Opening the door of faith

By 
  • January 16, 2013

Betty was called mama ndi father (mother of priests) even though she did not have a son who was a priest. Actually Betty had no children of her own. Her husband left her for another woman 45 years ago because Betty could not bear children as a result of a terrible accident.

In traditional African society, few things are more painful and traumatic for a woman than being divorced or being barren. Betty’s world was shattered and during this time she lived in silent despair.

However, she had one thing going for her: she was a woman of faith who went to daily Mass and spent an hour every day with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Rejected by her husband, misunderstood by her friends, and even suspected by her family of being a bearer of bad fortune, she sought direction from God on what to do with her life. During those encounters with God, Betty felt a deep calling in her soul to devote her life to supporting priests and missionaries in her own little way.

So she answered that call, and spent the last 45 years of her life as a housekeeper in a rectory, as well as a lay catechist and an unofficial spiritual counsellor for priests, seminarians and laity. She became a mother-like figure to priests and seminarians and started to be called mama ndi father.

I came to her parish in 1997 as the head of a team of 15 seminarians who were trained in new evangelization by the local ordinary. Bishop Gbuju (now retired) had established the first school of new evangelization in Africa and encouraged many young seminarians to learn a new way to communicate the truth of our faith in a changed world. We came to Betty’s parish to practice what we had learned.

We would go to market squares and shopping malls and begin open-air preaching like Jesus did in His own ministry. We had megaphones that we used to good effect to make “holy noises” to attract attention. This type of preaching has to be boisterous to make people stop and listen.

On our first day, I recall being interrupted with questions like: “When did Catholics start preaching like Pentecostals?” “Your noisy preaching is disturbing public order!” One enraged vendor, claiming our preaching was disruptive and hurting his business, threatened to call police or take the law into his own hands.

That first day was very challenging but, when we came home, our mama ndi father was waiting to comfort and strengthen us. At 84, she could no longer cook because her bones ached from arthritis and she had begun to lose her memory. But she retained all her Christian charm and spiritual lucidity.

I don’t remember everything she said that evening, but I do recall two significant insights she passed along.

First, Betty said the door of faith was opened to humanity by Christ and our Christian calling is to pass through that door and to lead others to the door by how we live our lives. To do that we need God’s grace. She said her life, following the pain of her divorce and childlessness, became more meaningful because every day she passes through the door of faith.

Second, she took my hand as the head of the group and breathed on my palm and offered assurance that she would pray for me and the group because she knew that through prayer we would be able to touch people and lead them to the door of faith.

Betty was not a theologian, but she knew through personal experience the meaning of faith. Reading Pope Benedict’s apostolic letter introducing the Year of Faith, I thought of Betty. She taught me that faith means to centre our lives on Christ and that we should bring our dreams and challenges of life to the door of faith. It is in trusting God and bearing witness to the values of our Christian tradition that we create deep intimacy with God.

I also learned from Betty that the surest means of leading others through the door of faith is to lead an authentic Christian life. Above all, mama ndi father taught me that prayer is the clearest expression of faith because it brings the whole of life to the whole of God.

(Fr. Stan Chu Ilo’s latest book, Discover Your Divine Investment, is published by Catholic Register Books and is available by calling 416-934-3410.)

 

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