A White Father in Africa

Jos Van Boxel, Belgian, who lived for 23 years in Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda with the White Fathers, tells of his first encounter with the Focolare and the choice to become a missionary.

Preghiera.jpg1I was about to finish high school. I have been fascinated by Africa ever since I was a child, and especially when I would listen to the tales of my uncle, a missionary in Congo. I didn’t like the bourgeoisie lifestyle of Belgian society, and the poverty and social injustices diffused in the world.  I was interested in the philosophy of Julius Nyerere (whose beatification process is now underway), the first President of Tanzania. His concept of Ujamaa (in Swahili meaning ‘being a family’) was at the base of the socioeconomic development policies which in Tanzania had brought about the construction of a pacific coexistence between tribes and ethnic groups, after Great Britain had granted independence. His thoughts were based on African traditions and examples of the first Christian communities described in the Acts of the Apostles.

I applied to enter the White Fathers congregation, not so much due to a vocational choice, but because they worked in Tanzania. We agreed to do a year of acquaintance. Once I got to their mother house at the Lovanio University (Belgium), without their knowing it I had started to take part in an extremely leftist Maoist group. We would organize initiatives in favour of the third-world countries and for the independence of Angola and Mozambique.

During a demonstration, the police found my name on one of the fliers and came to interrogate me. I thought that it would be better to change my path completely. Furthermore I was disappointed in my friends, since only I was paying the price of our actions. Instead, the spiritual director invited me to stay and meet a group of students that held monthly meetings in the convent. I had seen them fleetingly, and they seemed to have their minds in the clouds; they spoke of Jesus and the Gospel. But I accepted the invitation. The first time I participated in one of their meetings, I listened in silence. They recounted of how they tried to put the Gospel into practice. In the end they asked me what I thought. «The Gospel has existed for two thousand years, and the world is still full of injustice, exploitation and oppression.» One of them answered: «If you want to change the world, start from yourself.» I didn’t know how to reply. I asked, «From where?» He put the “Word of Life” of that month in my hand: «Do not judge and you will not be judged.»

The next day, as much as I tried, I found myself always judging the others. This was not my piece of bread. I went back to meet them, to say that it was impossible not to judge.  They exhorted me not to get discouraged and to try again after every failure. I returned home, and prayed to Jesus in the Eucharist: «If You want me to live in this way, help me, since I can’t do anything alone.»

When the school year passed,
I was sure that the Fathers would ask me to leave. Instead they told me that they had noticed a change in me, and if I wanted, I could start in the novitiate. Through frequent contact with those youths, the gen who lived the communion of good among themselves, and with the help of the Focolare director in Belgium, I found my path and became a missionary. Living for the others gave immense joy and this was how I discovered the great ideal of unity of Chiara Lubich and the Movement.

Before leaving for Africa in 1982 I was ordained a priest.  The biggest challenge was that of seeking deep dialogue with the local people and practising the art of “making yourself one.” I studied their language and the local culture, to make the people’s customs my very own. I experienced that in the light of the Gospel, all that is beautiful, good and true is raised to a higher level, and the rest slowly disappears.




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