A few weeks ago, I went to a meeting of Fulbright alumni here in Burkina, and I met Fr. Mathieu Bere, a young Catholic priest who is completing his Ph.D. work in peace studies at UC San Diego on a Fulbright. He’s doing his research in the northern town of Dori, coincidentally the home town of my friends Djibi and his brother Amadou. Since I’m a seminary professor, Father Mathieu introduced me to Fr. Jules Pascal Zabré, the rector of the seminary of St. John the Baptist here in Ouagadougou. Yesterday, I met up with Fr. Jules and went to visit the seminary.
They’ve got a nice facility, with gardens out front where seminarians grow some of their own food. It is located near the big park where I often ride my bike. So, even though it is in the middle of the city it has a somewhat rural atmosphere and a bit of calm. Not too much, while we were there we could hear the call to prayer from a mosque just down the street. When we got there, it was after classes, and the students were gardening or out on the athletic fields doing a variety of activities. Jim Sisely would approve of this particular class:
We bowed as we passed.
This is a major seminary, that is, the only students who are here are working towards a Master’s in Theology and priestly ordination. There is another major seminary in Bobo-Dioulasso, and between them they have 160-odd students. In addition, there is a minor seminary that takes students after the “bacc” exam at the end of high school and awards the “license”, which is the equivalent of our Bachelors’. There are several hundred students there, though they are not all going to go on to be priests (seminary is a process of discernment, said Fr. Jules, to which I heartily agreed since around half of my students at Mt. Angel leave before getting ordained).
These are impressive numbers at first blush. At Mount Angel, we have about half that and we serve Catholic dioceses all across the western US with a total population of Catholics that has to be greater than Burkina Faso and Niger’s 4.5 million (St. John’s also serves the small Catholic community in the neighboring country of Niger, which is 95% Muslim). If you break it down, though, there are 16 men in fourth year theology, meaning that they will presumably be ordained at the end of the school year. There are a similar number at Bobo. Thirty-two new priests a year, assuming a priest will serve an average of 25 years in active ministry, means that they are maintaining a pace for about 800 priests, which is one per 5,000 more or less, a pretty serious burden if you are planning to do real pastoral care. This is something to think about when talking about the crisis of vocations in the Church in the western world – there is the same problem in the global south, compounded by a lack of resources.
The seminary has an aging electrical system that doesn’t work too well and costs the earth (electricity is enormously expensive here). They have a nice library, that they manage to keep air-conditioned, but they only have about 30,000 volumes and a couple of computers with the usual balky and slow internet connection that is all that is available here. Seminary education is free to the student – has to be, given what priests get paid – but has to cost the dioceses, which is to say the people in the pews, several thousand dollars a year, minimum. I noticed that all the faculty are priests or religious; there’s nobody like me at St. John’s. This suggests that the dioceses have a reasonable number of people so they can spare some for training purposes.
Still, there’s a reason why there are four masses a day at many churches and people sitting outside at each session for lack of room.
I told them I’d be happy to give a conference or something if they like. Maybe I can branch out a little in my teaching.
We visited the seminary chapel:
That’s Fr. Jules showing off the nice carved altarpiece they have, of St. John baptizing Jesus.
An African Mary and baby Jesus, with a pretty African hairstyle for Mary. I should have brought my regular camera – the cell phone camera is kind of second-rate, especially in bad lighting.
And the interior of the seminary chapel, with the carved lectern with an eagle to support the scriptures. Kind of a “theater in the round” new-style church architecture, very unlike our Mt. Angel Abbey Church, but I could see that they were quite happy with it. A much more intimate setting than the huge tin-roofed St. Camille where I usually go to church. I was considering going to the seminary this morning, but they start at 8:00 and dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday morning that early is tough for me. Instead I’m writing this and in a few minutes I’ll be back at St. Camille.
And earlier yesterday morning, while I was out riding my bike in the afore-mentioned park, I saw this
There are native peafowl in Africa, but their range doesn’t extend this far north. That, and the fact that this fellow was not at all shy about my getting close enough to take a picture with my cell phone camera tells me he is domesticated. Still, an interesting sight to run into in the bush.