult, but the population is very resilient, they do not get discouraged. There are many coffee plantations, some cocoa, pepper and other crops. The problem is that they cannot sell their products because there are no roads.

And at the ecclesiastical level?
At the ecclesiastical level, it is a very lively diocese. Bishop Juan-José Aguirre Muñoz, a Spanish Comboni missionary who has been bishop for 26 years, 24 of which in Bangassou, is a wonderful person who has done a lot with the help of the "Bangassou" foundation. He has managed to advance the diocese as a whole with social projects such as schools, health centers, hospitals and at the ecclesiastical level with the training of priests. We have a minor seminary in Bangassou, from where the young people go to the interdiocesan seminary in Bangui to do the upper secondary level and then finish their studies in the seminary. These are young people who have to leave their families for several years because it is not easy to return to Bangassou, especially during the rainy season. In the diocese there are two male religious orders, the Franciscans in Rafaï and the Spiritans in Niakari, and two female congregations, one in Bangassou and one in Rafaï. So there are not many missionary congregations, but this has allowed the diocesan priests to take on the most important tasks of the diocese themselves. Currently there are about thirty priests in the diocese, others are in Italy, Spain and France for study or pastoral activities.
In conclusion, Bangassou is a very lively diocese. Little by little we will see how to continue what Bishop Aguirre started in these long years of his bishopric and how to concretize the phrase that I often repeat and that I repeat every morning: "Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you". (L.M.) (Agenzia Fides, 22/6/2024)