It was 50 years ago – in 1971 – that the first four Carmelite Fathers from Italy arrived in the Central African Republic. These courageous pioneers rolled up their sleeves and set to work in what is still today one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, and also regularly plagued by violent unrest and armed conflict. One of these priests, Father Nicolò Ellena, continued to work in the missions there until the ripe old age of 90. He died in 2019 at the age of 96.
The eight Italian Carmelites still working in Central Africa today, in the five mission stations of the Order, are delighted to see that more and more young local African men are joining them. In fact today the African members of the order now make up a majority. These young Central African men want to devote their lives to working for a time when peace will at last be a reality in their country. But they have also understood that there can only be true peace in the world when God is finally enthroned in the hearts of all men.
In the work of formation, the friars in the Central African Republic work closely together with their Carmelite brothers in neighbouring Cameroon. Currently, there are 38 young men in formation, 23 of them in the Central African Republic and 15 in Cameroon. They spend the various stages of their training in the various different centres, living in the local Carmelite monastery and forming part of the community there. They follow their philosophy and theology studies at the University of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, and in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, their studies at these universities have been interrupted. However, Father Federico Trinchero, the provincial delegate of the order, reports that this circumstance has not impeded the ongoing formation of these young Carmelites. On the contrary, their prayer life has been intensified and their communal life strengthened. The Carmelites are in any case already well used to emergency situations. In 2013, for example, at the height of the last civil war in the country, there were up to 10,000 refugees living in the extensive grounds of the Bangui Carmel! And so the Carmelites were well able to take the lockdown in their stride! „It was only the silence that was somewhat unusual“, says Padre Federico. For normally, the monastery is a place to which thousands of people turn in their need, and at the same time an important spiritual centre for the Catholic faithful. And on top of this, there are usually countless children and young people constantly running around, for whom the extensive monastery grounds are a perfect playground.
By now, however, life is almost back to normal and, thanks be to God, the pandemic has had far less of an impact in Africa than was initially feared. So the priestly ordination of Brother Armand was able to go ahead as planned in October 2020. In September of the same year, four new young men joined the novitiate and five others took their temporary vows.
On 20 December two young Carmelites were due to make their permanent profession in Bozoum, the oldest mission station established by the Carmelites in the Central African Republic, as part of the solemn preparations for the Jubilee Year. However, sadly, the celebration had to be called off at the last minute because the security situation had become dramatically worse, ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections, and because armed militants had forced their way into the town on the very eve of the planned ceremonies. Many invited guests, some of whom were already on their way to Bozoum, were forced to abandon their plans and turn back. As for the two young men themselves, Brother Jeannot and Brother Martial, they were able to take their vows after all among a small group of their confreres in the Bangui Carmel. Although it was a real sacrifice for them not to be able to celebrate this big day with their families, friends and confreres from all over the country, it was nonetheless a day of great joy and rich graces.
However, the formation of these 38 young Carmelites is a massive challenge for the order. Padre Federico puts all his trust in Divine Providence and in the excellent collaboration between all the teaching staff, who are responsible for the spiritual, human and intellectual formation of the young men in their care. But needless to say, it is also a Herculean task financially. So that they can continue their studies without interruption, ACN has promised a contribution of 25,000 Euros towards the cost.