By Debra Minor Wilson
MANNINGTON — By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
MANNINGTON — Ask Father François Gonda Babulu what’s the most important thing about life and he’ll tell you.
It’s all about love.
In 1990, he had achieved a lifelong dream: to be ordained as a priest. It was his goal to share God’s love with the world.
Then, in 1998, war broke out in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo. He fled to the United States in 1999 to wait for the war to end. But it didn’t, so in 2000 he applied for and was granted political asylum.
He came to Fairmont in 2001 to serve as associate pastor at St. Peter the Fisherman Catholic Church. In 2002 he was transferred to Proctor, Marshall County, and returned to Marion County earlier this year, where he is currently pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mannington.
“It was providential that I came to West Virginia ... part of a plan,” he says.
When he first came to the States, he stayed in Chicago.
“The people I stayed with there were a West Virginia couple who helped me to get my driver’s license. That’s just to tell you how good the people in West Virginia are. I’m really glad to be here. It’s a good state. It has nice people.”
It’s obvious he’s not a native of the United States, he says with a wide grin.
“You can realize from my accent, I speak French,” the language of his homeland, he says.
“The Congo is such a beautiful place. When people talk about Africa, they say it’s a deserted place, but no. The Congo is a place with a lot of rain, a lot of forest ... a lot of potential. Everything is alive there.
“It’s an old civilization. People do not realize that man started in Africa. We are part of that history, that cradle of humanity.”
He’s wanted to be a priest since he was 15, he says.
“There was so much motivation because most of our teachers were priests. The Congo is so much Catholic. Most of the things are done by the sisters and the priests. They do so much that you are overwhelmed by the way they do things. I found a motivation to try to imitate them.
“And it was by God’s grace, not because you are the most smart or the most moral guy. It’s just a gift of God, because anybody can fail. The journey’s too long. You have more than 14 years (to prepare for the priesthood). You cannot hide for 14 years,” he says and then laughs.
“The life of the other priests — what they did for the society, the community — motivated me because you know they’re doing the right thing.
“That’s why after minor seminary (high school), I said I’m going on the same course, to the priesthood.”
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1985 from a university in Nigeria. Returning to the Congo, he graduated in 1989 with a degree in theology from the Catholic University of Kinshasa, was ordained in 1990 and also attended law school.
“The Congo was a very, very dynamic center in Africa. You have lot of people, Africans, coming for African philosophy and African theology. Even people in Europe come to make studies.”
His senior theological thesis addressed a simple but mighty subject: love.
“Love can inspire political life, economic systems, living in solidarity with others with everybody sharing the revenues. Love can shape political polices, cultural and family policies.
“It’s all about love ... even becoming a priest is to give up, to surrender your life. We do not marry and most of the time, we keep a low profile.
“Love brings you to make a sacrifice. Going into the service is the same thing. They give their lives. Even for your families, too. It’s the same goal ... giving up your life for a higher calling. You can do it in the service or marriage. It’s the same goal.
“The church will tell you that you have a choice: You can get married and you are free. But if you want to become a priest, you are not going to get married. I made the choice. There is a higher call. Only God can fill your heart.”
People are never satisfied with what they have, he noted.
“You can write a check to me for $2 billion. I will not be satisfied, you can be sure of that. I’ll want maybe $5 billion. As soon as you have it, you’ll want something more.
“But that’s part of being human. Only when we see God face to face ... God is the only answer ... everybody will be satisfied.”
He visited the U.S. first in 1995 and returned to the Congo. But after war broke out in 1998, things got less secure and the next year, he left his homeland for the U.S.
He’s not been back since. He can stay indefinitely in the United States, and even become a citizen if he wants to. But someday he’d like to go home.
“I’ll wait for the situation in the Congo to become secure so I can go back. It would be exciting to return. But this is not part of what I’m doing here.
“When the new government took over, things were not very secure for us,” he says. “We who had been educated were watched very closely. We used to preach that you have to respect human life. Most of the time, the government was not very glad with us because we played our role.
“The role of any minister is to denounce what is not going well, to cry out. This crying out sometimes, people want us to shut up. We cannot shut up; we have to cry out.”
He keeps tabs on the situation back home by watching the news on a French news channel.
“President Mobutu, with help of the U.S. and others, was the only one able to control the whole country, a wealthy country. Now the people there are not really in control of the country.”
Perhaps this year’s elections in the Congo will stabilize the country, he says.
For now, he’s happy to be in Mannington at his parish.
“It’s a great, great witness to see myself, an African, coming into West Virginia and into this town and living here. I’m well-supported by the people. They love me and I love them. For me, I’m just overwhelmed. It’s a great witness of love.
“We belong to one family. My philosophy is to live a life of love. Openness are the principles that guides myself. Hope, faith and love and openness and respect for the dignity of every single human being is the foundation of my philosophy.
“I treat everybody the same way with the same respect ... even the president. It’s tough because sometimes the president wants to be president. But you say, ‘No, we are all human beings.’
“I will respect you because God will judge me on the way I treat every single person. I’m eager always to show love and the people can also see that it can happen, to be decent, loving and caring and ... deal with everybody.
“The best thing about being a priest is you belong to the community, to everybody. Your family is the community. Nobody can claim you in a particular way. I belong to the community. I love that.
“To serve people is to give Jesus love. That’s the main principle when we see Jesus there on the cross. That’s what He’s showing, to give that love which goes to the end. That’s what I try to live like.
“I will do almost anything for the sake of the church ... and the sake of the community. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying my best. That’s what we learned from Jesus ... love to the end.
“You see, love is everything, as we say, in life ... the basis of everything that is good. Life is about love.”
If someone gave him money to become president of his homeland, would he do it?
“What would push me to do that? Love ... because I see that the people are suffering. There are much more better ways to make the life of the people much better.
“When I do all this, it is out of love because I love the people. That’s the same love I have for the church. Because I love the people, I want to serve them. I want them to know the truth.”
The truth about sin, for example.
“Sin is what’s responsible for all the evil we see. You can be sure that all the trouble we have in families, nations, is there only because of sin. If there was no sin and the people were living in love, this world would be ... what do you think?” He laughs.
He knows that some people expect a priest to always wear the clerical Roman collar.
“But that’s not my style. And some are not very happy with that. I tried to explain to them that it’s more about the way I behave that people will see.
“I want people to see me as a priest by my attitude. People right away will see you are a seminarian or a priest just by the way you behave. That’s the way I want. The look doesn’t really matter. It’s much more interior.”
In a way, his ministering in the United States is just returning a much-appreciated favor.
“We were instructed by Europeans and Americans. We have grown up and we are also coming back to give the work we have received from you.
“You should feel proud of what we are doing.”
He would like to see more young people become interested in the priesthood.
“Not only in America is there a crisis, but also in Europe. It’s more serious there than in America. We need to pray for that.
“And pray for me, because I am a human being. I have my strengths and also my limitations. I rely also on prayer.
“St. Peter said his role was to strengthen his brothers. I will try to call everybody here to live a life where love becomes effective. Love should always reign. If we live that way, we will live a happy life.
“That’s my agenda: to try to encourage people to live in love. I have the responsibility to extend my love,” which he does by visiting other churches.
“Jesus gave us the story of the good Samaritan. He had to help this guy. He didn’t ask his religion. He saw only the needs of that person.
“I see myself here to promote the unity in all us Christians. We need to become one family and live away from all the divisions, to live as Christians. The principle of love should reign among us ... make us live in peace.
“The challenge we have is to try to reach out to other churches and instill peace in the minds of everybody, hope and love.”
E-mail Debra Minor Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.