A Long Safari to Priesthood

Maryknoll missioner celebrates harvest of seeds first planted in parish vocation club in Tanzania

by David A. Smith
originally printed in Maryknoll Magazine (October 2005)

A few months after becoming the pastor of Tanzania's Ndoleleji parish in 1988, I baptized 40 adults during a joyful Easter Vigil liturgy. Shortly thereafter, two of the new Christians, Andrew Mabula and Zacharia Kashinje, confided that they felt called to the priesthood. Unfortunately, Zacharia had never attended primary school, so his chances of being accepted into a seminary were slim. I told him honestly, "If God wants you to be a priest, he's going to have to open a lot of doors!"

Having been ordained only two and a half years when I became the pastor of Ndoleleji, an expansive rural parish that included 30 villages, I could relate closely with Zacharia's desire to devote his life in service to Our Lord. Many African youth feel called to religious life, so I started a vocation club in the parish to help guide and encourage them.

The monthly meetings were enthusiastically attended by 50 to 60 young men and women in their late teens or early 20s. In addition to the normal discernment that happens in such clubs, we focused on preparing for seminary admission exams and reviewing how to write application letters to religious orders. In a few short years, 20 of the men and three of the women were accepted to junior seminaries or houses of formation.

As is natural, their discernment continued and quite a few of the 23 later opted for different paths for their lives. But for those who continued, God did open some doors.

In the late 1990s, Magdalena Paulo made her final profession in the Poor Clare Sisters, Robert Yamringa became a religious Brother, and Dustan Sitta became a diocesan priest. Over the past two years, Andrew Mabula and Charles Mashimbe became priests of the Diocese of Shinyanga and another young man, Athanas Edward, became an Augustinian priest.

As Father Mashimbe said recently, "From the village to ordination was a very long safari, but God was helping us all along the way. The first part of God's plan was to send Father David to Tanzania, because without his help and encouragement, none of us would have succeeded."

Of course, the difficulty of the path is also part of God's plan and contains valuable lessons. Father Mabula reflected on this when he recalled: "Whenever I was home on vacation from the seminary, I would volunteer at the parish. Father David always gave the seminarians manual labor to do in the parish fields. I learned then that a priest's life is hard work. Now as a priest without a motorcycle or car, I'm ready to walk or ride a bicycle out to distant villages to celebrate Mass."

As for Zacharia, he was accepted for the seminary by the Augustinians based on a strong letter of support from his pastor. He dedicated himself to succeeding in his studies and did well. Whenever I visited, his superiors expressed their praises. Zacharia was sent to the Philippines for a novitiate year. His exceptional talents at relating to people of all walks of life served him well. He returned to Tanzania to complete his theology studies.

In June, Zacharia was ordained a priest by Cardinal Polycarp Pengo of Dar es Salaam.

After the ceremony, he confided to me, "My dream that started when you baptized me has now come true. It really is a miracle!"