Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Called: Father Deogratias Rwegasira, AJ

Father Deogratias Rwegasira, AJFather Deogratias Rwegasira, AJ
Hometown: Bukoba, Tanzania (East Africa)
Education: Nyakatare, Ntoma and Kabagara Elementary Schools; Tarime High School; Katoke Teachers Training College and Apostles of Jesus Major Seminary
Current Assignment: Catholic Chaplain at Lancaster General Hospital

Tell me about your childhood.

I was born in 1959 in Nkimbo village, Bukoba town, Tanzania, East Africa. I am the youngest of seven children. My one brother and two sisters are since deceased.

    I was brought up in a family of devout Catholic parents. My parents belonged to the first generation of Christian converts. They were baptized when Christianity was first introduced in Bukoba in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As a family, we prayed together the morning and night prayers. We also prayed the Rosary together as a family on a daily basis.

I started school at Nyakatare Elementary School from kindergarten to fourth grade. It was one of the Catholic schools founded by the Missionaries of Africa, from Europe, commonly known as the White Fathers who evangelized the Bukoba area. Nyakatare Elementary School was very close to my home village of Nkimbo. Next to the school there was a church, where we attended Mass on Sundays. Both the school and the church meant a lot to me when I was growing up. My faith was shaped and nurtured by these two institutions. It was a great delight for me to assist at Mass as an altar boy from an early age of six.

After my fourth grade at Nyakare Elementary School, I transferred to Ntoma Elementary School, where I studied for only one year, the fifth grade. Although this new school was near my home, my parents did not prefer it because it was not a Catholic school. It was founded and was run by the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Tanzania. After my fifth grade at Ntoma, I transferred to Kabagara Elementary School, which was a Catholic school. Unfortunately, this school was a little far from home, about eight miles away. For some time, I daily walked to school and back home. It was really tiresome and exhausting. By providence, Sebastian, one of my uncles who lived near Kabagara school, offered to take me to his home. I lived with his family while I went to Kabagara until I completed the seventh grade.

After elementary school, I joined Tarime High School. This was a government boarding school. It was located in Musoma along the shores of Lake Victoria, about 400 miles north east of Bukoba. I stayed at school most of the time. We went home only twice a year, in June and in December. After my high school, I joined Katoke Teachers Training College in Bukoba area. Upon my graduation, I was employed by the Government of Tanzania as an Elementary School teacher in Kigoma, which is located on the south western side of Bukoba along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was while I was teaching in Kigoma when one of the turning moments in my life occurred. I resigned from the teaching profession and joined the Missionaries of the Apostles of Jesus.

What was life like in the community in Nkimbo?

My community of Nkimbo was a joyful and loving community. On several occasions people came together to pray and celebrate life together. Exchanging gifts was a common phenomenon. For example, it was very common for neighbors to exchange the first fruits of their labor. It was also a common practice that whoever received a basket full of produce could not send it back empty. They had to fill it with something as a reciprocation of their gratitude.

Family bond was very strong to the extent that it was difficult for an outsider to distinguish between biological parents, aunts and uncles of children of the extended family. For example, if I went to my uncle’s home or my aunt’s home, I was welcomed and treated like their own biological children, and when my cousins came to my home, they were treated the same. In fact, in my dialect (Haya) and in the Swahili language in general we don’t have a word for “aunt” or “uncle.” An aunt is a ‘mother’ (mama), and an uncle is a ‘father’ (baba). Thus, they are qualified as younger or elder to your parents. For example, my uncle who is the elder brother of my father is called baba mkubwa’ (elder father). I call the younger brother of my father as baba mdogo (younger father). The same applies to my aunts. They are referred to as mama mkubwa (elder mother) or mama mdogo (younger mother), respectively. To some people this seems to be confusing, but that is the beauty and richness of the diversity of our cultures and traditions.

In my community, every child was considered as a child of the community. For example, when I was in elementary school, it was common practice, as we walked back from school with other children, to stop at random in a certain family. We could be offered something to eat, fruits most of the time. Although they didn’t know us, they were aware that we were some people’s children. They treated us like their own children.

Disciplining children was also the responsibility of all grown-ups in the village. An African proverb that ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ made real sense in the village where I grew up. If one of the elders in the village found me misbehaving, he/she corrected me or could punish me there and then. My parents did the same for other children. We were taught to respect all people, and to be kind to the elderly. In our village, we didn’t have electricity for lighting or cooking. We used wood for cooking. It was lack of respect, for example, to pass by an elderly person who was carrying a load of something without helping him or her.

When did you first think about the priesthood?

From my early childhood, I admired and loved the priesthood. However, I did not join the seminary until later on in my life. As I mentioned earlier on, my upbringing, especially the faith and piety I inherited from my parents, was the seedbed of my vocation to priesthood. My vocation to priesthood kind of took shape and formed when I was working as a teacher in Kigoma from 1981-1985. Bishop Alphonse Daniel Nsabi of Kigoma Diocese by then had formed an Association of Catholic Teachers, and offered them some catechetical courses in order to assist in teaching Catholic religion classes in schools. Since I was very active in my faith, I joined that association and later I was elected as one of the leaders at the Diocesan level.

One day, the pastor of the church where I prayed gave me a ride to attend a Diocesan meeting of the association. Along the way, he asked me a question, which was simple and ordinary. However, the answer I gave him revealed what God wanted me to be. “Teacher, are you married?” the priest asked me. I responded saying: “No, I want to be like you.” I kept asking myself how that answer came to my lips; it was like someone said it through me. I couldn’t understand how I gave that answer and where it came from. The more I kept thinking about it, the more I became drawn to the priesthood itself. I felt a strong desire of becoming a priest and started praying about it. I went to my pastor for spiritual guidance regularly and told him about the answer I had given him saying “I want to be like you.” I explained to him that it was like a mystery to me because I did not know where that answer came from, and how it came through my lips. He said to me that maybe it was the Spirit of God who spoke through me. From then on, he guided me and gave me some books to read about priestly vocation. It was through this discerning process that I finally decided to join the Apostles of Jesus Missionaries.

What was the reaction of friends and family when you resigned teaching to become a seminarian?

There were mixed reactions. Some, like my parents, applauded my decision, while others reserved their comments, although they seemed to be opposed to my decision. My boss at work, who was a superintendent of schools, said to me, “What is wrong with you, teacher? You mean you’re not going to marry? Are you sure?” He couldn’t understand, maybe it is because he was not a Catholic. Some of my colleagues couldn’t understand, either. One of my childhood friends who was Catholic said to me, “Do you know what you’ll be missing if you become a priest?” I told him, “My friend, maybe one day you will know what I am gaining by becoming a priest.” Indeed, several years later, after I had administered the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing to one of his family members who was sick, he came to me and said, “Father, now I understand. It is good you became a priest.”

In order to join the Apostles of Jesus, I needed a recommendation letter from my home pastor and I had an opportunity to see my family as well. When I reached home and told my mother that I had resigned from teaching and I was joining the seminary to become a priest, I saw a wonderful smile on her face, and tears of joy started flowing from her eyes. She was overjoyed, yet unable to say a word. The following day, still overjoyed, she said, “My son, I have been praying for many years, even since before you were born, that God may select one of my sons to become a priest.” By then my three brothers were already married and I was 27 years old.

Her perseverance in prayer always reminds me of the two acronyms on prayer: “PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens” and “ASAP: Always Say A Prayer.” After fulfilling the required formation process for religious, missionary and priestly training, I was ordained a priest on June 30, 1996, at my home parish of Maruku in Bukoba. My mother was very happy to witness my priestly ordination but my father was already deceased; he died when I was still a seminarian.

Where have you served as a priest?

After my ordination in 1996, I was assigned at the Apostles of Jesus, Kiserian Junior Seminary in Ngong Diocese in Kenya. I served as Spiritual Director to seminarians until the year 2000, when I was transferred and assigned to the United States. As a Spiritual Director, I had an opportunity of animating the Liturgy at the Seminary. Being a trained musician and composer, I introduced music lessons to seminarians. I also compiled the hymns I had written earlier and I was happy to see my gift as a composer bearing fruits in the early stages of my priesthood.

While in the USA, I first served as a parochial vicar of St. George, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Stephen churches in Shenandoah, Pa., in the Diocese of Allentown, from 2000 to 2004. Then I was transferred and became parochial vicar of St. Bernard, St. Joseph and St. Michael churches in Easton, Pa., from 2004 to 2008. In July 2008, the three churches of St. Bernard, St, Michael and St. Joseph were merged to form a new parish of Our Lady of Mercy and I became the first pastor of that new parish from July 2008 to June 2014, when I moved to the Diocese of Harrisburg and became Catholic chaplain at Lancaster General Hospital until this time.

Talk about your ministry as hospital chaplain, especially during the pandemic.

I began my ministry as Catholic chaplain at Lancaster General Hospital in June 2014. I attended one unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) as a requirement, preparing me to work as chaplain at a professional level. My work at the hospital is to visit Roman Catholic patients and offer them the sacraments, being available to family members who may need a priest for their spiritual support and offer prayers for their sick loved ones. I work in collaboration with hospital staff. I am also available to Catholic staff members of the hospital who may request to receive the sacraments especially confession.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we used to have Mass on daily basis at noon, Monday through Friday in the hospital chapel. I was always impressed to see chaplains, doctors, nurses and other employees of the hospital who came for Mass during their lunch break.

COVID-19 presented a challenge to everyone working at the hospital, including myself. Watching the news daily and noticing how the numbers of people dying kept rising nationwide and worldwide brought a lot of fear and anxiety to approach COVID-19 patients. I prayed very much to overcome that fear and submitted my life into the hands of God, who has sustained me until today. I have been taking every precaution and using every required protective equipment during my visits to COVID-19 patients.

You mentioned that you are a composer. Talk about that gift.

The seminary of the Apostles of Jesus where I studied Philosophy and Theology is located next to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). When I started my Theological studies, I was very lucky to be taught music by Professor Charles Nyamiti. He was a Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Tabora in Tanzania, a renowned African theologian of our time. Professor Nyamiti was not only a gifted musician but also an accomplished musicologist. He studied music in Vienna, Austria. Through the courses I took with Professor Nyamiti, I improved my skills of music composition.

It was a very challenging task to major in Theology and music composition at the same time, but now I can see and appreciate a great treasure Professor Nyamiti gave me. He taught me how to come up with something unique of my own creation in every composition I made. I have so far written more than 50 liturgical hymns, which are being used in various parts of the world. I have also written and produced two albums: “The Divine Mercy Chaplet in Song,” for which I obtained a copyright certificate from the Library of Congress in 2008. I composed the “Lord We Adore You,” album of hymns for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, praise and worship, which I produced in 2010.

Talk about your ministry with the Diocese’s Black Catholic Apostolate.

In August of 2020, Bishop Ronald W. Gainer appointed me as spiritual moderator of the Black Catholic Ministry in the Diocese of Harrisburg. I am very grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to serve in that capacity.

The purpose of the apostolate is to bring all black Catholics in the Diocese to various Masses and events. There are also national conferences to attend and learn various ways of making the apostolate more fruitful. This is a bigger position than I expected, but we are doing our best. Thanks to Jaclyn Curran at the Diocese in the Office for Multicultural Ministries and Angela Mbassi, who is the Coordinator of the Apostolate.

February is Black History Month, when we remind ourselves of the values and contributions made by black people in making this country as it is today. On Sunday February 7 we celebrated a Diocesan Black History Month Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Harrisburg. Thanks to all who participated and to Deacon Timothy E. Tilghman from Washington, D.C., who delivered a wonderful homily on that day.

What is your hope for the Black Catholic Apostolate?

My hope is that the message of our Lord Jesus Christ continues to touch our hearts and transform our minds, reminding us that we belong to one family of faith and the Lord is calling us daily to follow him faithfully.

The Black Apostolate is meant to bring the awareness of our coming together in unity through diversity for the good of all. We are one family and each member of the family has a unique contribution to make. It is also an opportunity to learn the culture and history of black heroes and saints in order to be inspired and imitate them.

What do you enjoy most about being a priest?

As a priest, celebrating the Holy Mass is a very special moment for me, especially during consecration. Through transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I enjoy being with people of God and praying with them. I am always grateful to God who gives me the opportunity of telling a penitent during the sacrament of reconciliation: “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.”

As a hobby, I enjoy writing and singing beautiful hymns. I also enjoy listening to ancient hymns and classical music.

(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

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