Out of Africa, Thank God

When I go to Mass and learn that the presider is an African — as in, a priest from Africa, usually in the US for studies of some sort — the automatic response is a broad, goofy ginger smile.

I love African priests. They come from such a different cultural template than what Americans are used to — different stories, different taboos, different everything — that they can’t help but be interesting. People sometimes complain about their accents but the struggle to understand them is worth the effort.

To wit, the last two Sundays I’ve found myself in Bellingham for Mass at Church of the Assumption. A Ugandan priest is presiding there while the normal priest is on some sort of pilgrimage to Europe.

A few weeks ago, the priest told us about a friend of his from Uganda whose mother was very sick. Everybody kept praying for her to get better but it wasn’t happening. The friend consulted a local priest, who told him the problem was his mother’s lack of faith in God.

If the priest was an American, we could pretty well call what would have come next. The bad — or at least misguided — guy in the story would have been the priest. God’s will is not that easy to know, we would have been told. We can pray and hope for his intervention, an American would have said, but we can’t hang the lack of it on the sick person’s lack of faith.

Now, I don’t disagree with any of that. But it’s what we’ve come to expect and is therefore boring.

The Ugandan priest doesn’t know or care about those expectations. In his telling, the priest was the good guy. “And he was right,” our presider confidently said.

It turned out the mother had been secretly appealing not just to the Christian God and the host of heavenly saints, but to traditional African tribal deities as well. The solution to her illness was more faith directed in the right direction.

The Ugandan then turned that critique on his American audience. Just as his friend’s purportedly Catholic mother had lacked faith, so might some people present. He listed some of the ways we might be substituting a thin religiosity for the real thing and warned us that, in the end, it wouldn’t save us either.

A Baptist might have yelled “Amen!” to that.

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