By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Editor | Published September 5, 2019
FAIRBURN—African-born clergy and women religious serve across the United States—from leading parishes to teaching students and in hospitals—enriching the lives of the communities where they work.
Each year, the members of the African Conference of Catholic Clergy and Religious in the United States (ACCCRUS) gather to support and learn from another.
From July 24-27, ACCCRUS held its 20th annual convention at the Fairfield Inn & Suites, Fairburn, with a keynote address by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
The theme of “Sharing Our Story” highlighted the collective and individual contributions of African priests, deacons and nuns to the American church. More than 120 attended the conference which included presentations, a question-and-answer session with the nuncio and attending bishops, Mass, adoration and a tour of Atlanta.
Sister Mary Paul Asoegwu of the Daughters of Divine Love was one of 38 sisters attending the ACCCRUS convention. She serves in Illinois as part of the Nigerian order founded in 1969. The Daughters of Divine Love’s 900 sisters serve in 15 countries by providing shelters, feeding the poor, teaching and caring for the sick.
“No matter what you are doing, do it for love of God,” said Sister Mary Paul in sharing details of her work.
Father Henry Atem, pastor of St. George Church, Newnan, spoke to the members as the outgoing president of ACCCRUS. Father Atem thanked the papal nuncio for accepting the invitation to speak.
“Your presence here offers us a unique and intimate feeling of connection to the Holy Father, and through him, to the entire church,” he said.
Father Atem asked for Pope Francis’ prayers for ACCCRUS, particularly as the church weathers a severe storm.
The organization helps African priests integrate into American culture to better serve in ministry. There is still work to do, said the priest.
“Our outreach is not as wide and broad as it ought to be,” said Father Atem.
There are many African clergy and religious who are unaware ACCCRUS exists or are not participating, he noted.
“Our Lord asks us to cast our net out into the deep. We must never forget these, our brothers and sisters,” said Father Atem. “We need to strengthen our regional chapters and our local groups.”
For the African Catholic living in rural Kansas or Des Moines, Iowa, spotting an African priest at a parish, or a nun at a hospital or school helps them immediately develop a bond or warmth toward that local church, he said.
This connection can spark a relationship that rejuvenates the faith creating more active participation, and then “the church as a whole benefits and so does that community,” said Father Atem.
Through our various apostolates, “we continue to touch and transform many lives with the aroma of the Gospel,” he said. “It is my genuine hope that we all find meaning and fulfillment in our individual stories as we continue to weave them into the broader American experience.”
An evangelizing church
Archbishop Pierre is no stranger to the African continent. He lived in Madagascar as a child, completing his primary education there. His life as a priest and pontifical representative has led him to service worldwide including several years in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The nuncio told those attending that they are a “vital part of the work of evangelization in this country.” In his extensive travels across the United States, the archbishop has taken note of the increasing number of African priests who have migrated to America to serve.
“I arrived as a small child in Madagascar in 1949,” recalled Archbishop Pierre. He said the French priests and bishops serving there at the time inspired zeal in him and the priests and nuns convening in Fairburn are the fruits of their labor.
“You are the gift to the church of Africa,” said Archbishop Pierre. “But the church in Africa is not selfish with her gifts. Rather, she’s generous.”
He told the ACCCRUS members they are part of Pope Francis’ dream of a missionary church.
“He wants an evangelizing church,” said the nuncio. “He wants a church willing to go forth from its comfort zone.”
Archbishop Pierre posed a series of challenges to African clergy and religious regarding continued formation, promoting a culture of life, welcoming other migrants, accompanying families and to ask themselves if they feel like outsiders or are taking part in American life.
Other speakers at the July convention were Sister Joanna Okereke, HHCJ, assistant director of Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers, a subcommittee of the USCCB committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church; Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III, Atlanta’s auxiliary bishop; and Bishop Fernand J. Cheri III, auxiliary bishop of New Orleans.
Msgr. Anselm Nwaorgu of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, who was the first national president of ACCCRUS also attended.
He said when people migrate there is sometimes a sense of loneliness, and for African clergy and nuns, ACCCRUS and its events can help them remain rooted.
“We get renewed,” said Msgr. Nwaorgu about the conventions. “It’s rejuvenating and the second thing is, you learn. It brings you back to your roots.”
In June of 2009, Pope Benedict elevated him to the status of monsignor, making him the first native, African born priest to be made a monsignor in the United States church. More than 30 African natives are serving as priests in the Newark Archdiocese.
He said it’s absolutely important for African clergy and sisters to spend this time together.
“It’s much more empowering. We need to get back to the grassroots.”
ACCCRUS will gather in 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa and will take part in the National African Eucharistic Congress in Houston, Texas in 2021.