Fr. Victor Bongiovanni: A Missionary of Eighty Years

Last year one of our veteran missionaries, Fr. Victor Bongiovanni celebrated his eightieth year after working for decades in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Fr. Louis Bira, a Xaverian colleague in Sierra Leone conducted an interview with Fr. Victor.

June 26, 1941-June 26, 2021, 80 good years have passed since Fr. Victor Bongiovanni was born. He arrived in Sierra Leone in 1973 and has been there now for 48 years meanly involved with enthusiasm in youth ministry. He served as director of the Pastoral Centre of the Makeni diocese for 24 years.

During that period, he established many sporting recreational facilities. With him, the Pastoral Centre became a Centre of therapy for youth who discovered their talents, at the same time, building a strong bond among the youth of Makeni city. Even at the age of 80 years, in the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Kabala Parish, where Fr. Victor serves, he continues his missionary work among youth and children with an incredible easiness that makes him look like a young missionary of 80 years. For his 80 years’ birthday, the Pastoral Centre Old Students’ Association (PaCOSA) organized a special celebration for Fr. Victor whom they call tenderly Pa. Alimamy. In this interview, I wanted to listen to him.

Louis Bira (LB) sx : As a sign of gratitude, the Pastoral Centre Old Students’ Association (Pa COSA) surprised you with a special birthday celebration with many gifts. How did you feel on that occasion?

Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx: The celebration was for me a complete surprise. I knew nothing about their plan. Believe me, many times during that celebration I prayed, telling the Lord: “This is for you! For your glory! I do not deserve all this!” They asked me for a spiritual Retreat about ‘the Christian Family’. I prepared everything not knowing their plan.  What a surprise! The more I stay in Sierra Leone, the less I understand the Sierra Leoneans, but the more I love them.  I discovered, especially when I was among the Rebels, that the Sierra Leoneans are, by nature and culture, good people with a deep sense of gratitude. For me, they are more weak than evil, more confused than wicked. Sorry, if I dare judge them!

 LB: Even at the age of 80 years you continue joyfully to be involved in youth and children ministry. When will you retire?

 Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx: I have never thought about retirement. I am still thinking and planning future commitments. Sometimes I am afraid that my superiors will decide for me a forced retirement, asking me to go back to Italy because of my age. I hope that date will not come, at least not so soon. 

LB: During your birthday celebration, the youth recalled that while in Port Loko, you helped to combat the epidemic outbreak of cholera. As a gesture of appreciation, the traditional authorities of Sanda Magbolonto Chiefdom crowned you with the honorary title of Pa Alimamy. A title that empowered you to sit at the council of elders’ decision-making of that Chiefdom. From that time, what have you learned from Sierra Leone culture?

Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx: I learned that Sierra Leoneans are people that study you. They believe in you not for what you say but for what they see. They have a good memory.  They do not forget the help you have given them. Even after years, you meet a person that comes to you thanking you. You have forgotten him or her but they still remember you. They are sincere when they tell you ‘Tenki’. I have several cases of young adults coming to me with generous offerings and telling me: “Father this is for you to help poor students as you helped me.”

 LB: After 48 years of missionary service, you always say that you did not come in Sierra Leone to fill empty bottles, but to remove the taps and help people to pull out of themselves all the goodness and the talents that they have in themselves. What do you mean by that?

Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx: When I left Italy the first time for Sierra Leone, there were people in my Italian village praising me saying: “You are great because you are a missionary carrying the Lord to Sierra Leone.” I arrived in Sierra Leone and there at the airport, I met a group of Christians waiting and welcoming me in the name of the Lord. The Lord was already there. So I asked myself several times: “But what have I come to do in Sierra Leone?”

The real missionary is the Lord. I am just one of His catechists. My work is, (this is my desire!) a continuous trying to empower Sierra Leoneans, in particular the youth. Our youth have to be convinced that they are the agents-protagonists of the development of Sierra Leone.  For this reason, the schools are so important for them, for their families, for the Country as a whole.

LB: In his Post-Synodal  Exhortation, to the Young and to the entire people of God (‘Christus Vivit’, no. 40), Pope Francis denounced what he called “a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young and the passive role assigned to the young within the Christian community”. What is your advice to those presently involved in youth and children ministry?

Fr. Victor Bongiovanni sx

  • For me it’s very important to help the youth to have a visible “JOYFUL EXPERIENCE OF BEING CHRISTIANS”. Youth must have the joy of knowing the person of Jesus. We, formators, must be prepared to present Jesus alive. Jesus should touch the hearts of our youth. Jesus is the one that converts them not we the formators. In this journey of faith experience and joy must be present. Our Catechesis and our Meetings should always lead to an Experience of Joy. The breath of our youth is a need of Joy, of Love. Pope Francis gave us wonderful documents that we must understand-study-and meditate with our youth. They have been written for all the believers, it is true, but they respond so well to the desire of the youth:“Christus vivit”, “Laudato sii”, “Fratelli tutti”.
  • We must help our youth to love the Church. We, formators, must use intelligence and imagination to lead our youth to accept, to believe and to be challenged by the Church. They need and want to be involved inthe Church Vision: “WE ARE THE CHURCH”.They want to see that their presence in the life of the Community is admired and praised. They are youth: they need to be treated as adult, but the formators should not forget that they are not adults yet. They need the adults but their need should be taught them with patience, with time and with love…
  • Our youth should experience their role and importance in the Community. Their presence in the Choir, in the Liturgy, in other fields should be felt with pride and faithfulness. They should be educated to keep their word-promise with a deep sense ofresponsibility. Then all their meetings should not be limited to a talk-talk. The youth-meeting should be concluded with a plan of action. Youth need to see that they are able to achieve something. They want action.They need to act, to do something. Especially they need the prayers of their Formators. Jesus should be their Formator. Jesus should be the first priority in their journey of faith and not the Formators.

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