Can you tell me, Father Viktor, how the civil war affects the daily life of the people in Angola?
In this tropical country, many people lived in the bush before the war. Political and racial persecutions brought people into the cities in search of security. Thousands were victims of guerilla warfare by UNITA and reprisals by government troops. Thirty-seven missionaries were killed, most of them native Angolans, and sixty-eight others were abducted.
After independence from Portugal, the Church, which had worked closely with the colonials, was greatly criticized by the new Marxist leaders. Possessions of all kinds, even schools and churches, were confiscated by the government. But during the war, the Church, siding with the common people, denounced the government's actions and championed the cause of human rights, peace and justice.
From what you say, the Church seems to be an important reality in this country.
That's right. 55% of the people are Catholic, 12% are Protestant. There is a real inter-faith solidarity, particularly in the area of charitable help.
Despite the years of persecution, there are 15 dioceses, 247 parishes and 3,486 mission posts. 18 Bishops are helped by 322 priests,1,025 sisters, and 93 brothers. There are over 135,000 catechists.
Where are the La Salettes working in Angola?
The Region of Angola was begun in 1946 by a few Swiss Fathers. We now number 34 religious, of which 9 are Europeans.
Our mission is situated in the southwest comer of the country, in three dioceses: Benguela, Huambo and Lubango. The southwest is more heavily populated than the north. Our seven principal mission posts are mostly in the bush.
What missionary activities do you stress most in your work?
I emphasize our pastoral vision rooted in the life of the village and formation of the laity.
We welcome those who come with heavy hearts. During the war, hoards of refugees came seeking security and food. We had to contend with widespread starvation. At that time the Swiss Province sent us 38 containers (25 tons each) filled with food, and we received 600 tons of corn from the United Nations. This saved 34,000 people from starving in 1981. People were heartened by the fact that we stayed among them, even though we had the impression that we were not doing much.
As regards the La Salette community, we have three formation houses: the novitiate has five novices, the minor seminary has forty students and in the major seminary there are thirty-four scholastics.
How is it that the La Salettes are so well-known in Angola?
This comes especially from the work of Fr. John Roos who, twenty years ago, began translating the whole Bible into Mbundu, the most widely used language in Angola. Then he went on to translate a missal with the readings for all three liturgical cycles, the ritual for the Sacraments, and parts of the breviary. He also composed a catechism, a book of liturgical hymns and even a book on hygiene to be used in home economics courses in our schools. All these works are very much in demand by priests and religious ministering in Angola.
There seems to be good collaboration with the laity. Who are they?
The La Salettes were the first to open a school for the training of lay leaders whom we call evangelists and catechists. During the war the evangelists kept the faith alive in the absence of priests, much like what happened in Madagascar years ago. Their role as animators is very important in the life of the local churches. They are seconded in their work by 150 volunteer catechists.
Can you say something about how this missionary work helps you realize your vocation?
A vocation is never fully nor perfectly realized. For me, missionary life among those thousands of people calls for faith, solidarity and fraternal support. It requires an attitude of listening, understanding and a sense of hope.
My door is always open to welcome the innumerable sick, to help wherever humanly possible. That's how I respond to Christ's directive: to look after my neighbors, the little ones, to share the joys and the sorrows of those who are confided to my care.
It goes without saying that all this is done in fidelity to the message of La Salette. The 19th of each month, the La Salettes at the mission get together with our people for a special time of prayer. We solemnize September 19th by giving commentaries on the message, by showing slides of the Shrine at La Salette and about the message. I believe that our evangelization is centered on reconciliation through the message of Our Lady of La Salette.