Australians are only too familiar with what in this country is called ‘the tyranny of distance’.
Take as a starting point, say, the Oblate Basilica of St Patrick’s in Fremantle in WA. Heading west across the Indian Ocean, a flight of up to a day will get you to Kenya in East Africa, and its capital Nairobi.
Then you might head nearly 300 kilometres north to Meru, a city of 250,000, and then up to Kionyo and Ingandene on the slopes of Mt Kenya.
At the end of that journey you might find there, among the tea and coffee plantations, the Oblate parish of St Stephen set up to serve the Meru people 20 years ago come April next year. These distances would all be classed as long, slow miles, even by plane. A decade and more ago, even longer and slower.
In 2001, Kionyo was the first posting of Fr Sholto Douglas OMI as a missionary in Africa. For more than seven years he worked in the Kionyo parish and since 2008 has been working 3000 kilometres south in Zimbabwe.
He is well known to many Australians around the country, especially in the parishes and schools of the Oblate Fathers, which are a familiar part of the Church’s life in all mainland states.
After graduating from the University of Queensland, Fr Sholto entered the seminary in Mulgrave in Victoria. Not long after ordination, he went to East Africa, and has worked there for 16 years.
He once posted on the social media his own take on distance and the need for help in building churches and in getting around a parish.
“We have 11 churches in the one parish,” Fr Shoto wrote. “We used to get around on motorbikes. The roads were made of dirt and stone which made it challenging especially when wet. We helped the people build their churches. At times when we had the money we matched what they raised. So, $10000 for $10000 or $0 for $0.”
That description would be familiar in its own way to missionaries and pastoral charities wherever the Church is poor and in need. Aid to the Church in Need for example provided over $10 million last year for 1255 trucks, cars, motorcycles and boats to do battle with the tyranny of distance and make the long miles shorter.
These practical ways of helping were the hallmark of the founder of ACN, the Dutch Norbertine priest, Fr Werenfried von Straaten. Immediately after the war ended in Europe, he set out to equip dozens of mobile chapels-cum-food vans to serve the flood of refugees heading west. They were outfitted for celebrating Mass and distributing food – the two went together.
It is not surprising to read that one of the projects of the Kionyo parish in Fr Sholto’s time there was the co-op bakery set up when 20 women contributed $250 each matched by the Oblates. The bakery could produce 700-900 loaves of bread a day all delivered by bicycle. Of all the works of mercy, feeding the hungry is perhaps the easiest to understand and connect with.
After more than seven years in rural Kenya, Fr Sholto travelled 3000 kilometres south where he served for a year and a half in rural Zimbabwe as an assistant parish priest until his present appointment as the priest in charge of the Body and Blood of Christ Parish, in Bulawayo, the second largest city of Zimbabwe, a country going through severe economic difficulties.
Last year ACN was able to provide $15,000 towards the building of a pastoral centre for the Body and Blood of Christ parish. Like the Oblates’ contribution to the co-op bakery in distant Kionyo parish, this help to a church is the very sinew and muscle of God’s presence to our fellow humans most in need. It was a small example of thousands of building projects around the Catholic world which, last year, were helped with $50 million in donations by ACN.
There is however one work of mercy which Fr Sholto and his parish volunteers do every few weeks that many of us would find to be a bridge too far – that is to visit the prisoners or, in one Scripture translation, “to proclaim liberty to captives”.
With nine or so volunteers he goes regularly to the Bulawayo Prison to visit prisoners, to bring them hope, to allow them perhaps to glimpse an earlier release. Although visiting prisoners is, for practical reasons, beyond most of us, one way of connecting with this work of mercy is to sustain the priests and volunteers who do the visits.
ACN does this with Mass stipends, donations accompanied by a request to celebrate Mass for the sick, the deceased or the prisoners wherever they are in gaol. Around the world, one in nine priests are supported by stipends from ACN. These donations enable all of us to join with Fr Sholto and the thousands of his fellow missionaries and take part through them in doing the works of mercy which Pope Francis calls “the caress of God”.
Contact Aid to the Church in Need on (02) 9679 1929 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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