A Bishop for Child Soldiers and Refugees (Part 1)

Interview With Bishop Giuseppe Franzelli of Lira, Uganda

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LIRA, Uganda, JULY 26, 2010 (Zenit.org).- When Comboni Missionary Giuseppe Franzelli, a native of Roccafranca, Italy, was told that Pope John Paul II wanted him to be a bishop in Uganda, his immediate response was, "No. Get somebody else."



If being a bishop is always a cross, he reflected, the situation in Lira, Uganda, would be even more difficult as the nation strained through a conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army and the unimaginable atrocities wreaked on the people, even the children.

But Bishop Franzelli's appointment came as John Paul II was dying. It was published in L'Osservatore Romano on April 1, 2005 -- he sees it as a sort of April Fool's Day joke from the Pope. The next day in the evening, the Holy Father would die.

Looking at the dying Pope, "carrying the cross for the whole universal Church," the missionary reflected, "how could I say no?"

"The reality proved that it was not just a cross but it continues to be a cross," the 68-year-old bishop explains in this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on Tuesday.

Q: Was it always a desire of yours to be a missionary?

Bishop Franzelli: Well, I was prompted to that by a young missionary who was going around the parishes and showing us slides and this kind of thing.

Q: And it awoke this sense of adventure in your mind. Did you have a sense of calling at that age?

Bishop Franzelli: As far as a child does yes, and it developed -- of course with doubts as I went along -- but then it was quite strong. That is why I’m here.

Q: Did you have any ideas and pre-conceptions about Africa?

Bishop Franzelli: Only the usual, if you want, the romantic ideas at that time: lions for me as a child, and then the Africans, the slavery thing that I’ve read about and all the rest, and definitely poverty and people in need of knowing the Gospel.

Q: You were made a bishop by Pope John Paul II and in fact, your appointment was made before the day he died. What is the significance of this appointment?

Bishop Franzelli: It was a great surprise and a big shock to me and, to be honest, I didn’t want it, absolutely not, and I tried even to resist it. I was appointed by him and it was published in L’Osservatore Romano. It was done on the first of April, that’s April Fool's Day, which is why I consider that as a kind of a joke that the Pope did to me and 17 others who were made bishop. The nomination was published in the afternoon on April 1, 2005, in L’Osservatore Romano, which was dated on the following day, April 2, which is the day -- that evening -- in which the Pope died.

When I was called to Sacra Congregatio Propaganda Fide (the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) for discussing things, it was Cardinal [Crescenzio] Sepe who broke the news to me. I said, “No, get somebody else” and so on, eventually the Pope came into it in the sense that, first of all, the cardinal told me that he [the Pope] has agreed and wants this. I was looking at the Pope: “He is very sick. He is carrying the cross for the whole universal Church, so you better accept and help carry the cross for the Church. How could I say no? Well, if that is the case, and a witness to the Pope and utter love then I will accept.” So that is what it meant to me.

Q: It was a heavy cross for you to accept this appointment. What were the changes and how is it a cross for you?

Bishop Franzelli: Being a bishop is a cross; well, being associated closely with the work of Jesus entails and must entail carrying a cross with him. The little I knew about the situation down there was that it was a particular situation, an emergency situation. As a matter of fact, I’m the third bishop of that diocese and the first white bishop of the diocese. There were problems that required someone from the outside to come in and help with the situation.

I’d never been to Lira myself. I’d only passed through in my first 17 years in Uganda because I went there in 1971 up to 1987, but I worked mostly in the Gulu Archdiocese. I knew nobody [and] in Lira nobody knew me. So it was a big challenge. The reality proved that it was not just a cross but it continues to be a cross, but of course that is part of the job; part of the package.

Q: You arrived, as you say, in an emergency situation that was in 2005, the height of the civil war with the LRA, the Lord's Resistance Army. Now there is a tentative peace agreement in place but at that time the LRA was, if you will, the devil in action. It was a cruel and bitter war. Can you tell us a bit of a background about this civil war and the emergence of the LRA?

Bishop Franzelli: It didn’t start out of nothing. When I was there during my first years in Africa, there was already, when the present President Museveni, took over the power from General Okello, there was already this movement by the prophetess Alice Lakwena, who purported to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to resist and fight the government.

I experienced that because the mission where I was located became a battlefield literally; people were fighting each other and people being killed in front of me. So that was the beginning. When Alice Lakwena was defeated and said to have fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony took over the leadership with the idea to start a new society in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments, but they forgot and ignored very quickly the fifth commandment – Thou shalt not kill -- among others. This was a kind of fundamentalist belief mixed with traditional beliefs and anointing people with this kind of oil and making people believe that this will protect them from the bullets.

Q: Exactly … they were smeared with some kind of oil, with the saying that bullets would bounce off them.

Bishop Franzelli: Yes, but then it became obvious to them that fighting a well-organized army became very difficult so they turned against their own people. They would come to the villages and coerced the villagers to join them. The villagers, of course, would not join and even their own family -- brothers, and sons, refused and this ignited the reign of terror. Anyone, even close family members who refused to join the rebels were maimed, body parts amputated; atrocities unimaginable even among the traditional African values.

There was a reign of terror forcing the villagers to depart from the villages and there was this phenomenon of “child soldiers”; village children being abducted and forced to fight. About 15,000 to 20,000 children abducted, more or less, because this has been happening for 20 years now. The children are abducted, taken to the bush and trained to kill. Those who tried to escape were killed and their own friends or brothers were forced to kill the escapees.

Q: Was this for you the devil in action?

Bishop Franzelli: We do believe in the Holy Spirit but he is not the only spirit that exists in the world, so the evil one is also there. He [the evil one] uses people of course, and from a human point of view this was beyond understanding, and incomprehensible, that one cannot accept it.

Q: You cannot imagine it. Did it test your faith to see this inhumanity?

Bishop Franzelli: When you see people being killed or tortured, I think that even Jesus when he was crucified said: “Father, why have you abandoned … forsaken me?” Everybody’s faith will certainly be tested when one witnesses people suffering a lot. There is a place near Lira, Barlonyo, where the rebels came -- wearing government-issue military fatigues -- and the villagers were caught by the guard. The rebels killed over 300 of the villagers -- civilians, women and children. So when you see this … you wonder why?

Q: Were you ever threatened or ever in danger?

Bishop Franzelli: I myself was never in danger because I came later on. I was, however in the first war, shot at and so on. Our mission, as I said, was the battlefield. For this latest event, I personally was not here, but I have been in touch with people who have been and are mourning their dead. And when you see so many orphans, people who have lost everything, and when you see, for instance, because of this terror, people who have left their homes and are staying in internal displaced people camps, which I call concentration camps, where 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 to even 30,000 people are confined in a small space; promiscuity is rampant and the danger of AIDS is apparent; the army that is supposed to provide the security are themselves the abusers; the refugees have nothing to do and the violence to which they are subjected ... and waiting for the NGOs to provide aid, certainly makes one think and ponder.

I remember, one day, taking somebody from Germany to one of these camps. It was only a few-minute visit and Easter was upon us, and at the end of this tour this man says: “Bishop, in a few days it is Easter, what are you going to tell the people? What Easter is this? Where is God?”

And I answered: “Yes … look, look, God is here crucified with them. Close to the camp we have built a chapel where the Eucharist is kept. So he is here with them. They sleep in the chapel and he is with them.” The resurrection is coming, but then of course this tests your own faith and I was really edified by my own people.

Q: In what sense?

Bishop Franzelli: Well, for their endurance, for their faith … I remember, as I was leaving that camp, there came a young lady with three children -- triplets -- and her husband was killed before she gave birth; nobody else was there and she told me when I tried to encourage her: “Bishop, don’t worry. God is there."

[Part 2 of this interview will be published on Tuesday.]

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps," a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org