Interviewed by Jude Abanseka
The Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda is looking forward to the opening of a second major seminary in Mamfe this September. Ahead of the official opening, the BAPEC President revisits, among other points, the conditions that have led to the creation, expectation and vision of the new institution. Excerpts:
Your Grace, in the last BAPEC meeting the Bishops of the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province discussed creating a new Provincial Major Seminary. Why another Major Seminary?
The Bishops have been discussing the idea of getting a second Major Seminary for the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda for quite some time. When the present Provincial Major Seminary was started it was known as the Regional Major Seminary and there were only two dioceses then. It was created to take care of seminarians of those two dioceses. Nobody knew about the growth of the dioceses or that the number of seminarians will increase as it was not expected that students will be coming from other dioceses of Cameroon and even beyond. But that is just what happened in the course of time. When the seminary was started the projection was that about 100 students will be admitted considering the importance of quality formation and follow-up of candidates as priestly formation is not just about intellectual formation and lectures, but it is also about accompanying candidates. The priesthood is not just a profession but a way of life. The life and ministry of a priest is very important and so they need a close follow-up. When many are admitted, some will not be the best as it will be some kind of mass production.
But thank God the number of major seminarians has been increasing over the years. This is good because we have been praying that “the harvest is great but the labourers are few”, and the work is continuously increasing. The dioceses have increased from two to four and tomorrow it may be five or six as the number of Christians, parishes, institutions and the laity is increasing. We have been facing accommodation problems in Bambui in the last two years as the number of seminarians admitted has almost reached 200. So we started thinking what to do next. Were we therefore to refuse the number of students seeking admission, increase the structures in Bambui, or start another major seminary? Another option was to have separate campuses as it happens elsewhere with Philosophy in a different campus and Theology in another. After all these reflections we decided to start another major seminary. The word “another” is very important in the sense that it is not just the extension of Bambui, but a full seminary on its own. It will have its Spiritual Year, its Departments of Philosophy and Theology and its structures and professors. Maybe there would be an exchange of professors later on. We continue to call it a Provincial Major Seminary because it is not Mamfe beginning the major seminary. It is a joint project because we believe that together we can do more. We are going to share our human and financial resources. So it is absolutely important that we work together. One diocese could have opted to start its own major seminary as elsewhere, but we of this province thought that instead of one diocese trying to get its own major seminary, we should create another together. So the second major seminary is a joint project.
So what shall be the name of this seminary and where shall it be located precisely?
It shall be called John Paul II Major Seminary. The permanent site will be in Bachuo Ntai where the people of the area, who are very excited that we are opening a seminary in their area, have given us quite a big piece of land.
What are the advantages of a joint ownership of a major seminary?
We are working together as we have always done. We shall have certain common policies, principles and visions. In other words, the same things that are happening in Bambui will be happening there. The same ideals we want for Bambui, will continue there; but it will have its structures and professors separate from Bambui. We shall follow up students from the beginning to the end. If one seminary has two campuses, that will mean two rectors of the same seminary, and when a student finishes Philosophy he is transferred to the next campus for studies in Theology. This means there will be a change in rectors, professors, and environment, but something can happen in between. But if there is only one institution from the beginning to the end, there is a possibility of a better follow up. Seminarians will be in the same environment from the beginning to the end and the same formators will be with them from the beginning right to the end. They will know the students better and can form them better instead of transferring them from one institute to another. Mamfe will definitely change as it will be hosting a provincial institution. Though located in Mamfe, it will be the concern of all of us. We have had a good tradition in Bambui and we are going to maintain it in Mamfe.
It is possible for one diocese to open a major seminary, but this one is a joint project. Is one of the advantages not therefore financial?
It is certainly easier for a number of dioceses to open a major seminary together than for one diocese to try to do so alone, especially in our case where we know that one diocese alone cannot successfully run a major seminary, at least not yet. We have just issued a Pastoral Letter appealing to the faithful for donations so that we can modify the temporary structures we have now to suit a major seminary. We also need money to start building the permanent structures. So it is all the dioceses of our province that we are making an appeal to Bamenda, Buea, Kumbo and Mamfe. There is no doubt that we are going to send appeal letters to other dioceses out of our province. The idea is to pull all our resources together and, in that way, it is easier to work together. So from the financial point of view it is certainly an advantage.
Does it mean that some dioceses could send all the candidates of a particular class only to one of these seminaries since the system will be the same?
No. It will be possible to split the class and send half to Bambui and the other half to Mamfe depending on the number to be admitted from all the dioceses. For example, last year I had about18 seminarians that had finished the Spiritual Year and they were to go to Bambui, but not all of them could be taken in Bambui because of the limited space. So some went to Bambui and I sent the others to Maroua because the idea of a second provincial major seminary had not yet matured. Besides structures, we need professors and a number of things if we want to start a seminary. Henceforth, if I have10 seminarians, I could send five to Bambui and five to Mamfe. The other dioceses will do the same and in that way, we shall have seminarians from all the dioceses of the province in one seminary. It will also help the seminarians to know themselves better and it will maintain the unity of our province as far as priestly formation is concerned.
Though he comes from your province, the appointment of a rector comes from Rome. So who approves the founding of a major seminary?
The Congregation for the Propagation of Faith in Rome appoints the rector of a major seminary. The same applies to all major institutions in the universal Church. The approval of the founding of a major seminary also comes from Rome. When the bishops of a particular province, region and country, or a diocesan bishop and his advisers decide to open a major seminary, they write to Rome. This is what we have done. We have written to Rome and we are waiting for an accord, but while waiting we are preparing. Very often Rome does not refuse until there is a clear reason to the contrary. But usually we do not wake up one morning to start a major seminary. This is only done after the necessary conditions have been fulfilled. When we start, it will be as Rome calls it ad experimentum. In other words, this is a trial period during which Rome issues only a temporary approval. Usually Rome gives a five-year trial period and you have to prove that you can run a good major seminary. If after those five years you cannot run it, then Rome will not give its final approval.
Anything else you will like to tell the faithful?
We have already written in a Pastoral Letter explaining in greater detail what they should know. I appeal to the laity to pray for this project and to contribute towards it. We also appeal that the first collection to be made to enable us start this seminary does not affect in any way the annual Major Seminary Collection done every August 15. By the time the new seminary would have started effectively, we shall all decide whether to have one or two collections.
Our doors are open for any suggestions Christians may have to help us to realise this project. They should contribute just as they did when we started Bambui in 1973. Bambui was actually started because of the request the laity made in 1971. I remember late Prof. Bernard Fonlon wrote a wonderful article, “As I See It” in Cameroon Panorama talking about his expectations for the new major seminary. We shall also welcome ideas from the lay faithful concerning the new Major Seminary in Mamfe. They should be involved spiritually, morally and materially. They have been praying for more vocations and we now have vocations so we have to take care of the vocations God has blessed us with.