Some words with the prefect for religious life

After a six-hour ceremony Feb. 4 at the shrine of the Uganda martyrs outside Kampala, a procession of hundreds of African sisters and novices and postulants made its way to a nearby lake, part of the shrine grounds, for a final blessing by the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, (Prefect for Religious Life) Cardinal-elect Archbishop Joao Bráz de Aviz, who was in Kampala for the outset of religious leadership gathering of the major conferences of men and women religious from throughout Africa.

As we know he has recently received the collection of reports from the site visits to many U.S. women religious communities and his staff is now shuffling through them, I could not help but try to find out if he might share with me his thoughts.

Surrounded by religious -- really surrounded -- I made my way through the crowd, introduced myself, knowing I’d have only seconds. “Oh, National Catholic Reporter,” he said in heavily accented English (He is Brazilian and is not strong in English; he gave his homily in Portuguese and it was translated into English.) “We come together, yes? It is better, yes?"

Those were his words. A bit mysterious, yes. But he clearly recognized the name. John Allen did an enterprising interview with him just after his appointment last year. Bráz de Aviz is now a cardinal-elect and will become a cardinal Feb. 18th.

Not satisfied, I followed the prelate into a reception area where he was offered a lunch along with other guests (I was also invited and sat at another table.) Soon I went up to him while he was eating and asked him if he had anything to say to the U.S. women religious in view of the apostolic visitation.

“Anything you want to say to the U.S. women religious,” I asked.

“We are in communication with them,” he responded.

“What about the Apostolic Visitation?” I asked.

At this point he looked to his interpreter, a Portuguese sister who was eating with him at the table. She became the interpreter.

“We are sorting many papers.” He added: “The time is different … more positive … yes, more positive. We cannot lose even one person.”

I asked him what has changed as he held is fork waiting to continue eating.

“There was misunderstanding. It was the media,” he said, then adding, “ not the Catholic media.”

That was it. Bráz de Aviz is a warm person, likes to laugh, says Brazilians like to physically embrace people. He has an open face and is quite approachable – except maybe while he is trying to eat pasta served with tomato sauce at lunch.

The prelate told the religious here that this had been his first trip to Africa and that he will be returning to Rome feeling “very happy.” It’s been a two-day trip, but he was shown African hospitality at every moment. I was with him for most of the two days – though at a distance.

On two occasions he spoke to his audiences about vocations, making a point to say that religious vocations have fallen dramatically in Europe, are on the way down in America, but that in Africa and Asia they are climbing.

Some African religious leaders here have said that the trip has been an eye-opener for this Brazilian prelate. He has inherited a staff of some 40 people in his office in Rome – but, according to some religious here, not a single person on his staff is African!

Yes, there is some hurt and puzzlement, given the burst in religious life here. At the same time the African religious who made the point seem to think that this might now change, given the new atmosphere and possible better understanding in the Congregation for Religious at the Vatican.

So the lessons here: Cautiously hopeful. Let’s wait and see.

See the video below of the procession following the liturgy at the shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs Feb. 4th.

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