The Church I’ll Never Leave

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A Catholic Mass in Burkina Faso, Africa.

I recently had the honor of joining in a delegation of visitors to observe programs supported by Catholic Relief Services in Niger and Burkina Faso, in the Sahel region of West Africa.

I’m not an experienced world traveler, certainly not by CRS standards, and I admit to feeling a disorientation that persisted well after the jet lag faded.

In the joy of meeting people whose lives and hopes had found new mooring with the hope of CRS, I was the one unmoored. The people are certainly real enough, but everything, even the stars, are so different.

Inundated by new sounds and smells and sights, you wonder if you belong. You can lose your footing.

And then you find your church. There you are, thousands of miles from the comforts of house and hearth, surrounded by people you’ve never met, listening to prayers in a language you may never hear again, and you’ve never been more home.

My Sunday liturgy spilling over into the exotic is nothing new to me. I come from a parish where dozens and dozens of flags hang from our choir loft, telling the stories of the homelands of our parishioners. Our vigils have long featured elements of Catholic worship from many of these nations — Vietnam, El Salvador, Côte d’Ivoire … — but it’s not the exotic that gets me.

I recalled what it is that gets me on that Sunday morning on the other side of the globe in the Archdiocese of Ouagadougou (pronounced Wah-guh-doo-goo) when I helped fill a row at Notre Dame du Rosaire de Kologh-Naba Catholic Church (the name is French, but this liturgy was in a local indigenous language).

What gets me is how the exotic frames the familiar. It’s hearing the beautiful percussion-heavy youth choir joyously sing, their bright tones adorned by ululations — music that would sound improvisational if you didn’t see their stern choirmaster cue the entrances of every section, keeping the harmonies crisp.

I realized, That’s my Gloria! That’s my Sanctus! In the wood carvings of their lectern, I saw haloed figures addressing native Burkinabe in their fields and villages and thought, That’s their St. Patrick! That’s their Kateri!

And so it was Sunday morning in Ougagdougou. At a glorious liturgy whose foreign-ness only made us guests engage more deeply, the deep Catholic-ness showed through — in the rites, the prayers, and the joyous work of a people joining in communion with each other and with their God. In unimaginable poverty, in daily adversity, they defy it all and say, “Here — here we are building Heaven on Earth.”

During the homily, the power failed, as power often does in this part of the world. The priest, missing barely a beat, took a deep inhale and turned to his lungs into his amplifier, projecting his message to the filled church of 1,500 souls. But what seized my attention was the altar-server, also not missing a beat.

He rose silently but formally from his seat, removing one of the two oil lamps that flanked the altar and brought it over to the tabernacle. Here, the congregation literally heeded the scriptural directive to keep the lamp lit for their Bridegroom. The server crossed again to the sacristy, where he fetched and lit another lantern and replaced the one he had harvested from the altar. The symmetry of the altar restored, he returned to his seat, and bowed his head again in reverent attention to the message.

The gesture was simple, and achingly profound. In this landlocked West African country, ranked 181st out of 187 countries on the United Nations index of development, largely dependent on agriculture and subject to the droughts alternating with flooding and the cruel market swings inherent in that enterprise. Generations here have known too little of education and too much of malnutrition. But here, even here, someone was keeping the light on for Christ. Working and praying for redemption.. In a place called Burkina Faso.

In a Church to which I may never return, I found the Church I have always known and will never leave. That’s what I learned in Church, one Sunday not too long ago.

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Post written by Edward Hoyt

Copyright 2014 Catholic Relief Services.

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Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. We are the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of Caritas International and the National Catholic Development Conference. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and Pinterest.

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