Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Detroit Province Jesuit And The Sudanese Vocation Miracle

Jesuit educates Sudanese priests
Toledo-born cleric, 84, is teaching at Khartoum seminary
The Rev. Paul Besanceney, who has been a missionary in Sudan for 28 years, was in Toledo to visit family and friends. In Sudan, a country that has been torn by decades of civil war, the Rev. Paul Besanceney has been teaching about God, love, and peace for the last 28 years.
His efforts have produced some impressive results. "When I got to Sudan, there were 60 Sudanese priests. Now there are 450. I am delighted that I had something to do with that,"
Father Besanceney said in an interview this week. The 84-year-old Catholic priest - a Toledo native who belongs to the Detroit province of the Society of Jesuits - stopped in Toledo recently to visit cousins, grandnieces, and friends from Central Catholic High School's Class of 1942. Father Besanceney is in the United States for a three-month visit before heading back to Khartoum, Sudan's capital city of 2 million, where he will resume teaching sociology next month at St. Paul's Major Seminary. He said he decided to join the Jesuits after high school because he believed the religious order's leaders would find a way to put his abilities to good use - although he wasn't sure what those abilities were at the time. The Jesuits chose to utilize Father Besanceney's gift for learning. He earned degrees from Xavier University, Loyala University, and St. Louis University before receiving a doctorate in sociology and anthropology from Michigan State University in 1964. Father Besanceney taught high school and college classes in English, geometry, Latin, and sociology, then served as the provincial - a leadership position similar to that of bishop - of the Jesuits' Detroit province from 1971 to 1977. In 1980,
Father Besanceney joined the faculty at St. Paul's Major Seminary in Bussere and Muniki, Sudan. Why did he go to the eastern African nation? "Because my provincial sent me,"
he said matter-of-factly. The seminary and its buildings were not exactly up to U.S. standards, he said. "There were leaky ceilings, snakes would fall from the roof, you had to check your shoes for scorpions," he said. "But I was happy to be there. I looked around and saw the work that needed to be done." Father Besanceney said only about 10 percent of Sudan's 40 million people are Christians, most of whom are Roman Catholic. About 70 percent of Sudanese are Muslims, and 20 percent practice an indigenous religion, which Father Besanceney said is monotheistic and combines animist beliefs with a reverence for ancestors. "Catholic Christian citizens have a tough time. If you're a Muslim, you can get a job or get relief. But there's no support for Christians there," he said. Although some Christians are persecuted and some have even been killed for their beliefs, there are signs of a growing religious tolerance,
Father Besanceney said. "We have one seminarian from a Muslim family and the father did not disagree with his becoming a priest," he said.
Father Besanceney served as provincial of the Jesuits' five-nation Eastern Africa Province from 1988 to 1995. The Rev. Robert Scullin, provincial of the Jesuits' Detroit province, said African Catholics must have had great respect for Father Besanceney. "It is quite an honor for an outsider, particularly an American, to become a provincial in a foreign environment,"
Father Scullin said. "Father Besanceney must have won their minds and hearts in every sense of the word." He said he knew Father Besanceney since the late 1960s when he was a seminarian. "He is a very traditional leader, in the very best sense of the word,"
Father Scullin said. "He helped me a lot in my early formation." Father Scullin said Father Besanceney has played an important role in teaching Sudanese to become priests.
"Detroit has 20 to 25 men in formation, people from the novitiate first year to ordination and post-ordination," he said. "In eastern Africa, there are 120 to 125 men in formation now. It's very vibrant. There's a real enthusiasm despite all kinds of problems."
Father Besanceney said that even after 28 years in Africa, he does not consider Sudan to be "home." "No, but I am familiar with the seminary and the culture. And the people are friendly," he said. He drives around Khartoum in a 1986 Suzuki that at one time had four-wheel drive but is now a two-wheel drive vehicle. The city's streets are jammed with cars, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, and animals, he said. "It's quite an experience to drive in Khartoum," Father Besanceney said with a laugh. Temperatures in the city can hit 115 degrees in the summer and they rarely drop below 50. The area does not receive much rain, and when it rains there are often flash floods. With Khartoum being at the juncture of the Blue and White Nile rivers, the Sudanese depend on irrigation more than rainfall to provide their water.
Life in Khartoum is a lot less challenging than when Father Besanceney first arrived in Sudan and was assigned to the rural south, where electricity was mostly provided by generators. "Our generator broke down one time and it took six months to get parts," he said.
During Sudan's two lengthy civil wars, the first starting after independence from the United Kingdom in 1956 and lasting until 1972, and the second raging from 1983 to 2005,
Father Besanceney said the Jesuits were expelled from the south in 1964 and had to move their seminary seven times because of "disturbances."
He said he has not been to Darfur, the western region now wracked by violence, but he has encountered refugees who fled the region for safety in Khartoum. He described the current situation in Sudan as a "fragile peace." The priest, who said seminarians call him "grandfather," is retired now but there is much work to be done so he continues to teach at the seminary, although he carries has a lighter teaching load. In his spare time, Father Besanceney enjoys writing and receiving e-mail now that the seminary has Internet access from a satellite. And he likes to watch CNN and BBC television networks. He has traveled throughout the five-nation province, especially when he served as provincial, visiting Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. "Nature is beautiful and the wild animals are stimulating to see," Father Besanceney said.
Link (here)
Photo is of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum Cathedral circa 1933.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wish that one day your proclaimed saint of our modern time