The bishop of Bafia, Cameroon, tells us about some of his daily challenges and how he’s working to bring the Church forward, despite everything.
Upon arriving in the Diocese of Bafia, in the ecclesiastical province of Yaoundé, Cameroon, to succeed Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Bala, who was assassinated in 2017, Bishop Emmanuel Dassi, 55, did not inherit a simple territory. To meet the 250,000 Catholic faithful (50% of the population) still reeling from the tragedy, he crisscrossed the 41 parishes, on savannah and forest roads that are often impassable.
In this interview with I.MEDIA, the first African bishop to be a member of the Emmanuel Community describes the challenges facing the Church in Cameroon, which has been shaken by the “Anglophone crisis.” He describes the panorama of his diocese, especially the precarious situation of his 68 diocesan priests and the delicate pastoral situation of the catechists. In addition, he takes stock of the particularities of the Synod as experienced in Africa.
You were appointed in 2020 to succeed Bishop Jean-Marie Benoît Bala, who was found dead in the Sanaga River three days after his disappearance on May 31, 2017. What is the status of the investigation into this tragedy?
Bishop Dassi: Bishop Bala was murdered; it must be said clearly. The judicial authority, the prosecutor in Yaoundé who handled the investigations, stated in a report that everything pointed to the conclusion that he had drowned. But the Cameroonian episcopate reaffirmed clearly, before and after this report, that it was an assassination. Several bishops saw the body being pulled out of the water, and they saw the abuse it had suffered, which was confirmed by the first autopsy. We’re still waiting for the investigations to tell us who carried out this murder and how. I have no recent news on this subject.
Journalist Léger Ntiga published a book on this case in 2019 (Un crime trop parfait, “A Too-Perfect Crime”), alleging that Bishop Bala was killed for denouncing a network of homosexual pedophilia including priests. Is this a plausible hypothesis?
Bishop Dassi: So many things have been said, I have no evidence to support such a thesis. The fight against unethical behavior is the fight of the entire Church of Cameroon. He is not the first bishop to have spoken out against such a scourge.
Do you feel threatened yourself as his successor?
Bishop Dassi: I welcomed my appointment with faith and with total willingness. Certainly, I received warnings that could have unnerved me, from people close to me who were worried and told me, “Watch out, they’ll finish you off!” – as we say at home. But I did not entertain any fears when I went there. I stayed immediately at the bishop’s residence, where my predecessor was. When I arrived in 2020, I couldn’t immerse myself in these legal matters. I felt that after three years, if the investigations were continuing, I wasn’t going to be able to contribute anything revolutionary. So I accepted the Holy Father’s call to continue the mission that my predecessor carried out, the mission that he would’ve wanted to continue.
In what condition did you find the diocese?
Bishop Dassi: The faithful were deeply affected by this tragedy. Bishop Bala was bishop from 2003 to 2017, and he left an enormous mark on people’s consciences and hearts through his pastoral work, both among the young and the not-so-young. I could see the suffering, but also the faith of the people. First of all, I had it at heart to visit the whole diocese, all its institutions, all its parishes. I followed a “marathon” program. Due to bad weather, access was sometimes almost impossible; I had to go on foot, on motorcycle, in difficult conditions, in the middle of mud pits … This great tour was intended to create a climate of trust between the pastor and the people of God.
I followed a “marathon” program. Due to bad weather, access was sometimes almost impossible; I had to go on foot, on motorcycle, in difficult conditions, in the middle of mud pits
You also came to this position to initiate the diocesan phase of the bishops’ synod on synodality. You are also part of the synod coordination team at the national level. How was this implemented in Cameroon and in your diocese?
Bishop Dassi: In Bafia, we made questionnaires adapted to the parishes, then we wrote a synthesis of the results, and convened a diocesan assembly to draw our conclusions. This process made it possible to become aware of necessary changes. For example, we realized that a poor exercise of the priest’s pastoral authority in a parish can lead many lay people to not feel truly integrated. It’s necessary for the laity to take things in hand, for them to feel that they are part of the process and not the executors of the priest who manages “his business.” The laity should not live in the Church as if they were tenants or transients. The Church is a family that will remain eternally, even when their natural family has passed.
In Western dioceses, certain themes have come up repeatedly, such as the ordination of married men or of women. Have you also addressed these issues?
Bishop Dassi: These matters are not a concern for us. In terms of ministries, we have the grace of having candidates for the priesthood. We don’t have the same pressure as a diocese in Europe that has no seminarians, or only one or two, and whose average age of its priests is around 80. Bishops in that situation are experiencing some anxiety about the future. We have a very young presbyterate.
There are other problems that concern us, such as the financial autonomy of our churches. We are growing, and we have to create new parishes, but some of them do not have rectories, and some priests live in unacceptable conditions. Several schools need to be built. Our needs are immense … If I were to open this file, you would understand that I have many challenges to forming my 25 seminarians. We’re aware that we will never fully mature until we find the means to make our Church self-sustaining.
What do you expect from this synod at the level of the universal Church?
Bishop Dassi: I hope that we will be able to take a step towards the equal dignity of the members of the People of God, so that consecrated persons, priests, bishops, and laity can truly see each other as brothers and sisters, without remaining in the mindset of structures of authority. I also hope that at the end of this synod, we will have learned to listen to the Holy Spirit and not to the ideologies of the world that destabilize us… Of course, we must be aware of what our world is going through. But what we will contribute will come from what the Holy Spirit tells us, and not from adaptating to the world to avoid being “out of step.” I’m convinced that if there’s an institution that we should end up copying, it’s the Catholic Church!
You know, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul uses the image of the body to speak of the Church, saying that when one organ is honored, all are honored, and when one suffers, the whole body suffers. Is this really what we’re experiencing now? When a particular Church, when a diocese at the end of the world, suffers with its poor, suffers with its challenges in the formation of priests, do the other Churches feel solidarity with the situation? All of history shows us this beautiful solidarity embodied by the saints. This must not be allowed to fade in our world today.
… what we will contribute will come from what the Holy Spirit tells us, and not from adaptating to the world to avoid being “out of step.” I’m convinced that if there’s an institution that we should end up copying, it’s the Catholic Church!
Cameroon is also suffering from the Anglophone separatist crisis. A few days ago, on September 18, in the diocese of Mamfé, in the ecclesiastical province of Bamenda, a church was burned and eight hostages, including five priests, were kidnapped for ransom. How do you react to this?
Bishop Dassi: We are all outraged and hurt. But I’m geographically too far from the place (West Cameroon, editor’s note) to give you a reaction on a par with that of the bishops who are there. I prefer to refer you to the words of Bishop Andrew Nkea, the president of the bishops’ conference of that ecclesiastical province.
More generally, does this crisis have repercussions within the episcopal conference?
Bishop Dassi: At the level of the bishops, no. It’s clear to us that we’re all in Cameroon. But the bishops who are in the Anglophone zone are suffering enormously. When they try to dialogue with the separatists, the government calls them supporters of separation. If they dialogue with the government to point out that war cannot be a solution, then they’re called supporters of the government by the separatists.
It may sometimes seem that the Church is doing nothing. But the bishops have spoken out repeatedly, calling for an end to this terrible violence and a commitment to inclusive dialogue. On the other hand, in situations of conflict, anything that leads to a resolution – such as ongoing dialogues with those who hold the strings – is done without publicity. We also continue the dynamic of prayer. Last April, we made a national pilgrimage to our national shrine, where all the bishops from all the dioceses came. There were State authorities as well. And we were there for the same cause: to pray for peace in Cameroon.
You were recently in Rome for a congress on catechesis. Is this an important theme in your diocese? Have you instituted catechists according to the rite promulgated by Pope Francis in 2021?
Bishop Dassi: The great challenge of our diocese is that many catechists live in irregular situations and don’t practice the sacraments. Many are influenced by a certain widespread libertinism, and settle down in concubinage – which we call “come and stay” – without concern about marriage; others are dissuaded from marriage by the local culture, especially the expense of the dowry. Hence my suffering, but also the passion of my struggle: If catechists aren’t the primary witnesses in their community, it’s off to a bad start!
We cannot truly transmit the Christian life by remaining “peacefully” in a situation contrary to the Gospel, because our testimony counts more than the speeches that we might make. It’s no longer optional for a catechist to live the sacraments. Otherwise, we will remain a fragile and superficial Church. So I have begun a journey along these lines. We’ll institute catechists in a second phase. But I cannot finish without saluting the life witness of the great majority of catechists, both in my diocese and in the dioceses of Africa and elsewhere. The ministerial institution will only confirm what they already live as a true “priesthood”!