GABON: EVANGELIZATION THROUGH LITURGICAL TRADITION
“The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy.”
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 24.
The pictures speak for themselves: In Africa, religion isn’t just a barrier between communities. In Libreville the construction of Our Lady of Lourdes, where the traditional liturgy is celebrated, is the pride and joy of the local population of all faiths.
I-THE PRESS OF GABON GIVES THE BUILDING PROJECT A FOND WELCOME
“Our Lady of Lourdes: A Gleaming Face”
Gabon Tribune website, 26 January 2015
Now that the façade of this church, which is located at the STFO intersection in Libreville, has been completed thanks to a personal gift from the head of state, President Ali Bongo Ondimba, the Catholic Church has been given one of her best buildings for the worship of God.
While awaiting the official unveiling of the façade of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, the leaders of the Catholic Church, first and foremost Archbishop Basile Mvé Engone, have expressed their satisfaction with the daily progress of this church, which was erected as a parish in 2008. The unveiling is scheduled for August 2015.
The completion of the façade was made possible by the personal support of the Head of State Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of the Republic of Gabon. By this gesture he wished to express his gratitude not only to the Catholic Church, which numbers thousands of believers, but also and especially to the Christian community of Gabon as a whole.
It is noteworthy that this façade is exceptionally beautiful thanks to its classical Roman architecture and to its materials, which were handmade by artisans in Portugal: the azulejos. Father Willweber’s design brings together well-known Christian motifs: the central panel represents the Magi adoring the Christ-child, surrounded by the Institute’s patron saints as well as by the great archangels Michel and Raphael, who seem to be standing guard over the entrance to the church. The unveiling of this structure is therefore much awaited by many Christians in Gabon, and numerous foreign delegations are expected for the event as an expression of the bonds that unite Catholics throughout Africa.
II—THE REFLECTIONS OF PAIX LITURGIQUE
1) The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP) was founded by French priests who had received their formation in Genoa, Italy. Yet in actual fact it draws its origins from Africa: indeed, Bishop Obamba of Mouila, Gabon, allowed the Institute’s canonical erection in 1990; it was then welcomed into the Diocese of Florence a few months later. The ICKSP’s links with Gabon were therefore quite old when the Archbishop of Libreville decided to erect Our Lady of Lourdes parish in 2008 and to entrust it to the Institute of Christ the King for the celebration of the liturgy according to the books of 1962 as permitted by the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. Already by 2009, the parish’s success motivated the ICKSP to undertake the project of building a church adapted to the needs of the ever-growing community. It is worth noting that this is no “personal parish” devoted to the extraordinary form; it is an ordinary territorial parish devoted to the extraordinary form, just like the handful of parishes in Europe whose pastors had maintained the traditional liturgy after the Council.
2) While the few new churches to be built in Europe look like shopping malls or sports centers, the ICKSP has decided to build in Gabon “not a ‘pious hangar’ lacking in taste and beauty, but a true church worthy of the solemn liturgy we celebrate,” said Msgr Schmitz, Vicar General of the Institute, in the French monthly La Nef (March 2014). In fact, the designers opted to imitate Portuguese religious buildings, whose façades are adorned with azulejos (earthenware tiles decorated in blue, “azul”). One of the models for Our Lady of Lourdes could be the well-known “Soul’s Chapel” in Oporto, whose twentieth-century azulejos imitate the Portuguese azulejos of the 1700s. Far from bothering the local population, this choice has won unanimous approval: the many articles published after the completion of the façade all describe the “extraordinary” beauty of its azulejos and the press release from the Office of the President goes so far as to speak of an “architectural masterpiece.” This building stokes Gabonese pride: “Many of the faithful from the neighborhood and the entire town, who particularly appreciate the beauty of the Latin liturgy and Gregorian chant” flock to it, enthusiastically says the same communiqué.
3) Fifty years into the conciliar “Spring”, this building project in Libreville is a lesson in inculturation. The welcome the population has given it is reminiscent of the popular success among African Catholics of the grandiose Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, which President Félix Houphouët-Boigny commissioned in the style of St. Peter’s in Rome. This option for beauty, for a certain splendor even, allied to a traditional style successfully serves the evangelization of the poorest of the poor, for the neighborhood where Our Lady of Lourdes parish is located is not the wealthiest in Libreville, far from it. In any case, the Latin and Gregorian liturgy celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes is totally and unanimously accepted—which ought to provide food for thought to those whose pastoral software remains stuck in the 1970s.
4) Lastly, at a particularly difficult time of our history, the completion of this church’s façade in Libreville is also a tangible sign of peace. For a Muslim African president openly to finance a Catholic church at the very moment when thousands of Christians are being massacred in the name of Islam is highly significant! Furthermore, it is a lesson for us Americans and our excessively narrow “separation of Church and State.” Especially when the president specifies that his gesture is meant to be “not only an act of gratitude towards a young community that has been at work in our country for twenty five years, but also more broadly an appreciation for all of the Catholic Church’s action in Gabon” (presidential dispatch, 20 January). The traditional Catholic liturgy as an opportunity for multicultural, interethnic, and interreligious dialog? Why not!
On March 1st, President Bongo visited Our Lady of Lourdes with Archbishop Mvé Engone and Msgr. wach, Prior of ICKSP.