In reversal of history, African priests preach in Portugal

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2001

FRAGOSELA, Portugal (AP) -- The Rev. Joao Bento is the Roman Catholic leader of a small, conservative community of farmers and factory workers -- a place where priests are so scarce that several parishes had to share one until he arrived.

Yet Bento's presence in this village of 2,500 people was greeted with mixed emotions.

The reasons? He's the only black person in Fragosela and he comes from Angola -- a former Portuguese colony where white missionaries landed five centuries ago.

Then, Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits led the drive to spread Christian beliefs, joining the voyages that set out to map distant lands and control lucrative trade routes. Today, Bento and his colleagues are completing the circle of history by returning to the land of those European priests.

''Like a son who comes back to teach his father,'' Bento says of his move to this village from his home in southwest Africa four years ago.

Bento is one of four Angolan priests who have come to Portugal to minister in rural parishes around Viseu, a city roughly 185 miles north of Lisbon.

They are working here under a cooperation agreement between the Bishop of Viseu and his counterpart in Benguela, a city along the western coast of Angola. Portugal ruled Angola for about 500 years, until the colony gained its independence in 1975.

''The diocese of Benguela always had a missionary plan to prove that it's not just the old Christendoms that can provide missionaries,'' Bishop Oscar Braga of Benguela said during a recent trip to Portugal.

The Angolans are helping make up for an increasing shortage of priests in Portugal. As in other European Union countries, the number of Portuguese priests has dwindled by nearly one-fifth to 4,250 over the past 20 years. In Germany and Austria, clergy from the former Soviet bloc are taking up posts to compensate for the shortfall.

When priests from the Iberian peninsula reached Africa, Asia and Latin America, their mission was to implant Christianity, in some cases suppressing local beliefs by force.

The situation is obviously -- and enormously -- different now. ''I'm not here to pass on my culture,'' Bento says. ''I'm here to pass on my faith.''

Tall, with chiseled cheekbones, the 35-year-old Bento speaks with a stammer that suddenly disappears when he's celebrating Mass. He intersperses his conversation with a comical ''Mamma mia!'' which he picked up from a Brazilian soap opera -- a mainstay of Portuguese and Angolan television.

Despite his cheerful nature and good intentions, some resent Bento's presence.

Maria das Dores Leandro, who works at the Lopes cafe in Fragosela, acknowledges that the arrival of black priests ruffled local feathers.

''They're not really welcome here. You know, we're a little racist. We wanted a white priest,'' she explains with a sheepish smile.

A local bride is said to have switched her wedding ceremony to the city of Viseu because she didn't want to be married by a black priest.

The Rev. Andre Sahoi, a 29-year-old priest who also came from Benguela and is posted nearby, figures the initial alarm was a natural reaction.

''Sometimes children even ran away from us,'' he says, a broad mustachioed grin lighting up his thin face.

Yet Bento, nearing the end of his stay in Portugal, believes the passage of time has helped people see beyond the color of his skin. Some parishioners questioned on the cobblestone streets of Fragosela say they'll sign a petition to keep Bento from returning to Angola.

They seem unlikely to succeed. The Bishop of Benguela has instructed Bento to return to Angola in the next month or so, now that he has finished a degree in humanities at the Catholic University in Viseu. Two new Angolan priests are expected to replace him next year.

''You're not leaving so soon, are you really?'' Maria de Lurdes Almeida asked Bento anxiously over the counter at the Estadia cafe, which she owns.

In Sahoi's smaller parish, a village of 200 people called Travanca de Tavares, there's an ancient church of granite stone in a walled field with a broad view of pine forests and bright green vineyards.

Maria dos Prazeres Cabral, who keeps the keys to the church, said she doesn't care if the parish priest is Angolan or Portuguese, so long as he's there.

''Before, we had to borrow a priest,'' she said. ''Now we have our own.''

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