With the scars left by the Catholic Church during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi still hanging on people’s skins like a bad rash, many Rwandans treat the church with trepidation. Yet the institution has continued to move on from its sordid past.
The Catholic Church just won’t shy away from its responsibility of nurturing the flock and grooming future men of the cloak. At one such institution where seminarians are groomed, Pontian Kabeera tried several times before succeeding in securing an appointment to visit Nyakibanda Seminary in Huye District. He shares his story of the life in a seminary.
Nyakibanda Major Seminary is located about 12 kilometres from University of Rwanda’s Huye campus. Sitting on an expanse of close to 42 acres of land, the seminary houses all it needs from priests’ residences, classrooms, farms and dormitories for the seminarians.
During commemoration period like now, it’s interesting to find out how the Church under one of its core institutions would be going about its activities knowing well the role it played during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
If seminaries are what they are portrayed to be, how did Catholic priests come to be radicalised to play a leading role in the massacres?
Among the Catholic heads that turned rogues was Fr Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who was notorious during the Genocide for carrying a gun on his hip and colluding with the Hutu militia that murdered hundreds of people seeking refuge in the church he led.
Like Munyeshyaka, Fr Athanase Seromba ordered the bulldozing of his church with 2,000 Tutsi inside and had the survivors shot.
Ever since the Genocide, the Catholic Church has struggled to restore its image. Over the years, the role of the church in Genocide has stirred controversy.
In Rwanda, there are minor and major seminaries. However, Nyakibanda was the first institution for training catholic priests in in the country.
The seminary was first established at Kabyayi in 1913 and was named after St Charles Borromeo, the pioneer and great promoter of seminary formation in the history of the church.
It was later transferred to Nyakibanda in 1936 after chief Micheal Kayihura gave them a piece of land adding on what they had acquired in that same area to accommodate the growing number of seminarians and seminary projects.
The seminary is governed by the Episcopal conference of Rwanda under the guidance of the Holy See, which is represented by the congregation for the evangelisation people.
St Charles Borromeo Nyakibanda has its roots in the evangelisation of Rwanda since 1894 when the Nyanza Vacariate was created and Rwanda was allocated Bishop John Joseph Hirth to steer up the evangelisation process.
Upon his appointment, Bishop Hirth started the process of evangelisation and to fully execute his duties, there was need to train priests to help in the evangelisation process.
On February 2, 1900, Hirth sent the first group of missionaries to Rwanda who belonged to the congregation of the missionaries of Africa commonly known as the White Fathers.
In 1904, Bishop Hirth recruited 15 young men from the very first group of Rwandans who had just gotten baptized and sent them to the seminary he had just founded in Rubya, Tanzania.
However, this practice raised mixed feelings from a section of white fathers who believed it was too early to have candidates for priesthood especially among the newly baptised young men.
But Bishop Hirth seemed to have a very clear vision of what he was doing as he was quoted saying that “the evangelisation of Rwanda and the establishment of the church in this land will not be realised and sustained without native diocesan clergy.”
His efforts paid off in 1917 when Rev Fr Balthazar Gafuku and Rev Fr Donat Reberaho were ordained priests, becoming the first Rwandans to assume the laity roles, and opening the door for many more to become priests from then to this day.
Since its inception at Nyakibanda and even while still in Kabyayi, the seminary has managed to produce over 2099 catholic priests operating from Rwanda and beyond.
Currently, the seminary comprises 223 seminarians in first to fourth year of Theology, the final level from which one is ordained a priest.
Diocesan clergy taking over
From the inception, Nyakibanda Major Seminary was under the tutelage of the white father not until 1959 when the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Rwanda proclaimed that the major seminary had become increasingly autonomous.
In March 1961, the management of the Catholic Church in Rwanda was passed to the diocesan clergymen, with Mgr Mathew Ntahoruburiye becoming the first Rwandan rector of the major seminary in colonial Rwanda.
However, the beginning of the leadership of diocesan clergy coincided with the troubled period of the country’s dark history.
The years 1959-1963 and even beyond were years of political crisis in the country characterised by insecurity, untold suffering, ethnic division and discrimination.
The major seminary of Nyakibanda being the only higher institution at the time, it was not spared, politicians sought the support of the educated people in the seminary.
These political movements negatively affected the community of the seminary and ruined the spirit of the seminary. It is from these that a number of seminarians left and joined politics and other administrative offices while others went in exile.
The academic year of 1962-1963 the seminary was left completely empty after all students left the seminary while others had sought asylum in different countries.
Some seminarians were sent away while others were sent to study abroad; such was the situation in Rwanda.
All Catholics clergy were nervous that the political situation in Rwanda would be a serious detriment for the development of the church in the country.
Fortunately, in the academic year of 1963-64 the seminary started afresh with the enrollment of seminarians until when it was finally refilled.
What takes place at Nyakibanda
In mid-March at Nyakibanda, I met Father Dr Guillaume Aloys, the vice-rector of the seminary. He welcomed me with calmness.
The tall priest led me into his office and offered a cup of tea. As we chatted about the history of the Catholic Church in Rwanda and the world as a whole, I felt the love for return to the seminary formation, cool environment only hearing the melody of seminarians practicing in the music room.
Then you get a feeling of attachment to the holy community of Nyakibanda.
His office is more less the same as a library with all sorts of books.
“I have to read at least seven pages of a book every day before I go to bed,” he says, adding that when you are a teacher you can’t do away with research and the only way you can succeed in research is extensive reading.
Though the institution is meant for prospective priests, they teach both religious and secular subjects.
“We know well that sometimes due to unavoidable circumstances, people may not become priests but we also want to nurture an individual who can benefit society in so many aspects,” says Rev Fr Guillaume.
Among other things that have marked the history of Nyakibanda Major Seminary is Circle St Paul, where seminarians put together their talents to do research on Theology and other cultural developments.
From 1940, the students had a desire of making reflections, discussions and studies together for their intellectual enrichment and development adopted from the Kipapala major seminary of Tanzania.
There after, through dialogues with the rectors and other administrators, the research circle was then started in 1950. Since then, the circle has achieved a lot in research and in the study of enculturation.
The works of this circle even worked beyond the boundaries of the seminary, exposing the seminarians to renowned men such as Mgr Alex Kagame and former Bishop Aloyse Bigirumwami in Rwandan cultural development.
The first legendary musicians who put Rwandan music in writing and introduced its liturgy such as Alfred Sebakiga, Eustache Byusa, Cyprian Rugamba, Viateur Kabalira as well as Beniface Musoni are all products of this circle.
Since 1979, the seminary has been affiliated to the Pontifical Urbaniana University of Rome.
They follow the programme of bachelor’s degree in Theology of the university.
After four years, students sit exams affiliated to Pontifical Urbaniana University of Rome for the award of a degree that is recognised in the Rwanda education system.
The seminary comprises 10 teaching staff all priests and three nuns who help in administration and management of day today activities in the seminary.
Like any school setting, whoever goes to the seminary must conform to the outlined rules and regulations.
“Be where the community is with the right people and the right time” that’s a seminary philosophy. Therefore, when it is time for sports everyone regardless of your age or level you are expected at the different fields for sports,” said the vice rector.
The seminary has produced multi-skilled priests who have tremendously helped in the identification of skills in especially schools where they are appointed, for example music and other arenas, according to officials.
Rwanda has two junior seminaries which run from Primary Four to Six, after which those who wish to continue with priesthood go to minor seminaries, including Ndera Minor Seminary, Kabyayi Minor Seminary or Nyundo Minor Seminary.
The junior and minor seminaries follow the same curriculum as other schools throughout the country.
It is only at the major seminary that students follow Pontifical Urbaniana University programme for Philosophy and Theology.
Besides education, the seminaries have very many projects run with support from the head of the Catholic Church in the country as well as the government.
Rev Fr Wetase Bukenya, a former student of Nyakibanda, says the seminary is the sea of greatness in all aspects, including spiritual and other social life.
“I enjoyed my stay in Nyakibanda, with the cool environment that is conducive for almost everything you have heard of in life,” he says, adding that the staff are very friendly and handle every seminarian like their own parents.
Jean-Marie Vianney Musabeyesu, a second year seminarian at Nyakibanda Major Seminary, said it is great being at the seminary.
“It is a true Garden of God we feel happy being here and looking forward to that holly alter and start evangelising the word of God,” he said.
“We have not heard any of our former students failing to serve as per the commitments he made while deciding to become a priest. They have all performed and are still performing well and even those who didn’t make it to priesthood are doing well in other fields.”