A “definite orientation” for Chad
Interview with Bishop Jean-Claude Bouchard, OMI
- Bishop Bouchard, tell us about yourself.
I was born in the village of St. Eloi in Quebec, 25 September 1940. I am a farmer’s son. My parents were devoted Catholics, and I learned sacred history at my mother’s knee. I am proud of these simple, rural origins; I have tried to remain a farmer’s son all my life.
- How did you come to know the Oblates?
It was sort of the tradition in rural families that the oldest son would stay at home to help his father on the farm and that the second son would get an education. I was the second son in the family. At that time, almost all secondary schools were in Church hands. In my region, you knew the Oblates through their retreat house at Mont-Joli. Therefore, I left for the Oblate juniorate at Chambly-Bassin.
- And after the juniorate?
I decided to enter the Oblates because I had learned that the Oblates were missionaries for the poor and that attracted me. Had I not entered the Oblates, I would have found a profession that would have permitted me to serve the poor in one way or the other. After the novitiate, they sent me to Rome for scholasticate. I arrived there in 1960, the year of the Olympic Games. I found that difficult at first, because I am very athletic and in Rome, we were rather underdeveloped in that area.
- And where is Africa in all that?
I had come to Rome for a seven-year stay, but I didn’t see myself there for seven years in a row. That is why, after philosophy, I asked to do regency in a mission. The Oblates are missionaries and I wanted to see up close what a missionary is like. Therefore, I asked Father General if I could go to Lesotho where there were Canadian Oblates. But Fr. Deschâtelets had, in the meantime, received a request from Chad, from Msgr. Honoré Jouneaux, Apostolic Prefect of Pala, for a scholastic who could run a school. And that is how I ended up in regency in Chad. I taught and administered the school of Moulkou, and I spent two very happy years of my life there. In 1964, the Olympic Games were in Tokyo, but also in Moulkou where I was the principal, you were either an athlete or you were not.
- What did you do after regency?
I came back to Rome to study theology, with the idea of returning to a mission, but this time, to Latin America, in order to know the Church in a different setting. But the relationships that had been created in Chad and the invitations from confreres who seemed to have appreciated my presence, led me, after two years, to ask Fr. General to give me a “definite orientation” for Chad. That helped me better prepare for the mission. For example, I took courses in the history of religions and in anthropology from Fr. Goetz at the Gregorian. I also took courses in African languages in Grenoble ; in tropical medicine in Lille ; and some courses about cooperatives and community development at Antigonish in Canada. All of that was very helpful to me later on. I am convinced that whoever wants to go to a mission must prepare for it.
- What do you preserve from your time in Rome?
From my formation in Rome, I believe it is the international environment that also prepared me for the mission. There was also the “grace of Second Vatican Council” which I experienced on site and whose great documents support me even today. I am constantly quoting these documents at meetings. For many, it is a surprising discovery, which says to me that the Council has not sufficiently become part of the life of the Church.
- And then you returned to Chad?
Upon my return to Chad in January, 1970, I asked Bishop Dupont not to overwhelm me with ministry at the beginning, so that I could study the language and become acquainted with the customs and the life of the people and discover the place in general. In my mind, it was necessary for the mission to develop a Church better adapted to the place, more African. Bishop Dupont granted my request and that was a wise choice as we found out later on.
- What impressions of your first years in Chad to you hold on to?
What I remember from those first years with the small communities was that I discovered the Gospel along with the people. I was not a missionary who set himself above them and who knew it all, but I understood the Gospel better through the way that the people accepted it. I listened to the Gospel with their ears; I spoke it with their mouth. The Gospel, received and spoken in another language, is enriching. The Word of God grows with those who receive it and profess it. I still remember the Passion recited entirely by heart by a Massa on Good Friday; in the dark of the night, it was so impressive that it gave me chills. It’s totally different from reading the Passion from a lectionary.
Furthermore, it is from that time that there began in the diocese of Pala, and continues to this day, the oral presentation of the Gospel.
- Let’s speak about this oral presentation of the Gospel.
Speaking of the Bible, I never talk about a text or a reading, but about “the Word.” For the Bible is essentially a Word, THE Word. I even pointed that out one day to Cardinal Martini who had come to Cameroon. In his homily, he had constantly spoken of “readings” and of “texts.” I pointed out to him that the Gospel was above all a Word that one proclaims and listens to. And he told me: “Ah, I had never thought of it that way.”
Still today in the liturgy, I insist that the Gospel be proclaimed and not read. Our catecheses in Chad all begin with a biblical text taken from the Gospels, or from the Acts of the Apostles, or from the words of the Old Testament. We ask our catechists to recite them to the catechumens and those who are baptized. They must memorize these passages in order to recite them.
- What were your feelings when you became a bishop?
After only seven years at Guelengdeng, the episcopacy snatched me away. I felt very young to take on this responsibility. For example, I would have to collaborate with priests who were, for the most part, older than I. When I was named bishop, a Massa woman even said: “Now they are taking them right from their mother’s womb…”.
- And what were your dreams?
I didn’t have any dreams, but a great desire to put my whole heart into this mission, in collaboration with everyone: priests, sisters, and laity. I think I can say that the Church of Pala has always been known for this brotherhood and this collaboration, even after so many years. Furthermore, that is what has permitted me to keep at it, even to this day, for the past 28 and a half years, since 26 February 1977.
- Today, what are the challenges faced by the Church?
I can speak for the Church of Pala. One challenge is to build up a real, local Church. It’s easy to say, but under what conditions can that really happen? A local Church must be made up of living communities. It must be more and more capable of taking care of its own needs, not only for its ministries and the responsibilities of the communities, but also for its material needs. The two pastoral letters which I wrote in 2001 and in 2004 are entitled: “Christians of 2001, we take charge” and “To build an adult and responsible Church.”
Then, as Vatican II says: the Church does not exist for herself but to give witness to the Gospel in the world. And that is a second challenge: that the communities be ready to give witness to the Gospel and to make a different world. For us in Chad today, that means especially working for development, for Justice and Peace. We are creating Justice and Peace committees on all levels: local, diocesan, and national. There is so much ignorance, injustice, corruption, conflict. Is it not the duty of Christians to fight against these evils? The Church must absolutely be prophetic; otherwise, she will not fulfil her mission. But it is a fact that more and more Christians are becoming involved in fighting the evils that are crushing society.
A huge challenge added to all that is AIDS. The Church has always had infirmaries, but now, in order to do something about the AIDS pandemic, we need to find some new ways. The whole Church of Chad is currently reflecting on how to involve itself more in this fight against AIDS.
- And the country?
I just read in the review “Jeune Afrique l’Intelligent,” that the part of the world most buried in poverty is sub-Saharan Africa and Chad is no exception. Chad is number 173 out of 177 countries in the list of underdeveloped countries. The deterioration of our countries is the result of bad government and bad management, but also, unfortunately, it is due to the unjust organization of the world, in particular in international commerce. At the UN, they decided to reduce poverty in the world by one half by 2015, but no one really believes in these “decisions.” And that will remain true until there is the political will power and the courage to attack the real cause of poverty: institutionalised injustice. Just one example: subsidies for agriculture in America and in Europe are far superior to all the international aid by these countries, and on top of that, they force down prices on the world level. Cotton is just one outstanding example.
Being a bishop: an exciting profession?
Yes, but often it’s a heavy thing to carry. I see that right now in our countries they expect more and more from the Church, and therefore, from the pastors of this Church. That’s fine; it shows the credibility the Church can have, but it is also a burden that becomes heavier and heavier. In spite of the often catastrophic situation on our continent, we look ahead, certain that our people are called to a better way of life. That is what our Christian faith tells us and that is what we share with our communities. I am convinced that if it were not for the Church in Chad, the situation would be even more catastrophic. The Church has played and is called to play a very important role in facilitating, for example, inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships, often the source of conflicts. To be there, to be with, to be for… that’s a delight in the every sense of the word.
By Jean-Pierre CALOZ, OMI