Central African Republic: “A shepherd defends his sheep from dangers”

On 23 February 2024, Pope Francis appointed Father Aurelio Gazzera, a long-time friend and partner of ACN, Coadjutor Bishop of the diocese of Bangassou, in the Central African Republic. The 61-year-old Italian Carmelite priest has already worked for 33 years as a missionary in the country, which is repeatedly plagued by violence and unrest. He is internationally recognised above all for his dangerous work in the context of peace negotiations with various armed groups. He spoke to ACN about his appointment as bishop.

Father Aurelio, you worked for many years in the diocese of Bouar in the north-west of the Central African Republic, and you have now been appointed by the Holy Father as Coadjutor Bishop of the diocese of Bangassou in the south-east of the country. This means that you will be assisting the current Ordinary, Bishop Juan José Aguirre, for a time and will then succeed him when he retires. How did you take your appointment?

On the one hand I am anxious, but on the other hand I feel a deep trust in God. The strength to be a bishop does not come from myself, but from the Lord. I did not seek this ministry. Jesus said: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16). I know that I am neither worthy nor capable of it, but He knows more about me than I do, and He has more confidence in me than I have in myself. And a great multitude of people are praying for me and rejoicing in this new gift in my life.

Could you tell us more about the diocese of Bangassou?

Bangassou is in the south-east of the Central African Republic between the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. It covers an area of almost 135,000 square kilometres. This makes it roughly half the size of Italy, but with only around half a million inhabitants. it is very sparsely populated. The area is very remote. The distance to the capital is only 750 kilometres, but the condition of the roads is so bad that it would take several weeks to get there by car, so one must take a plane. Some of the twelve parishes are also inaccessible by car, and armed groups are also active in many parts of the diocese.

However, there are also many reasons to be joyful. Bishop Aguirre, who has led the diocese with great vigour since 2000, is an outstanding bishop who has launched many initiatives. There are schools, orphanages, a catechist school and, above all, a gratifying number of vocations. Together with Bishop Aguirre, I visited the 30 young men from Bangassou who are preparing for the priesthood in the capital Bangui. I saw young men who are happy and confident, and who joyfully give their lives to Jesus. Continuing Bishop Aguirre’s work will be an enormous task, but I am happy to be able to serve in the diocese of Bangassou and I already love it.

In the Central African Republic, you are known as “the man who lowered the guns of the rebels”. Due to your successful peace negotiations with armed groups, which led, among other things, to the withdrawal of the Seleka rebels from the city of Bozoum in 2014, you have also become known internationally. During this time, you have been consulted by various political decision-makers, for example in Brussels, as part of your cooperation with ACN. However, you have repeatedly risked your life in your commitment to peace. Why do you get involved in this way?

The local faithful congratulating Fr. Aurelio on his appointment as Coadjutor Bishop-Elect of the Diocese of Bangassou
The local faithful congratulating Fr. Aurelio on his appointment as Coadjutor Bishop-Elect of the Diocese of Bangassou

As a priest, as a pastor and as a bishop, everything that hurts or affects my brothers and sisters also hurts me. So I had the responsibility as a priest – and now I have it even more as a bishop – to look after and protect the people in my care. The shepherd not only accompanies his sheep, but also defends them from dangers. So I will do everything I can to continue the dialogue with the various rebel groups, and I will talk with those who are giving expression – although of course in the wrong way – to their expectations of the government and the international community. I will try to listen to everyone and, with my limited powers, to be a symbol of peace.

You belong to the Order of the Discalced Carmelites. Your full religious name is: “Father Aurelio of St Peter”. What is your spiritual connection to St Peter the Apostle?

The figure of St Peter has always inspired me: his exuberance, his enthusiasm, his weaknesses, his strengths… I think that for my episcopal ordination I will choose chapter 21 from the Gospel of John, where after the miraculous catch of fish, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?”, and the third time Peter answers: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”. He knows everything; He knows my weaknesses, my fears, my mistakes. And yet He calls me and says: “Feed my lambs!” I want to make this new stage of my life a sign of this love for Jesus, for the Church and for my brothers and sisters who are entrusted to my care.

What are the next steps that you will take?

My ordination as bishop will take place in Bangui Cathedral on 9 June.  I will move to Bangassou straight after Easter, so in March I must see how I can hand over all my various responsibilities – the schools, the mechanics’ school, the pastoral work in the parish, the work as Caritas director and the supervision of the building site at our new monastery in Bangui – so that I am ready for the move. In April and May, I will make myself familiar with the diocese of Bangassou and visit the missions and parishes that are accessible by car. At the end of May, I will return to Bangui to prepare myself for this great gift of episcopal ordination with spiritual exercises and some peace and quiet.

Fr. Aurelio Gazzera, newly appointed Coadjutor Bishop-Elect of Bangassou, embracing Bishop Juan José Aguirre
Fr. Aurelio Gazzera, newly appointed Coadjutor Bishop-Elect of Bangassou, embracing Bishop Juan José Aguirre

The Lord will set out the rest of the programme. Everything is in the hands of the Lord and of those who for so many years have dedicated themselves to serving Him alongside Bishop Aguirre: the priests, the catechists and the faithful of Bangassou diocese.

In conclusion: One no longer hears very much about the Central African Republic in the news, but a year ago, for example, your confrère, Father Norberto Pozzi, was very seriously injured by a landmine. How do you assess the situation in the country?

The situation in the Central African Republic remains very difficult and unstable. On the one hand, there are areas that have become calmer. In other areas, however, there is still great insecurity. Only last December, a village in the diocese of Bouar was attacked. 28 people were killed, and 900 houses were burnt down. Some missions in the Bangassou diocese are also closed because of attacks in recent months. The security situation remains precarious in large parts of the country.

 

By Eva-Maria Kolmann.

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