Mission in the Heart of the City
Fr. Giovanni Demaria, PIME, poses for a picture with those whom he works alongside at Our Lady of Fatima in Bissau.
By Emanuela Citterio
In the parish of Fatima, in the Bissau Center, there is the need for faith and also daily needs. The testimony of Fr. Giovanni Demaria, PIME.
Guinea Bissau is one thing; the city of Bissau is another. For the young Guineans arriving from the inland villages, the Guinean capital seems like a metropolis, even if an American would rather define it as a town. With its more than 600,000 inhabitants huddled in 30 square miles between the sea and the airport, Bissau is the political, administrative, and commercial center of one of the poorest nations in the world; and it has very different dynamics from rural areas in the rest of the country.
In Bissau, there are eight Catholic parishes, two of which are in the center: that of the Cathedral and that of Our Lady of Fatima, a parish founded and run by PIME priests. Here, Fr. Giovanni Demaria, a young PIME Missionary of Milanese origins, has been coordinating the activities for almost three years. “There are two main areas of activity: that of the parish and that of the Solidariedade school,” Fr. Giovanni explains, “which offers both kindergarten and elementary schools, it is one of the city’s private schools, founded by Fr. Dionisio Ferraro. In all, this year we had almost a thousand registered children.”
The situation of the educational system in much of Guinea Bissau is disastrous. Where facilities are present and accessible, teachers often lack adequate numbers. “State schools cost very little,” explains Fr. Giovanni, “but they do not work. The state cannot pay the teachers, who then strike; for at least four months every school year they refuse to teach.” The result is that families prefer to keep the tuition money to buy more essentials, and the children remain without education; fortunately, there are private schools. “The annual fee for the Solidariedade school is 110,000 francs, around $170 USD. For Guinean standards it is a reasonable cost and many families are able to afford it. Thanks to the fees we can pay the professors, buy teaching materials, and offer some more opportunities, for example: I managed to include music lessons in the program. In short: it works and it is a good school. And almost always the children continue their studies up to university level.”
“In Guinea, many young people have only one desire: to leave the country. They would do anything to live abroad. The universities in Bissau are also very popular. Of course, the quality of teaching is not very high, also because they are institutions that have only existed since 2000. But the reality is that young people, as soon as they can, look for a scholarship abroad: in Brazil, in Portugal, in China, anywhere. Simply because the desire to leave the country is unstoppable. Here in Bissau, study, like work, is often ‘filler’ for those waiting to find a way to leave.”
Fr. Giovanni at the Solidariedade school.
But why do these young people try to get away at all costs? “They flee from the villages because they feel oppressed by the traditions and local rules. Many of them would be forced to marry someone imposed by the family, or would be assigned a field to be cultivated without any tools. So they come to the city to look for a slightly more comfortable life. Once in Bissau, despite whether or not the ties with the family of origin remain solid, young people begin to feel the need to belong to a group, to strengthen their identity. And here all the opportunities for aggregation offered by the city come into play.”
In this effort, the PIME- run parish of Our Lady of Fatima also tries to do its part. Over 1,500 people gather every Sunday for the two Masses of the morning and, unlike what happens in the Cathedral where Mass is frequented by foreigners and higher social classes, here they are all Guineans. Founded by Fr. Dionisio Ferraro, and thanks to the work of Fr.Guerino Vitali, the parish has become increasingly structured and organized. Today it has 15 groups of apostolates dedicated to families, altar boys, scouts, and every week there are between 40 and 45 catechetical classes for all ages. In addition to all this, everything is managed and financed by the parishioners. This is all thanks to Fr. Giovanni’s philosophy of not asking for help from abroad. “As soon as it becomes a question of money, human relationships get distorted,” he tells us. “This is why I do not ask, and almost never give money. If I receive a donation from friends or relatives, I will give it to my confreres in the rest of Guinea, where I know that there is a greater need.”
So, then there is no need for evangelizing? Not exactly: because, especially in young people, the desire to go away always generates a series of distortions. “Often behind the request to become Christians there are other social, psychological and other needs that sometimes we cannot figure out,” explains Father Giovanni. “For example, for many receiving baptism means becoming ‘civilized’. So that once abroad they could consider themselves Christians (i.e. civilized) rather than animists. The sacraments are seen as ‘diplomas’ to be attained, once attained, there is no need for anything else, as if the life of faith was limited to this.”
But the thorn in the side of Fr. Giovanni is too much work, which does not leave him time for anything else. “Here there are few of us and we do not have the strength to develop the mission. But Bissau is an open field just waiting to be cultivated, we could devote ourselves to the suburbs, to the sick, to dialogue with Muslims. Not far from my parish there are the biggest high schools in the city: I often wonder what you could do with all those young people.” Not to mention the most urgent needs of many people, linked to work, poverty and health. “The Guineans live in a huge cultural, social and economic fragility: these needs take over the questions of meaning and spirituality. Many, once received the sacraments, stop attending Church. Faced with these difficulties, I think the only solution is going to meet people in their neighborhoods, sit down at table and think about giving birth to a good idea to promote something new in the future.”