FATHER GIUSEPPE BERTON
Father Giuseppe Berton was born in Marostica, Vicenza, on the 5th February 1932, the first of ten children. At the age of 19, having completed primary and secondary schooling, he was admitted to the Missionary Xaverian Institute. He did his religious profession in 1952 and was ordained priest on the 13th March 1956. Fr Bepi explained his vocation thus:
“I come from a farming family of traditional values and beliefs. As the first born son, it seemed that my destiny was to become a good parish priest in a rural district. However, during my six years in the Seminary I was determined that I would not stay in my home diocese, which already had many priests; I was going to become a Missionary instead.”
Although it was not easy to tell his mother and father of his decision to be a Missionary, his parents later helped him in his decision to join the Xaverian rather than Jesuit order. He explained this choice thus:
“I wanted to go to a Mission station; I didn’t want any problems or delays or the need to do further studies. I wanted to avoid all unnecessary complications. We are not born saints; we struggle through life as good Christians making the Sign of the Cross each morning and ending each day by asking for forgiveness for our failings. It is enough for me to do these things every day and so try to be a good Christian; I don’t want additional difficulties.”
After being ordained priest, Fr Berton lived in the United Kingdom for 15 years. He studied for a Masters degree in Education at Glasgow University and then stayed in Scotland as the Xaverian Seminary Rector in Coatbridge before going on to be Superior of the Xaverian Missionaries for the whole district of Great Britain. His time in Scotland was interrupted in 1964 when he was sent to Sierra Leone where he stayed for two years.
Fr Bepi returned to Sierra Leone in 1973 and remained there until 2012, making a total of some 42 years as a Xaverian missionary in Sierra Leone. Between 1973 and 1991 he was based in the Diocese of Makeni, working to build up church and school communities in Magburaka, Bumbuna and all points in between. As Director of Caritas Makeni, he instigated and implemented development projects throughout the diocese.
Then, between 1991 and 1999, came the terrible years of war. In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), made up of well-equipped soldiers who had been trained in Libya and other countries, entered Sierra Leone from Liberia. The RUF enrolled Sierra Leoneans, and kidnapped children aged as young as five years to train as soldiers. The horrors of that war are uncountable. In the terrible days of 1998 many priests and nuns were taking captive; two sisters of the Missionaries of Charity (the order of Mother Teresa of Calcutta) were killed and a number of priests were injured. Fr Berton himself was held in captivity for some time before escaping with the help of a courageous Sierra Leonean.
In 1999 the government negotiated with the rebels and the war stopped. The war left behind, not only material ruin, but also thousands of child soldiers, burdened with the knowledge that they had fought, killed and tortured. In many cases their families would not accept them back and the government had no solution but to put them in jail to keep them from harm.
But Fr Berton’s work had started before this when he had endeavoured to free the younger children from the rebels. He faced the bear in it’s own den, risking his own life when negotiating with the rebel leader for the release of children under 12 years of age.
1991 saw the start of a very difficult time for Fr Bepi when he took responsibility for visiting the inmates of Pademba Road prison, where some 600 inmates were kept in a prison built for just over half this number. At Pademba Road prison, Fr Bepi met future president Johnny Paul Koroma, then being held in the top security section of the prison.
On Sunday April 25th 1997 an alliance was formed between the military and the RUF rebels and suddenly the prisons were emptied and Pademba Road’s main prisoner became President of Sierra Leone.
After this, Fr Berton started the search for, and collection of, former child soldiers, bringing them together in a house near Freetown. This first attempt was not successful; the house became known as the “rebels’ house” and became a target for other young people, still involved in the on-going fighting, who would go there to try to reintroduce the rescued children to the rebels.
In the peaceful days of the 1980s Fr Berton had started, in Bumbuna, a programme of bringing disadvantaged children into family settings where they could feel safe and thus be able to live happily and attend school and have the security of “family” ties. Now Fr Bepi thought to organise this Family Homes Movement (FHM) for the recovery, recuperation and reintegration of the child soldiers. With some specialist help, FHM set up two “welcome houses” to which the children were brought as they were rescued or found; this was the first stage of their return to normal life. Then families of FHM welcomed into their homes these children, some as young as five years old, who had been kidnapped, subjugated and drugged before being forced to torture and kill; FHM members undertook to care for these children and to raise and educate them as their own biological children.
Following the war, Fr Berton continued his care of homeless children but returned the focus of his attention to Education. The Holy Families Schools in Mayenkineh stand in testimony to his never-ending dedication to the cause of enhancing the futures of Sierra Leone’s young people.
Increasingly suffering ill-health, Fr Bepi travelled to Italy for treatment in June 2012. He was to return to his beloved Sierra Leone for only a few weeks in late 2012 before being ordered back to Italy for further health care. His death, on June 25th 2013, was, and still is, widely mourned by his countless friends in Sierra Leone, Italy and around the world.
Eulogy delivered by the Archbishop of Freetown at the Mass for Fr Berton in Calaba Town on July 4th 2013.
My Dear Reverend Fathers; Reverend Sisters; and Reverend Brothers; Members of the Xaverian Missionary Family in Sierra Leone; Members of the Family Homes Movement; Friends of Late Fr Berton; Beloved Christian Faithful; Brothers and Sisters in Christ!
The Word of God: “Come, you who blessed by my Father”
We are gathered here this evening to celebrate a Mass of the resurrection for our brother and friend, Reverend Fr Joseph Berton of the Xaverian Misionary Society, who, after eighty-one years of sojourn in the world, has been recalled by his Lord and Master to have his well-deserved rest in the home prepared for God’s faithful servants. In this regard, we are celebrating life; we are celebrating the gift of life which God gave to Fr Berton for service to Christ and his Church; and through the Church to humanity, especially to those on the margins of society: the poor, the needy, the imprisoned, the widows and orphans, and the sick, homeless and naked children. The latter were the persons for whom Fr Berton expended his life, energy and other resources as a priest of Christ for more six decades, most of it here in Sierra Leone. He did this joyfully and untiringly, probably always having in mind the famous saying of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed a while ago: “… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Amen, I say to you, whatever you did to one of these least brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
Fr Berton was ordained priest and appointed to Sierra Leone in 1956, the year I was born. It was therefore a great privilege for me to have known him and to have worked with him; first as a senior brother in the priesthood of Christ, and later as his bishop and chief shepherd. And I must say this tonight with all honesty: there are a few priests who have inspired in me a great love for the celibate priesthood of the Catholic tradition. He is one of them. Thanks to Fr Berton, I have come to appreciate that priestly celibacy is not merely about giving up the intimacy of marriage and family life; rather it is about making oneself totally available in service to the little brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, whoever and wherever they may be. In other words, it is about spiritual fecundity; that is, spiritual fatherhood, by which the celibate priest becomes truly a spiritual “father” to a multitude of men, women and children of every age and socio-economic condition.
In my view, that was how Fr Berton lived his priestly celibacy: he translated it creatively into spiritual fatherhood and so was able to “give birth” to far more “spiritual sons and daughters” than he would have been able to do if, as a young man, he had decided to find himself a wife and to start his own biological family. And so, from Italy to Scotland, to England, and then to Sierra Leone, Fr Berton has “fathered” so many spiritual sons and daughters than we can possibly count. In some way, all of us here tonight are his spiritual sons, daughters and grandchildren; but perhaps there are some here who are more so than others, because they direct beneficiaries of his service of charity.
As a missionary, Fr Berton was somehow a creative pastor, willing to step outside the box of well-known and acceptable pastoral practices in order to try out new things, new ways of reaching out to and shepherding God’s people. I will give you one example that impressed me so much. When Fr Berton was in Bumbuna, he came to realize that initiation of the girls into the Bondo Society was very important for his parishioners and the townspeople, as he saw so many young girls taken away each year into the Bondo bush to be initiated into womanhood and to prepare them for their future responsibilities as housewives and mothers. Many an overzealous expatriate missionary or local priest would have condemned the whole thing as primitive pagan practice and a waste of the precious time of the school-going girls who were taken away for weeks to be initiated. Not Fr Berton! Instead, as he himself told us when late Barry and I visited him in Bumbuna 1991 to see the hydro-electric dam in construction, he supported the Bondo society initiation of the young girls of parish (as I am told he supported the boys initiated into the Gbamgbani Society), while studying carefully the positive elements in the initiation rites. He eventually discovered that, with some creative thinking, those positive elements could be integrated with or connected to the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). In this way, Fr Berton became, as far as I know, the first Catholic priest in Sierra Leone – and perhaps the only one so far – to accompany the Bondo society initiates with the RCIA catechumenate programmes and rites; so the initiates benefitted simultaneously from Christian instructions and from the instructions into their traditional customs and practices. So that, as the girls graduated from the Bondo society initiation bush to return to their homes and to the wider society, they were also led through the final rites of the RCIA and fully incorporated into the Church as Family of God. To do this, he enlisted the services of the Catholic women in his parish who were Bondo society initiates and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters who were also working in the parish in Bumbuna.
What a brilliant idea! But, of course, some of his fellow priests dismissed him as a mad man, while others suspected him of syncretism – that is, a rather hasty and unprofessional combination of Christian beliefs or practices with the religious beliefs and practices of another religion. However, some, like me, admired him for his missionary creativity; but unfortunately we have not yet had the courage to attempt to try it out in our own parish situations.
The second manifestation of Fr Berton’s creative missionary thinking is the Family Homes Movement; popularly called FHM. It was his flagship project, into which he invested so much of his time, energy and resources, and called on others to help support it. Several times I asked him to tell me in a few words what is Family Homes Movement, but he could not because the concept was still in gestation, still developing. All that he could time was that FHM is more than a mere NGO; it does many things, like an NGO, but the spirit of FHM is different, he would tell me. It is a multifaceted reality, with sectors for education, health, home accompanying of children who have lost parents, for war widows, child soldiers and young ex-combatants, etc. The list goes on and on… FHM, he once told me, is intended to provide space for lay leadership in the Church. We are used to seeing institutions led by priests and religious brothers and sisters; but he insisted that FHM was for the promotion of lay leadership and he endeavoured to keep it so.
Final Exhortation: Safeguard and Promote the Legacy of Fr Berton
Well, this great man, this creative and courageous missionary priest, Fr Berton, has come to the end of his earthly journey and has been called by his Lord and Master to rest, while awaiting the resurrection of the dead.
We would have loved to have him with us a little bit longer here in Sierra Leone, notwithstanding his old age and his failing health, but his Master said it was time for him to go. We could not challenge the Master’s decision, let alone change it. He gave him to us and has taken him back to Himself. So we say with faith, “To him be glory now and forever!
But our first sentiment should not be one of resignation, but rather of gratitude. We should thank God for such a great gift that Fr Berton was to the Church as a creative missionary priest, especially here in Sierra Leone. He gave himself totally and unreservedly in service to his brothers and sisters, as his Lord and Master told him to do. We are therefore very confident that he would hear the voice of his Master telling him, “Come, you who blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me; [and a child soldier and ex-combatant and you provided me shelter and a new orientation in live]… Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).
However, with Fr Berton now physically out of the scene, we must commit ourselves to safeguarding and promoting creatively the legacy of service of love that Fr Berton has left us; especially under the banner of FHM. So we should pray for all the “lieutenants” and “foot-soldiers” of Fr Berton to be faithful to his legacy and, more importantly, to protect and promote it as they would the legacies of their own biological fathers. From what I know, some of the external supporters are willing to continue to FHM, provided proper mechanisms are put in place to ensure that their resources do not fall into the wrong hands. So the challenge is ourselves; but especially those who have the responsibility of determining the administrative policies of FHM and executing them. Lately, there have been talks about “supervision” and “ecclesiastical recognition” of FHM, whatever those concepts mean in concrete terms or practice. The bottom-line, however, is that FHM should not die with Fr Berton, its founder; rather, that it should continue to function in the spirit of its founder, albeit in a more creative manner, in response to new challenges.
Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord!
And let perpetual line shine upon him!
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace! Amen!
May God bless you all!