The World Assembly closes for a new future based on community unity. We open up to the global dimension of CLC through the testimonies of delegates from three African communities present in Amiens: Jean-Paul for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Alban and Fatima for the Central African Republic and Groum Tesfaye sj for Ethiopia. The DRC has been a member since 1980, Ethiopia was welcomed this year, and the Central African Republic is an “observer”, sponsored by France since 2020. Although it’s a single continent, national realities are very diverse, and so are CLC histories. There are, however, three points in common in the history of CLC in these three countries: an essential link between Jesuits and lay people at the time of the birth of the communities; highly unstable social and political conditions, which threaten the survival of everyone on a daily basis, including companions; and a particular focus on young people and families on a continent where 60% of the population will be under 24 by 2025. Ignatian spirituality is a precious gift for responding to the challenges faced by African CLCs.
The Africa region has almost 2,500 members in some twenty countries. The first national communities joined in 1989, others more recently over the years, and others are still on the way to joining. Today, there are 14 member countries and 8 observer countries (see the world site here).
CLC in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a member since 1989, and counts some 300 companions. Jean-Paul Biruru was the only delegate to obtain a visa to attend the Assembly. CLC Ethiopia became a full CLC member this year, with around 130 companions in six different regions. Only its president and ecclesial assistant were able to obtain visas. Father Groum Tesfaye sj, an Ethiopian Jesuit, launched CLC in 1998; he will now minister in Tanzania. CLC Beafrika (Sango for “Central African Republic”) has been on the road to world CLC membership since 2002, and has been sponsored by France since 2020. It now numbers around 30 companions. Alban Kokouale, its president, and vice-president Fatima Goumba told us about the beginnings. To understand the richness and diversity of CLC through these testimonies, let’s start with a brief presentation of the three countries.
National contexts: multilingualism, Christianity, instability
As is the case in most countries of the world, the DRC, Ethiopia and Central Africa are multi-ethnic and multilingual, even if one language is shared by the majority. French is the dominant language in the DRC and Central African Republic, while Amharic is the main language in Ethiopia (and English to a lesser extent). In CLC, both French and Amharic are used. Living conditions are particularly difficult. People have been and still are torn apart by armed conflict. Successive political regimes struggle to establish democratic institutions. Ties with the West are strained for historical and economic reasons.
Christianity has a strong presence in all three countries, through Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic denominations. But the presence of the Catholic Church differs greatly from country to country, as can be seen on the map. While almost 50% of Ethiopians are Orthodox, less than 1% are Catholic; 30% of Central Africans are Catholic, but the majority of Christians are Protestant. The DRC has as many Catholics as Protestants (around 40%). The national communities ensure that the general norms are respected in concrete terms by seeking official recognition from the national churches and by listening to their needs in order to respond to missionary calls (cf. General Norms, PG6).
In contrast to the history of many European countries (including France), religious bodies here have a particularly strong political influence. For example, Pope Francis officially came to Kinshasa in February 2023 to support the democratic process of the presidential elections due to take place in December 2023. Despite these obvious differences between these countries and other richer ones in which CLC is present, a real unity of faith and hope emerged in the exchanges we had. Diversity indeed, but a look of hope on the world that unites these three communities, and that unites all CLC regions beyond global differences and inequalities.
The beginnings of CLC: spirituality and action
The first communities were formed by Jesuits committed to accompanying and forming lay students in Ignatian spirituality. In each country, the first meetings took place through experiences of life review, discernment and commitment to missions in the service of dioceses. The first apostolic missions emerged at the same time as the first communities. In the DRC and Ethiopia, these missions mainly involved accompanying young couples wishing to build a family in line with Christian values. More recently in the Central African Republic, companions have been mobilized to sponsor some forty children who have become orphaned and homeless as a result of the unrest that has rocked the country since 2014. These are just a few examples of their commitments. Today, in all cases and as far as possible, the communities make themselves available to the missionary needs of dioceses, they respond to them with an Ignatian approach.
Many have to move from one region to another for professional, political or economic reasons. Most of these moves, however, are caused by war and conflict. The challenge for those in charge is to support, despite instability, the appropriation of a spirituality based on prayer, rereading and discernment. They must therefore take care to foster the creation of a perennial network that can support members of their community in times of difficulty, even when they are spatially or socially mobile. Today’s Internet and social networks are an invaluable aid in this respect.
In the face of so much suffering, one might well ask what companions gain from their regular participation in community life. The three delegations are unanimous on this point: participation in a Christian life community helps to get through trials and helps each individual to find the strength that comes from a shared Ignatian spirituality. The concrete effects are perceptible in everyone’s lives, even when their lives are in danger.
“I can assure you that many members, when we listen to their sharing, willingly say that it’s CLC that enables them to hold on, because there are some who easily lose their jobs, some who live in areas where insecurity reigns, and in the meetings when they share, they say that it’s their faith and their Ignatian culture that enables them to hold on, with the usual prayer, discernment and so on. It gives them a foothold in their neighborhood and in their parish (…) In the community of Katangese/Kassai couples, we have many couples who broke up as a result of the conflict, but in the community we have couples who have held together to this day, these couples are still holding together thanks to their CLC commitment and their journey”. (Jean-Paul, RDC)
Depending on the exercise, retreats are offered in person or even remotely whenever possible. For example, Father Groum preached a Lenten retreat remotely during the pandemic, and every day companions connected from all over the country. But it’s not always possible: in the DRC, insecurity is a long-term obstacle to the organization of these privileged moments, and sometimes there aren’t even any affordable retreat sites. This is the case in the Central African Republic.
The training of laypeople for accompaniment missions is therefore essential to imagine concrete ways of practicing spiritual exercises while adapting to the context. The Central African Republic and France have initiated a training cycle through a meeting in 2020 and again in 2022, which may be followed by a training course in accompaniment. The DRC is trying to strengthen its network of members and families, despite daily insecurity and the vastness of the country. In Ethiopia, Father Groum quickly realized that this was a major challenge. With the agreement of the Catholic Church, nine lay CLC members are currently being trained by the Society of Jesus to become “spiritual directors” according to the charism of Saint Ignatius. He also reminds us that CLC texts are a treasure that is not so easy to access when there is no translated version. But the solution has been found: a few young companions are translating CLC texts into Amharic. The Spirit blows first in the here and now of companions who experience, just like companions all over the world, the fact of “seeking and finding God in all things”.
“Ignatian spirituality has been well translated into amarigna: the Spiritual Exercises, the CLC Constitutions, and of course we have the Bible, because there is no CLC if the member himself does not develop his own spirituality. They also take the link with the Church very seriously in the norms. They don’t create the mission, but ask the dioceses “what can we do to help you?” and almost everywhere they are asked to look after young students. They themselves are young university graduates. So they’ve set up chaplaincy groups in universities, and when these students graduate they have several proposals. Overall, for every fifty or so graduates who leave the chaplaincy, five or six want to continue in CLC. And then they have to go on an Ignatian retreat for the first few years, first one day, then three days, then eight days.” (Groum, sj., Ethiopia)
Apostolic initiatives are born at the very heart of spiritual experience, in response to the evidence of evil. The example of the Central African Republic recounted by Alban and Fatima speaks for itself, but all the companions we interviewed spoke of similar examples: the exercise of rereading gives rise to a combination of suffering and strength that leads to apostolic action. There’s no doubt that these commitments are spreading and calling out to others.
“You see, in the meetings, we shared what we were going through, and we all told what we saw around us: “a neighbor who’s been shot, the children have been left to their own devices, there’s nothing, I don’t know who’s died”. So people expressed their feelings, their suffering too, and prayed together, but it wasn’t possible just to pray. The Father who accompanied them was there, listening, and he said “if you want, we can do a project with the children”. Everyone agreed, he found the funds and we started to organize with the diocese, to help the children and sponsor them in their schooling. Today, there are around forty children” (Alban and Fatima, Central African Republic).
Sponsorship and entry into CLC: an encounter, hope and concrete help for formation
Sponsorship and entry into the world CLC as a full member are stages in a slow but fruitful process within CLC. On several occasions, Alban and Fatima recall the difficulties faced by an isolated community, the need to know “if we’re going in the right direction”, their thirst to learn, and their deep desire to deepen their experience of Ignatian pedagogy. This process, which culminates in an official welcome at an Assembly, is governed by specific norms that we won’t go into here (cf. the worldwide website). In conclusion, we would simply like to emphasize that, in addition to its spiritual significance, affiliation enables us to go beyond our own boundaries and open up to others in all that makes us different, and united. This is an opportunity for companions living in countries that are rather closed in on themselves, as Father Groum mentioned in relation to Ethiopia. The second fruit of sponsorship is gathered by the world CLC, which is enriched by new views and new experiences.
“Why is it important for us to be part of CLC? The first thing is that it opens Ethiopia up a bit, because it’s a rather closed country. It opens Ethiopia up to Africa, to the African Church. And the second thing is that we have things to bring and things to receive, so it gives us ideas.” (Groum Tesfaye, sj. Ethiopia)
In 2023, four new communities expressed their joy at being welcomed: Sweden, New Zealand, Slovakia and Ethiopia. Their entry is also an opportunity for world CLC, which, in the final document of Assembly 2023, explicitly encourages us to forge links between communities, across our borders, with a view to inspiring each other in our respective missions.