September 19, 2023
Kangeme, Tanzania – P. Diego Cano, IVE
I remember that in my second year of priesthood, during my second year as a missionary in Ecuador, a man who was filming in the area of Gualel, and I went on several trips with him to show him a little of the parish, and he asked me what were the things that called my attention the most in my life as a missionary, since I was just beginning my life as a missionary. On that occasion, I remember that I answered him using the thoughts that had been going through my mind in those days, which can be summarize as follows: that I was very impressed by the fact that the priest is always present in the most important moments of people’s lives. Because we are present at birth, by reason of baptism; present at First Communions and Confirmations; present at the very important moment of forming a family, with marriage; and present, finally, at the moment of death, together with the sick person through the sacrament of Anointing, but also together with the family, through Masses and funerals.
I believe that this chronicle will not have many readers, nor will it be shared so much, especially because of its subject, since it is about the funeral mass of the little girl I told you about in the previous chronicle. The chronicles of children’s camps, baptisms, patronal feasts and popular missions are always better received… but I believe that I should not fail to describe Daniela’s funeral, because it can teach us a lot, and above all it will illustrate us about the reality that we have to evangelize in these lands.
In the previous chronicle I had asked you to pray for Daniela, the three year old girl whom I was asked to visit, who was suffering a lot, from a terminal a cancer in her head which had already spread all over her body. I asked them to pray, and many wrote to me that they were doing so, in order that God’s Will would be fulfilled, and that according to Him, Daniela could find relief from her pains. The same prayers were said for her family, especially her mother. The prayers have been truly felt. Two days after that chronicle, Daniela passed into eternity. The catechist asked me to go to the funeral, if possible. By the grace of God, I was able to do so.
But the truth is that funerals in those parts of the parish caught my attention. We already know that this area is very pagan, but when moments like this come, one realizes more what that means. I arrived at the house, which I described in the previous chronicle, but this time there were many people, all the friends and neighbors had come for the occasion. Many come to truly accompany the family, but others come out of obligation, because it is a tradition that everyone must participate, otherwise they must pay a fine.
Outside the house, under the only shade there was, under a small mango tree, was the group of men. Somewhere there was a group of younger people playing cards and joking around. This area, as it is one of the most remote, the predominant language is the language of the tribe, Sukuma. Already that often puts us in the climate of being in a foreign place, because we understand little of this language. It is not that they do not speak Swahili, they speak it perfectly well, but among themselves they relate almost exclusively in Sukuma.
I entered the patio of the house, passing through a low door in the wall that acts as a party wall, or rather as a fence. It is not common for houses to close the courtyard, but sometimes it happens. I bent down to pass through this door, and inside the courtyard were all the women, some preparing food, and most sitting on the dirt floor, talking quietly. This group contrasts with the men’s group, as outside we could hear conversations and laughter. As I entered the courtyard, I headed towards the place where a speaker was connected and music was playing… “to cheer up”. It had already caught my attention when I arrived, it could be heard from outside, quite loud. I told them that it would be better not to play music at that moment, in any case later, when everything was over, that it would be better to respect the family’s grief and pain. They had no difficulty in removing the music.
Then we began the preparations for mass, there in the courtyard. It was very hot, and everyone gathered in the shade of the small roofs, in the shade of the wall, under some small trees, etc. I chose the side where the shadow of the wall and the shade of a tree began to fall, and calculating where the shadow would continue to run, we placed the low table that would serve as an altar. We began to put the mass things, and they told me that the coffin had not arrived yet. We thought about starting the mass anyway, because we did not know how long it would take, it was already four o’clock in the afternoon, and we were in one of the most remote villages. Besides, the people themselves want it to end early so that they can return to their homes before nightfall.
We began with some prayers inside the house, and then Daniela’s body was brought in, completely wrapped in a white linen cloth, lying on her mattress. Several men brought the mattress and left it next to the altar.
The mass was held there, and on these occasions it is an excellent opportunity to preach about Eternal Life, and the afterlife. Especially because most of the audience is pagan, and therefore perhaps it is the first time they hear these things. It is striking the silence that reigns in those moments, and at most they look very attentive. But what caught my attention was the very small group of people who “prayed”, that is, they were Catholics and therefore could answer the prayers. They were also not so confident in their responses, and the songs showed that they still lack much of the traditions that we have seen in villages where Christianity is more deeply rooted. But there they were, and they gave a very good example of faith.
However, what struck me the most here, although it also happens on other occasions, was the difference between those who were praying and those who were outside was very noticeable. They were “outside” in every sense of the word, because they were on the other side of the wall, the large group of men had not moved into the courtyard, but only four or five of them, the closest relatives. Inside the courtyard they prayed and sang, outside they talked and laughed. A very notable contrast between the Christians and the pagans. Although all were respectful, there was a great light-darkness between faith and those who do not even ask themselves what there is after this life.
At the moment of the offertory the coffin arrived, and then her body was moved with great respect, removing the mattress from the middle, and placing the coffin in front of the altar. We finished the mass and went to the place where she would be buried, in the place where the other deceased members of the family are buried. It is common that each house has a small family cemetery, but in the Christians it is important that the tombs are cared for and with some cross. The pagans sometimes do not even put any sign, and over time even the graves are erased from the surface. At the beginning of our journey, to cover the hundred meters that separated us, the men begin by carrying the coffin, and often begin to walk very fast, almost running and running over each other. This provokes awkward movements, some laughter and comments. This is something which always upsets me, and so I place myself at the front of the procession, behind the cross, to be able to keep the rhythm of the walk, while we pray or sing, and also to ask for more silence and respect. It is a way of evangelizing that the pagans see how we Christians pray on these occasions.
Finally, after the simple burial, with the rite of the blessing of the tomb, the laying of the earth, and the blessing and placing of the cross, this act of mercy comes to an end. We thank everyone for being present, and I ask the Catholics to stay and sing a hymn to the Virgin before leaving the place. This simple act is often very moving and exemplary for many. We know of some pagans who have been moved to convert and begin to pray, as they say they want to have a burial like that one.
When I returned that day I started to think a little about what I had experienced there, and I saw that paganism in general shows disinterest in death, and desacralizes it, or does not even want to think about it. Avoiding mourning, burials, and memories. I think of all paganism, that of many centuries ago, and that of today; that of these mission lands, and that of the West as well. With their different nuances, but with the common traits of not thinking about the sacred, and not thinking about eternity.
Here faith always brings great comfort in the midst of pain. The Christians are very grateful, and I think the people in general are too. I greeted the men in Sukuma, as I was saying goodbye, and they all responded in chorus, glad that the “mzungu” said something in Sukuma. These are the few words I know, the greetings and nothing else.
Before getting into the car, Leticia, Daniela’s mother, came to say thank you, and she was in great pain, but she was also very calm. It fills us all with joy to have said goodbye to an angel, who must be interceding for all of us, especially for those who helped her during her life, for her mother who gave her life and cared for her, and for all those who cared for her in her illnesses and pain. We are left with the joy of knowing that she is resting, in peace, and that the pains of this life have passed for her.
Thank you for reading up to here, a chronicle not so “popular”. This is the work of the priest, we must be present in the most important moments of men’s lives, in the transcendental moments, like this one. And it is good to consider it, and also to meditate on it. That is the reason for these words.
God bless you.
P. Diego Cano, IVE