Sunday morning, 11 January 1987. The Feast of the
Baptism of Jesus the Lord. I wake up with energy and excitement. Today we have
infant baptisms in our parish of Iramba — first the baptism of Candida during
the Sunday Eucharist in Mehingo outstation, then at 4 p.m. the baptism of three
babies in Nyagasense Chini Small Christian Community (SCC) very near the main
church in Iramba Parish Center.
By 8 a.m. I have gathered my Mass kit and other supplies
and set off for Mehingo. Ploughing through the thick black cotton soil my white
4-wheel drive pick-up is smeared with mud. I feel happy that these four
Tanzanian infants are being baptized today — following in the footsteps of
Jesus Christ himself.
I have a warm friendship with Candida’s parents. Damian
Marera is the head catechist of Mehingo outstation and a zealous Christian.
Elizabeth is a member of the Mehingo outstation council. Both are active in
their Mekomariro SCC. I often visit their home for friendly conversation and a
pleasant meal. We are all really looking forward to Candida’s baptism since
their previous daughter Josephina (named after me) died when she was only one
Shortly before reaching Mehingo village one of our adult
catechumens, Manyera, meets me on the village track ("road" would be too good a
name). When I begin to speak enthusiastically about the baptism to take place
during today’s Sunday Eucharist Manyera says quietly, "Father, I’m sorry to have
to tell you, but Candida died last Thursday. She took sick suddenly and we
didn’t have any special medicine."
I sit stunned. A day of new life has become a day of death
for me. Manyera explains that Damian and Elizabeth took Candida to the nearby
health center but it was too late. No one knows what caused her death. I grieve
for my good friend Damian. When I arrive at Mehingo school to celebrate the
Eucharist, I am still in a state of shock. With tears in my eyes I tell the
Christians that what would have been a joyful baptismal celebration would now be
a special Eucharist to pray for the dead four-and-a-half-month-old Candida.
In my homily I say, "God gives and God takes away." I
quote one of my favorite lines from the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel: "Life
is not a series of problems but a network of mysteries." So little Candida’s
death — as the death of over a million African children under one year every
year — is a mystery. We can’t explain the why of God’s plan. Rather than
receive the new life of baptism here on earth Candida now enjoys everlasting
life in our home in heaven. Since Damian is a popular leader and a hardworking
member of the local community everyone grieves with him.
After the Eucharist I keep thinking of little Candida
especially as I pack the holy oils, candle and white cloth I would have used for
her baptism. Then the young assistant catechist Alex says, "Father Joseph I have
some happy news for you. I have a new baby brother. My mother gave birth a week
ago today." I am overjoyed. First death. Now new life. God gives. God takes
away. God gives again. I rush down the aisle to shake hands with the proud
After leaving Mehingo school I visit the new born baby
named Haruni (called after his deceased grandfather in the local custom). I pick
up Haruni with great joy. His mother beams. As many newborn African babies he
has light skin (which will darken in a few months). Haruni’s older brother,
three year old Fabian is very clever and speaks Kiswahili well. He turns to me
and says, "This little baby is a foreigner (that is a white person) just like
Everyone laughs at his cute remark. Little Haruni brings
joy and happiness to all — easing the pain of Candida’s sudden death.
Before leaving Mehingo I visit Elizabeth, Candida’s mother to give her "pole"
(the Swahili word for "sympathy"). We silently grieve over the many African
children who die so young. A tear falls when I remember that Candida lies next
to Josephina in the family plot (traditionally in the cow pen near the family
Arriving in Iramba it is almost time for the baptisms in
Nyagasense Chini SCC. We gather outside the home of Ibrahimu Mahende, the father
of Joseph one of the three baby boys to be baptized. We try to incorporate
African traditions into the baptismal service. The parents explain to everyone
why they have chosen the names Joseph, James and Paul. I explain how the church
sanctifies everyday life by choosing ordinary symbols of water, oil, a white
garment and a candle to sacramentalize our new life in baptism — our entry into
the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. I stress the importance of the
prayer we say during the clothing with the white garment: "Joseph, James and
Paul you have become a new creation and have clothed yourselves in Christ." To
explain how the new Christian wears Christ from the inside, from the heart, I
quote the African writer who said: "To the African, religion is like the skin
you carry along with you whenever you are, not like the cloth that you wear now
and discard the next moment."
Joy fills the whole ceremony. We sing local Wangoreme
songs about happiness, hope and new life. The SCC members and extended family
members clap and shout with joy. During the lively song "Leo Furaha" ("Today
Joy") the women dance and wave leafy branches in front of the newly baptized
I explain how these three children are now part of our
local Christian community. Different lay leaders stand and welcome Joseph, James
and Paul into the extended family (Africa’s domestic church), our Small
Christian Communities in Iramba and our outstation/parish. Everybody rejoices
that these three new Christians are now part of our Christian community in a new
and deeper way. Again we sing "Today Joy."
The joy of the baptismal ceremony lightens my spirits.
Here is new life. A family member takes my picture holding little Joseph — we
are namesakes. The whole day has been a journey into the mystery of life and
death and new life. From Candida’s sudden death to Haruni’s joyful birth to the
happiness of the baptisms of Joseph, James and Paul. God gives. God takes away.
God gives again. And again!