Cover

SUDBURY SAVIOUR

The arrival of a priest from Zambia brought new life, and laughter, to an Italian parish in Northern Ontario

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS April 12 2004
Cover

SUDBURY SAVIOUR

The arrival of a priest from Zambia brought new life, and laughter, to an Italian parish in Northern Ontario

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS April 12 2004

SUDBURY SAVIOUR

The arrival of a priest from Zambia brought new life, and laughter, to an Italian parish in Northern Ontario

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS

A TAD DIFFERENT. That’s how Mass at St. Anthony’s Church in Sudbury, Ont., might be described. First off there’s the occasional eruption of laughter, a jolt for those accustomed to the typically sombre Catholic service. Then there’s the wide-open eyes during the sermon, the informal camaraderie between priest and deacons, the handshakes and kisses before and after Mass. It all leads back to the man at the altar. Commanding the pulpit of this small Italian parish is a very conspicuous priest. He’s African, Zambian to be exact, and often the only black face in the church. But it’s not his colour, his accent or the way he instantly switches into a perfectly enunciated buongiornotbat really stands out. It’s the adoration from his parishioners. Which is understandable, given that Father Rodgers Mwimba-although he’s far too humble to accept any credit-not only saved their church from being shut down, but also revitalized it.

Without enough priests to keep open three churches inside the city’s Italian community, the region’s bishop had planned to merge them into one, with St. Anthony’s slated to close in the process. Instead, the congregation opted to find its own priest. In the spring of 2002, parishioner Tony Sottile called his friend Mwimba, who was studying for his master’s of theology in Rome, where he had become fluent in Italian. They had met two years earlier in Port Dover, Ont., while Mwimba was on break from his studies. Like many clergy from his part of the world, he was interested in the West, where a desperate shortage of priests looms. He packed up for Sudbury, knowing little about it save its reputation for nickel mining. “I was wanting to go where there was a need for me,” says the 38-year-old, “to spread the good news and help Christians come together. Canada has that need.” And Africa has the supply.

While for young Western men the sound of the religious call has diminished to an indiscernible ping, young Africans are hearing it as though God is blasting a trumpet directly into their ears. Seminaries there are teeming, while ours stay dusty. Compared to 20 years ago, three times as many priests are being ordained in Africa-the largest growth in the world. So, as poverty and war continue to hold off the secularizing effect of wealth and peace, Africa has begun to export one fruit of its strife. The trend is symptomatic of an overall religious divergence among the two culturesand the fallout is clear. By the standards of Rome, the Catholics of the West are the new heathens, and Southern men of God like Mwimba, their missionaries.

Yet there is no guarantee that missionaries like Mwimba will be welcome in their new communities. Sudbury is a city where only 0.002 per cent of the population is African, and St. Anthony’s, a traditional Italian parish where there are still a few old women who drape themselves in black clothing, clutch rosaries in the pews and sing prayers to Santa Maria. But Mwimba won over his congregation by furthering its sense of community and joy, reminiscent of how things are done in Zambia. He introduced laughter into the service, preached sermons that apply to everyday life, and bicycled around the potholed streets visiting the sick and the nearby Caruso Club, where he learned to play bocee. In return for the enthusiasm he injected into their church, weekly collections have doubled. “For me, these people have become my father, mother and brothers,” he says, going on to acknowledge, though, that he too has had to adapt, and not just to Sudbury’s punishing cold. “While the aims of the Church are always the same, social and cultural realities are different, and so the way of ministering has to suit the given environment.”

‘For me, these people have become my father, mother and brothers,’ says Mwimba of his new parishioners

INCULTURATION is the term they used in missionary circles. It means maintaining the inner soul of the religion when spreading the Word, but shaping its outer contours to fit the culture. Adopted for Western missionaries, the principle still applies these days, only in reverse. In this case, a priest like Mwimba knows that, fundamentally, people here just don’t do religion the way they do it in Zambia.

Or in Ghana. Since last August, Father Bonaventure Annan has ministered in St. Anne’s parish in the tiny town of Kingsclear, N.B., just an hour out of Fredericton, from where he commutes. The way he performs Mass in Kingsclear bears little resemblance to how he does it at home. “Our services there last up to three hours,” he says. “And of course people get up to dance and sing. They prepare through the week so they can really participate at Mass and have something to say. Here it is much different, much less—” he pauses, and laughs shyly while carefully choosing his words—“active. It took a while to get used to.” But using foreign-born priests isn’t necessarily the preferred strategy for dealing with the clergy shortage. Over the past decade, 500 parishes have closed in Canada. For St. Anthony’s Sottile, this a dangerous trend. “I don’t believe closing churches is the way to go; you need neighbourhood churches or people won’t gothat will spell the end of the Church. Some people don’t want to do it, though, because they think the cultural differences are too great.” And while some cultural differences are quickly smoothed over-Annan misses soccer but has become a huge hockey fan-others go to the core of individuals’ worldviews. Over the years, Western Catholics have become increasingly liberal, with many advocating such reforms as the ordination of women, gay rights and marriage for priests. For most African Catholics, however, these ideas are unthinkable. Philip Jenkins, professor of religion at Penn State and an expert on Christianity in the developing world, notes that both value systems are vying to lead the Church, but twothirds of Catholics now live south of the equator. “If the Church had to choose whether to appeal to the Catholics of the Congo or France,” writes Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom, “then simple self-interest would per-

suade them to favour the burgeoning Southern community.”

Yet, while doomsayers suggest an irreparable divide reminiscent of the Reformation is imminent, recent history suggests otherwise. As their religious beliefs have integrated with secular views, Western Catholics have successfully operated within an unofficial wiggle room that allows them to believe in nonCatholic values without forsaking a Catholic identity. The new missionaries seem to understand-to revitalize the Catholic faith here, Mwimba knows he has do so in a way the culture can accept. “I’m not trying to change anything,” he says. “As a priest and with the parishioners, we are just trying to see what we can do together, to pray together and come for social interactions, reach out to one another and make our lives as enjoyable as possible. It’s not supposed to be depressing. Because this is good news.”