A Missionary Priest Tells His Story

Father Nicola Colasuonno SX
On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination

Fr, Louis Birabalige SX

Fr. Nick Colasuonno studied in the United States at our community in Franklin, Wisconsin. He was ordained and worked for some years in our seminary. Fr. Nick is visiting the US to celebrate his 50th anniversary with his classmates and will visit our communities.

He is celebrating 50 years of priestly ordination in May (26/05/1973-26/05/2023). He has spent 25 years of missionary life in the DRCongo. From 2014 to 2022, he was the parish priest of St. Guido Maria Conforti’s parish in Panzi, Archdiocese of Bukabu/ DRC. There he acquired the name of “missionary parish priest”. In this interview by Fr. Louis Birabaluge, Fr Nicola describes his long and beautiful years of missionary experience.

Louis BIRA sx (LB): You were the parish priest of St. Guido Maria Conforti Parish in Panzi for eight years. What do you remember about this experience?

NC: The structures of the G. M. Conforti’s Parish were built thanks to an Italian priest’s donation and the parish community’s contribution. From the beginning, in agreement and collaboration with the community members, we focused on the experience of the Small Christian Communities (Shirika), a pastoral and missionary experience to which the Xaverian Missionaries are firmly attached. We started with 8 in 2014; by 2022, we had 14 Shirika. This growth shows the dynamism of the parish in these recent years. From this experience, I keep a feeling of great satisfaction and an extraordinary wonder when I remember those crowds of 2000 people participating in the Sunday Mass at 6 am, joyfully celebrating their faith through songs, dances, and attentive listening to the word of God. When I saw this, I said to myself: it is genuinely unforgettable to be a member and to walk with such a community.

LB: With a touch of humor, the parishioners preferred to call you a “missionary parish priest” instead of just “a parish priest.” Why is that?

NC: This name is perhaps linked to our intention at the beginning of the foundation of the parish. Indeed, from the very beginning of the creation of the parish, it was clear that we wanted a missionary parish, in the sense of announcing the gospel by “attraction,” according to the words of Pope Francis. Together with the parish council, we did a lot of neighborhood outreach. Everyone felt involved in what we were doing. But at one point, I noticed that the parish council was almost made up of men. So I suggested that in each Shirika, we could elect a man and a woman as leaders. This strategy made it possible to have a parish council of 50% men and 50% women. This mixed composition has created a remarkable dynamism in the parish.

LBPope Francis keeps inviting Christian communities to become churches in “missionary outreach.” How is this dimension lived out in St. G. M. Conforti’s parish?

NC: The missionary dimension of the parish was divided into three priorities: 1. Relationships: By relationships, we wanted to build the community parish as a family by emphasizing collaboration and mutual bonds between all members of the community. Through the Small Christian Communities, members could get to know each other and to help each other in times of need. 2. The centrality of announcing the Kingdom of God: as a parish community, we were aware that our mission was to announce and witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God in the neighborhood and among the people around us, without excluding anyone. As a parish, the theme of ecology was very dear to us. Ecology as a lifestyle, in recycling, in keeping the neighborhood and the market clean, and in caring for the environment. For example, on 23 December, we did not hold prayers in the chapel during the Christmas novena. As a sign of preparation for the coming of the Lord, all community members were invited to clean the neighborhood’s gutters, streets, and roads. And during Lent, every Friday, as Christians in Europe renounce meat, our whole community gathered from 6 to 7 a.m. to do community work (Salongo) to clean up the neighborhood, given the absence of public services in this area. It was a great experience that involved young people, mothers, and fathers. We also carried out awareness-raising and training campaigns in schools on ecology and the care of creation. Following the call of Pope Francis, we adopted ecology as an integral part of the proclamation of the Good News. Panzi, as a parish, is also known for its youth and children’s ministry. In this sense, the Panzi Youth Centre organizes several activities where young people and children are the main protagonists. In short, these three missionary options and all the pastoral initiatives have enabled us to be a church “on a missionary outing.”

LB: One of the characteristics of Saint G. M. Conforti’s parish is that of being situated in a neighborhood where there are other Christian confessions, especially the evangelical Protestant communities from which the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Denis Mukwege, comes. How is ecumenism lived in this place?

NC: The Panzi parish has a beautiful ecumenical experience with the Protestant community in the neighborhood, thanks to the links forged with Dr. Mukwege, the Panzi Foundation, and the City of Joy, a place where girls who have been mistreated in the villages are welcomed. Every year, we invited Dr. Mukugwe to give the community a catechism during Lent, which was lovely and enriching. Together with a doctor from Panzi Hospital, we founded the Association of Diabetics of Panzi. Today, the Association has 257 members. As members of the Association, they are helped to enroll in the mutual health insurance scheme, and some surgical operations are facilitated. All these activities were carried out to announce the Kingdom of God by collaborating with all.

LBIn an article published in the Jesuit review Civiltà Cattolica Vol I (4118), 15 January 2022, pp. 167 – 179: “Religious life: from Chaos to ‘kairos'”, the Spanish Jesuit Victor CODINA speaks of the “parochialization of religious life” (p. 170). That is to say, of the risk that with the goodwill to take on the parishes and to help the diocesan church, the religious charism remains somewhat marginalized. In other words, for us Xaverian missionaries, how can we ensure that our service in the parishes is not simply a pastoral replacement but an opportunity to live out our Ad Gentes missionary charism?

NC: There is indeed a discussion among us missionaries about the preference of the Ad Gentes mission. One confrere asked, for example, if the parish was the place for such a mission. But in Panzi, we never wanted a parish only concerned with celebrating the sacraments. We wanted a missionary parish. We have indeed had several baptisms in our parish. But we must also recognize that there is a cultural background that is not evangelized. To continue our missionary presence so that the gospel reaches this un-evangelized background is and will remain a mission that will last for a long time. The fact, for example, that we have never been able to have a Christian leader capable of serving the whole neighborhood, of assuming as a Christian his or her social function, raises a fundamental question about the real impact of our evangelization. This challenge tells us that much in-depth evangelization work is needed. But this fact should not prevent us from seeing and thanking the Lord for what the missionary parish presence of Panzi has accomplished and continues to accomplish in the whole neighborhood and for all through the witness and proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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