The priest of the 21st century… an African origin and 56 bell towers to manage


Posted today at 12:55 am, updated at 8:19 am

Jean-Claude Kambamba, in the church of Saint-Bertulphe, in Fruges (Pas-de-Calais), on April 13, 2022.

In Ambricourt, parishioners did not expect to see the priest leaving their homes for a long time. The little church of Sainte-Marguerite is closed, the red brick chancel has been sold, the bells ring only for funerals. However, it is in this municipality of Pas-de-Calais where Georges Bernanos located his famous Diary of a rural priest, published in 1936. But since then, everything has changed. Not only the landscape, where the wind turbines turn their great arms under the clouds, but the life of the rural world and that of Catholics. If you want to go to mass, you have to take your car now, because there are not enough priests to be everywhere.

The seat of the parish is now in Fruges, 2,500 inhabitants, a distant town seven kilometers away. In this large town, shaken day and night by the heavy trucks that cross it at full speed to avoid paying the highway, the abbot is called Jean-Claude Kambamba. In the town, some give ” The priest “but we can also call him Jean-Claude and his teams know him.

Naturalized French after the debut of l’année, ce natif du Congo (aujourd’hui République démocratique du Congo) is an ancient member of the Congrégation du Saint-Sacrement, who quitted for a secular vie de curé après des années passées in Italy. He is “incardinated”, that is, attached to the diocese of Arras since 2015 and not seconded by an African bishop, like many of his colleagues who have become missionaries on European soil.

Jean-Claude Kambamba, in the church of Saint-Bertulphe, in Fruges (Pas-de-Calais), on April 13, 2022.

At 56, Jean-Claude is quite young for a 21st century priestme century, but much older than the Bernanos character. Like this fictional hero, the abbot sometimes wonders about the faith of his parishioners or about the welcome they give him, but, unlike him, his health does not torment him too much, and that is fortunate: it takes a lot of resistance to accompany the spiritual life of fifty-six “bell towers”. Car, end 2021, the abbé a vu son territoire de el s’agrander d’un seul coup: aux trente-quatre communes de la paroisse de Fruges sont joutées les vingt-deux de celle d’Hucqueliers, un peu plus à l ‘west. Even with the help of Father Léon Caresmel, an elderly priest who will soon be 89 years old, the task is difficult.

From one town to another

For lack of new vocations, the priests still in activity bend under the load. In 2021, the diocese of Arras lost twenty priests, most of them very old. Some, like Father Jan Was, parish priest of a nearby parish in Fruges, have passed the age of 75, which is the age at which priests can normally stop – although these retreats are not really, since they almost always continue ” to serve “as Father Was used to say.

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