ZAMBIA: “I was impressed again and again by the exemplary way in which many priests perform their service”

Tony Zender, the head of the Zambia section of the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need, travelled to this African country on a visit. His goal: to take stock of the aid the charity has granted over the last few years and to determine the future needs of the local church. The interview was held by Maria Lozano.

Mr Zender, you have just returned from a working visit to Zambia, where you mainly visited Aid to the Church in Need projects. What was your general impression of the country?
Zambia is a largely stable developing country. In the past there was some political unrest due to the transition process in the government from the previous President to the current one, but to a large extent the country is stable. In comparison to other countries in the region, the governing authorities function pretty well. Zambia is moving in the right direction, but it still faces a long process of development in order to achieve a good result in terms of improving people’s conditions of life.

And how is the Church in Zambia organised?
The Church is organised in eleven dioceses and is present among the people in many initiatives and in giving the sacraments. It is sensitised to the arrival of Islam. But it is even more concerned about the evangelical sects that preach the message: “If you come to us, you will already be rewarded in the here-and-now, and the more you pray, the richer you will become”. This is problematic because many Catholics are also lost to them, but the Church in Zambia is trying to respond.

The fundamental problems where our help is needed are the construction of parochial buildings, provision of motor vehicles (cars, motorbikes), education and training, spiritual exercises,… And a point that must also be mentioned: we are often requested to support projects specifically for the protection of Catholic families.

Which moment in your visit impressed you the most? Are there projects where you are able to say: “Thank God that we at ACN decided positively for this project…”?
In terms of our project trip, it was the visit to a somewhat remote parish in the Diocese of Mansa. It is situated in the poorest region of Zambia, in the north of the country. We were received in the catechist training centre. The training lasts for two years, and during that time the catechists reside in small individual houses with their families.  In the two-year training, the men are prepared for their service as catechists while the women attend further education courses to equip them to work as educators in the future communities – both in the catechism and in the field of domestic economy, such as tailoring.  They gave me a colourful, self-tailored shirt as a gift. For me personally it was a very moving visit. The priests are often only present in the parishes for a few days per quarter, or sometimes for only a few days in the year, and the catechists perform very good evangelism work in the priests’ absence. They care for the people, and together with their families they also serve as a role model… If, as a priest, one sees their determination to sacrifice themselves for the Church, it is also motivational for some of the priests. We visited this centre because we directly support the catechist training there, and we now also support the catechists with bicycles so that they are mobile and can carry out their responsibilities better. In the future we also want to carry out the renovation of the catechist training centre. We saw the gratitude of the centre’s rector and training staff. In future we hope to not only support the next training course but also to help with the renovation work, because the buildings are in very poor condition.

Can the people themselves not provide this help? Is this district very poor?
That is a problem. The Church is doing its best to teach the people that every lay person is called upon to support the Church, also financially, and that the situation today is different from the past when the missionaries were still present and things were handed down from above. Now the Church needs the help of every one of the faithful. There is still a certain missionary presence from Poland in some parts of Zambia, and there are also some congregations from other countries, but the Church is more and more becoming a local Church. This is a good and necessary process, but it is naturally associated with a change of attitudes. The people must learn that they have been called upon by the Lord to support the Church, and that every person, regardless of how poor, should make their contribution. One should see not only the financial aspect, but every sacrifice that one can make for the Church. When we all strive together to build up the Church, when we act with a spirit of sacrifice and determination, we give a sign that it is we who wish to sustain our Church, and then the Lord will grant graces to the Church that we would not otherwise have received. And incidentally, the same applies to Europe.

Was there a moment that made you sad or concerned?
Something that impressed me again and again was the exemplary way in which some priests perform their service. Sometimes they live in places where there is no electricity, where perhaps they have to draw running water from a tank, and where sometimes they have to live completely on their own. To me they are setting an example, in the sense that they are facing up to their situation. I see a great need for our aid, e.g. with renovations, the erection of new parochial buildings, and motor vehicles. We want to provide the young priests with motorbikes in order for these well-trained and spiritually-living priests to come among the people. There are some places that the priests can hardly reach. Many go on foot or have to be taken there. The conditions are adverse. In the rainy season they often cannot get through by car. As an example, there is a German missionary from the Diocese of Mainz, Father Thomas, with whom we have already carried out some projects. We were unable to meet him during our visit because he was deputising in a parish that is completely cut off by water during the rainy season. The priest who cares for the district cannot leave the area for 3-4 months – or only in a boat. Then, when the roads are passable again, he is deputised for 1-2 weeks, and that is the kind of place where Father Thomas was at that moment. It sets a fine example, but it also illustrates how difficult it can sometimes be to get around in Zambia.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.