“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Rev. Julien Cormier, M. Afr., who spent many years on mission in Burundi and then Niger as a member of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa.
Called to See Every Human Being
As a Brother and Sister
The Missionaries of Africa
The Society of the Missionaries of Africa is a Society of Apostolic Life founded in 1868 by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie when he was the Archbishop of Algiers, Algeria. It is a missionary institute of priests and brothers living in community, linked through a common oath, and working in the African world “to be witnesses of the Kingdom and to share with those willing to receive the grace of the Good News.”
At the time of their founding, Cardinal Lavigerie wanted a group of priests who could work directly with the Muslim peoples in Africa, to be present with them and do good deeds. While the diocesan priests in Algeria wore traditional black cassocks and worked with the Christian community, the Missionaries of Africa learned Arabic and clothed themselves in a white habit reminiscent of traditional Muslim clothing. It is from their white habits that the Society gained its nickname the “White Fathers”.
With other Catholic missionaries focusing their work along the coasts, the Missionaries of Africa were among the very first to go and work in central Africa. Now with a global and international membership, they minister in 25 countries throughout Africa and the African world.
Wanting to Serve
At a young age, Rev. Julien Cormier knew he wanted to serve and to become a priest, but he also knew that he did not want to be a priest teaching in a seminary or in a school. His desire was to go to foreign lands and work in the missions. It was their internationality and the chance to go to the missions that ultimately led Fr. Julien to join the Missionaries of Africa.
After his ordination, Fr. Julien was sent to Burundi in central Africa to work in the missions with confreres from several different countries. At the time, the country was just gaining its independence and was very Catholic compared to other countries in Africa. However, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza came to power as Burundi’s president and felt that the Church was too powerful in the country because of its contact with the common people. He repressed religious freedoms and the work of the Church, stopping Burundian priests from saying Mass and religious sisters from working as nurses. Fr. Julien was expelled from Burundi in 1985 along with hundreds of other missioners.
After being expelled from Burundi, Fr. Julien was sent to minister in Niger. Unlike Burundi, Niger was a completely Muslim country, but Fr. Julien says the Missionaries of Africa were welcomed because of the good works the Church had done there, including establishing schools and helping the people during times of famine or other difficulties. He would spend 20 years in Niger before being appointed first to Rome and then to the Society’s provincial leadership in Canada.
All as Brother and Sisters
During Fr. Julien’s time in Niger, leprosy was still considered as it was in the time of Jesus: a result of sin. Those affected by leprosy were not considered part of society. As part of a team led by Sr. Dolores Astorga, Fr. Julien worked not only to help stop the spread and impact of the disease with new medicines, but also to integrate lepers into society.
Over many years, Fr. Julien worked with others to establish the rights of lepers to have identification cards, to own the land they lived on, and to attend regular schools. Fr. Julien says the main focus of the work was to have those with leprosy considered as “normal human beings, brothers and sisters in humanity.” And for Fr. Julien, “the work for me is a special kind of mission that relates directly to the work of Jesus nowadays: to consider any human being as brother and sister.”
A New Way of Ministry
Believing that mission is still important in the today’s world, Fr. Julien says the “old way of doing ministry,” with a priest staying inside a church waiting for others to come to him for instruction, is no longer enough. “The call from Pope Francis is to be missioners, to go out of the church,” he stresses. Now the missionary – whether priest, religious, or layperson – is being encouraged by Pope Francis to “go out of the church, go out of your school, go out of your institution and preach to the people and then learn from the people.”
Fr. Julien hopes that this renewed missionary call from Pope Francis to go outside of church buildings will be a “big thing” going forward. The Missionaries of Africa are continuing their mission work in Africa, with more and more vocations coming from the continent itself. Out of the Society’s 1400 members, Fr. Julien says, currently 300 are Africans and there are over 400 African seminarians preparing themselves to become Missionaries of Africa. With the Holy Father’s emphasis on the need for mission, Fr. Julien looks for this trend to continue.