As far as open air Masses go the 40 years jubilee celebration of Fr Ben Stopel mhm in Tubbergen, The Netherlands, this past Sunday was quite special.
To me it brought back memories of celebrating the Eucharist under an African thorn tree somewhere in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. The late Fr Terry Gogarty mhm was the celebrant at the time, with a congregation consisting of local Maasai in colourful traditional garb.
This time around the venue was strangely reminiscent of this ‘out of Africa’ scene: a gnarled centuries old oak tree, a small chapel in traditional local style, and green fields all around.
The ‘Kroezeboom’ (‘Cross Tree’ signifying ‘tree at crossroads’, where traditionally justice was meted out – a palaver tree), as this time honoured location is called locally, formed the backdrop to a colourful festive Eucharist with an estimated five hundred people in attendance.
The choir gave a beautiful rendering of well chosen Dutch hymns and, appropriately, a soulful rendering of the South African evergreen ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’.
In his homily Fr Ben Stopel mhm spoke movingly of his many years of missionary involvement in the diocese of Malakal, South Sudan. Never a middle-of-the-road missionary assignment South Sudan turned into a living hell when two years after obtaining a hard fought independence (2011) a brutal civil war broke out opposing different ethnic groups in this newly independent country. Some 300.000 people are estimated to have been killed to date.
Within weeks Malakal turned into a ghost town and the Mill Hill missionaries present there had to flee for their lives after witnessing unspeakable atrocities.
‘But the Christian faith has not been eradicated’, Fr Ben observed, ending his dramatic tale on an optimistic note. ‘Communities of Christians come together wherever the tsunami of the civil war has landed them, they celebrate their faith in makeshift chapels, or under trees like we do here. Some have returned to Malakal. The seed that was sown is bearing fruit. I’d like to think that through God’s grace I have made my own humble contribution to this’.
But this was also an occasion for the catholic community of Tubbergen to reach out and present its credentials as part of an event that has come to be called ‘Kerkproeverij’ – Church Taster. And so the celebration under the ‘Kroezeboom’ in Tubbergen had its own moment of witness to the handing on of faith. The local mayor spoke powerfully of her faith journey at the beginning of the celebration. And one of the youths of the parish of St Pancras, Tubbergen, young Laura Thöni, at the end of Mass related her experience of faith, her participation in the World Youth Day, and need for young people to belong.
Fons Eppink mhm
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