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 published: 2008-04-04

 

A Ghanian pilgrim to the Shrine of the MTA

Father Augustine Kizito Abizi: a Christian death and a story of faithfulness

Padre Augustine Kizito Abizi

Father Augustine Kizito Abizi

P. Augustine Kizito Abizi

Fotos: Donnelly 2008

 

Una de las ultimas fotos del Padre Augustine Kizito Abizi, escuchando a las canciones

One of the last photos of Father  Augustine Kizito Abizi, listening to the songs

Eins der letzten Fotos von P.  Augustine Kizito Abizi, beim Singen im Seminar

Fotos: Donnelly © 2008

 

 

 

ROME, Simon Donnelly. Oh, what longing! We long, Lord, to die in your arms, to die with our face towards heaven, to die a good death. In our last days, our last hours, we want to abandon ourselves to your mercy, your holy divine mercy. Without this we cannot go on. Our soul clings to you; in the shadow of your wings, your right hand holds us fast. We beg you, Queen and Mother, to intercede for us, to hold us by the hand on our last journey. You who did not abandon the cross where your Son was dying, do not leave our side in the hour of our death. I visited a dead man today - Sunday, 30 March 2008 - who lay asleep in the hope of eternal life. His earthly body was finally peaceful, after months of suffering. The external signs of the cancer that killed him have receded. But our hearts and our minds are imprinted with his voice, his affection, his fatherliness, his pastoral ear, his throaty laugh (in between the bouts of rasping and wracking coughs), and most of all his simple and holy companionship in the midst of great suffering.

This man was certainly not a Schoenstatt pilgrim, not explicitly anyway, perhaps more an anonymous Schoenstatt pilgrim. He lay for most of these months with a small picture of the Mother Thrice Admirable above his bed. When the MTA was shown to Fr Kizito (a Ghanaian father, friend of the Spiritan fathers who run our seminary), and he began to hear a little about Schoenstatt, he interrupted the speaker; he said, simply, "I know Schoenstatt". This was very surprising for a country where there is not yet any presence of the Schoenstatt Shrine or the members of any of the institutes or federations or leagues or pilgrims... And yet there has been at least this one longtime Ghanaian pilgrim to the Shrine of the Mother Thrice Admirable, our Queen and Victress.

 

Friends reunited

Fr Kizito met Schoenstatt through a young German priest he became friends with 25 years ago when visiting Germany to learn German. At that time Fr Kizito himself was a young priest studying in Rome. The German priest’s name was "Franz". I asked him more, and found that this had been a young Schoenstatt father! Within hours we had found an email address, through the Schoenstatt Press Office, and immediately had a reply from the young priest of a quarter of a century ago (now resident in Schoenstatt itself, Father Franz Widmaier). This same Schoenstatt father made an immediate plan to come to Rome a few days later. The two friends were reunited, under the Schoenstatt icon of Our Lady (still above Fr Kizito’s bed even today, after his death). She who quietly fulfilled the task given her by the Holy Spirit in Galilee continues to gather together her sons in the name of her Son.

Fr Franz says Fr Kizito is just as he was those years ago, only suddenly older and sicker (and with a shining bald head where all his healthy hair fell out after the heavy chemotherapy). He must be in his early 60s, though he looked hardly 50 when he arrived in our seminary in October. (Before he died, in these last weeks, he had aged so terribly much).

I can say that God truly has a special path for each seminarian

Fr Kizito listened daily to Radio Vatican, on the radio lent to him, and to Gregorian chant CDs from the monastery of Fontgombault in France. So he was praying with the pope and the whole Church, whom he could follow on his radio. Another young seminarian whose own mother died at the opening of this year prayed the rosary with Fr Kizito in the evenings. And so he began in our seminary, through no overt initiative of his own, a ministry. The sick priest, later the dying priest, became a father to many in our house. We went to take care of him, but it was in many was he who was taking care of us. He listened to our stories of happiness, and our setbacks and our crises. We knew he remembered what we said to him, because he would return later to specific things we had said earlier. His counsel was wise. And he prayed for us. He offered his suffering for us. He offered us encouragement: "After 30 years in formation", he said to me once, "I can say that God truly has a special path for each seminarian". To the two South Africans here, he promised to come to our priestly ordinations in Johannesburg one day (maybe to the football World Cup in 2010!). I wondered quietly if this would ever happen, and it won’t now, but he looked forward to that... For my birthday this year, through a friend, he bought me a book on the psalms, with a special birthday card that he had this same friend bring in from America. And he delivered the present and the card to my room door, in person, early on my birthday, three floors away from his own room, which took an enormous physical effort on his part. He was exhausted afterwards.

His Good Friday

He gratefully received the meals that were taken to him (even though the very bland food was often not particularly appetising). We prayed with him, and he murmured "yes", "amen". I prayed the Schoenstatt dedication prayer with him. We read the Sunday readings with him, if he couldn’t make it to Mass. He would always get fully dressed on a Sunday, so he could concelebrate, even if it took him hours to prepare. Several of our deacons took communion to him. Finally, before Palm Sunday, he was anointed in our little Mater Admirabilis chapel next to his room. "How will you make it through a whole Mass?" I asked him, because it had been weeks since he last could come downstairs to a whole Mass with our community. He gave me a tired smile, and tapped the MTA icon on his wall: "She will help me", he said. Though he could hardly walk any more, he came, and then when it was time to pray over him, he spontaneously fell to his knees, then laid himself out prostrate on the floor before the altar. It was his Good Friday, I thought to myself, as we helped him up off the ground. And perhaps it was, because on the real Good Friday he was already too weak to open his eyes or to celebrate Mass, let alone prostrate himself. The last Mass he had at his hospital bed, it seems, was on Palm Sunday, the day our King entered the earthly Jerusalem, knowing he would soon die.

"Are you afraid? Don’t be. God exists! Believe!"

Most of us went away over Easter, some very far away to the other side of the world. As the ambulance was taking him to the hospital where he would now stay and not come back from, he turned to a young Ghanaian seminarian with us, and said: "Are you afraid? Don’t be. God exists! Believe!" The dying father was still taking care of his sons who would remain behind. Those who stayed, who took care of him in Holy Week and in the Easter Octave as he lay in the somewhat alarming San Camillostate hospital, they knew that he was dying.

Those who saw him suffering in his last week in the house said he showed us how to suffer, a kind of joyful suffering. Reflections came from some of the most reticent confreres in our house, also from our Orthodox brothers in the community: across cultures, across liturgical and linguistic differences, we can recognise profoundly Christian suffering. Suffering and dying in Christ transforms everything (said the young man whose mother died in January).

They tell me that Fr Kizito cried when he finally had to admit to himself in the Easter Octave that he was indeed dying. It is a hard thing to admit that you are going to die so far away from home, surrounded by blaring hospital televisions, other patients and their families talking loudly to each other, nurses who didn’t know or perhaps didn’t care that he was a priest, a hospital superior who puffed on her cigarette nearby. But Fr Kizito still did not complain. I didn’t ever hear him complain about anything: the food, the loneliness, the people, the distance from his diocese and his own family (including his still living, aged mother, who we didn’t know about).

In this hospital bay, Fr Kizito was physically reduced to being a child again, perhaps the hardest part of surrendering his independence. Those who visited him in the last days say he was so weak he couldn’t turn over, or open his eyes. "So marred was his face, they hardly recognised him". His body had shrunk. He seemed to be fighting unseen enemies, with strange physical gestures. He grew delirious. But in the midst of this, there were moments of tremendous lucidity. He who was too weak to do anything sat right up one day in his bed, blessed my seminarian brother who was there, and lay down again.

"Ciao, padre..."

Some visited him in this terrible hospital place who one might least expect: one of the Italian cooks in our house not only visited him, but she bathed his face and his hands and his feet. She was Martha anointing her Lord with the perfume of great price. Occasionally Fr Kizito was still able to grasp hold of someone firmly, as he lay on his side in his barred bed, even in the hours where his suffering was nearly complete. Selfishly I hoped he would hold on until I could get back to Rome. But he had already said goodbye to me, in a way: on the morning as I was being driven by taxi to the airport at 4am, he phoned to say goodbye to me: I should take his greetings to my mom & dad in South Africa. I’d never been phoned by him. I think perhaps he knew even then that he was dying ("I feel I’m getting weaker", he quietly said to me some days earlier). I was going home to Africa, flying over Fr Kizito’s own country of Ghana, the place he would loved to have go himself.

On a last visit to Fr Kizito’s mortal remains yesterday, in the quiet wilderness of the hospital morgue, there suddenly was our cook too. She from a country who is afraid of having anything much to do with dying and death came to the morgue as soon as she heard Fr Kizito had died, to bid him farewell. We prayed at his side. We spoke together in the presence of our dead friend. "Ciao, padre...," she said. Addio, "to God". Until the last day.

Returning to his room now, there are the signs of the outpouring of love for him, pictures sent from friends and relatives in Africa and America, a Schoenstatt unity cross, holy water brought to him from Lourdes by another seminarian. The chair where he sat in his room here, in pain for so long, is empty. But one of the heavenly seats surely has received a new occupant.

On this Whitsuntide, this domenica in albis, we have been given a new feast: the Sunday of Divine Mercy, the feast in 2005 on which our holy father John Paul passed from earthly life to heavenly birth. On this same day, three years later, his servant, Augustine Kizito Abizi, priest of God, turned his face away from us, and put his feet on the last road, hurrying to meet Sister Death.... and from there to life. We grieve at his leaving us. We rejoice at what he has left us, and we look forward with hope to the sweetness of being reunited in the Father’s eternal house of many rooms. Mother, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Father Kizito, rest in the peace of God.

 

A comment

PS: The article was sent on April 2 to Fr. Raphael Benuyena, a Schoenstatt priest in Ghana who sealed his Covenant of Love a few years ago in Schoenstatt. Just to let him know.

His response came on April 3: " Thanks very much for the testimony on the life and passion of Fr. Abizi who I personally know. He taught in the Major Seminary before, as I am doing now, and had preached one of our retreats when I was still a young seminarian. May God reward his efforts and give him a place with himself."

 


 

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