On 20 December 2020, the Carmelites in the Central African Republic were planning to initiate a jubilee year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of their missions in the Central African Republic. However, the celebrations could not be held because of unrest arising from the elections. In spite of all the difficulties, these fathers – serving in one of the poorest countries of the world, one regularly plagued by violent conflicts – are not ready to give up.
It was to be a great celebration of thanksgiving and joy. On 20 December, the oldest mission station of the Carmelites in the Central African Republic in Bozoum was planning to initiate the celebrations for the golden jubilee year of the presence of their Order in this country at the very heart of Africa. Carmelite fathers from all of the missions and many faithful were going to come together to thank God for these 50 years and to ask Him for His blessings for the future. However, on the morning of 18 December a disturbing message suddenly spread like wildfire: a group of armed rebels driving lorries and motorcycles had invaded the city that night. They had looted the offices of an aid organization and broken down the door of the police station. Shots had been fired in the streets. Other rebels had blocked one of the country’s major traffic arteries.
Fear and terror spread and the children of the local orphanage fled into the church. Those who were already on their way to the celebrations turned back. A particularly grave disappointment for the two young religious who were planning to take their perpetual vows on this great day. This celebration, which was first cancelled and postponed, was finally held instead with a small number of people at the Carmelite monastery in the capital city of Bangui. Father Federico Trinchero, the provincial delegate of the Carmelites for the Central African Republic, commented, “It was not easy to accept that we would not be able to gather together to welcome the two young brothers as they took the final steps to becoming members of our family of religious. But we made this sacrifice for peace in this country to ensure that the elections could be held without disruption. In the end, in spite of everything, it was beautiful.”
In fact, the parliamentary and presidential elections held on 27 December did unleash further unrest in many cities. On the day after the elections, the residents of Baoro, where the Carmelites run another mission station, were awakened in the early morning hours by sustained gunfire which subsided only after an hour. On the evening of the same day, two rebels climbed over the walls of the mission station and forced the guard to call for the missionaries. The 58-year-old Italian Carmelite Father Aurelio Gazzera came out of his room to find himself suddenly face-to-face with two armed men. These demanded that the Fathers hand over motorcycles belonging to the government party because they believed that these were being kept at the mission station. They threatened Father Aurelio, but he managed to convince them that the motorcycles were not at the mission. Although they continued to make threats, ultimately the priest was able to get them to leave the house and premises.
While working as a priest in Bozoum during the civil war, Father Aurelio had on previous occasions protected the people by risking his life to negotiate with rebel groups and persuading them to leave. He is known to the people there as the “man who forced the guns of the rebels into submission.” In his new position in Baoro, which he only began a few weeks ago, he now had to live up to his name again. Meanwhile, in Bozoum, gunmen looted and laid waste to the Caritas offices in the night of 3-4 January 2021.
However, on the Sunday before Epiphany, the Carmelites in Baoro and Bangui were able to celebrate without disruption the major feast in honour of the Infant of Prague, which is attended by large numbers of faithful each year. On World Mission Sunday in October, Bishop Miroslaw Gucwa of Bouar dedicated his entire diocese to the Most Gracious Infant Jesus, a statue brought to the Central African Republic by the first Carmelite missionaries. The bishop presented each parish of his diocese with a statue of this image and personally blessed them. Many faithful took part in the processions. They asked the Christ child for peace in their country and protection for their children.
No one knows what will happen during this jubilee year. However, just like the courageous pioneers of their Order, the Fathers today refuse to be discouraged. When the first four Carmelites came to the Central African Republic from Italy they rolled up their sleeves and set to work in one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, which is regularly plagued by unrest and armed conflicts. One of them, Father Nicolò Ellena, was still actively working in the mission up to the proud age of 90 years. He died in 2019 at the age of 96. He left his fellow brothers fifty journals, in which he described his daily adventures and challenges. Father Carlo Cencio, the last surviving of the first four pioneers, is now 83 and living in Italy.
Today, eight Italian missionaries serve at five mission stations. To date, the branch in the Central African Republic has inducted twelve local priests – and the number of vocations is growing each year. Thirty-eight young men from the Central African Republic and the neighbouring country of Cameroon are currently in formation. They are being supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Two young African Carmelites, Brother Régis-Marie and Brother Jeannot-Marie, composed a song to celebrate the jubilee year, in which they thank God and the first missionaries for the 50 years during which the Carmelites have served in their country. In the song, they promise to continue their work.
The seeds that the first Carmelite fathers sowed 50 years ago have germinated and borne rich fruit.