2017 DSC 0081 Strasbourg smaThe SMA International media team was privileged to Interview Fr. Jean -Marie Guillaume, the former Superior General of the Society of African Missions. He was Provincial of the Province of Strasburg for two consecutive terms of office (1995 – 2007) and then found himself once again in Rome as Vicar General of the Society during the General Assembly of 2007. Three years later, he replaced the Superior General, Kieran O’Reilly, who had been appointed Bishop of Killaloe in Ireland. He is now a resident at the provincial house in Strasbourg and here are some of his thoughts.

2017 33S Jubilaires DSC 0034 smaWho is Jean-Marie Guillaume ?

I was born on the 26th of July 1939, into a family of eight children in the Haut Doubs Horloger, a village with the cute name of Bonnétage, situated in the hills of Jura at an altitude of 880 metres.

Our family had a small farm and devoted itself to breeding a dairy herd. My mother passed away when I was only one month old; and my father was the Mayor of the village from 1936 until 1972.

My parents were deeply steeped in their faith. They never missed Mass on Sundays and even Vespers, sung in Latin. I went to the local primary school at the age of four. The school was in the neighborhood of the “high village”, at the top of the hill, close to the church. Before going to school, my siblings and I would go to daily Mass every morning, in winter in a very cold church, the priest celebrating Mass at an altar set against a wall, with his back to the faithful, all in Latin. During this time, the children would recite the morning prayers, out loud.

Then I went to the small Diocesan Seminary of Our Lady of Consolation and later to the Philosophy Seminary at Faverney in the Haute Saône. On leaving this establishment, I joined the SMA, following in the steps of colleagues from the region where I lived.

I wished to be a missionary in Africa. I did my noviciate in Chanly and made my first solemn commitment to the SMA on the 10th of July 1960, now sixty years ago. After one year of Theology at the major seminary of the African Mission at Saint Pierre, I was called up for twenty months of service in the military. Then I continued my Theology studies for three years in October 1963.

I took my permanent Oath on the 29th of June 1965, on the eve of my sub-diaconate. Then I finished my studies at the major seminary of Saint Pierre in June 1966. And I was ordained a priest on 8th January 1968 in the village of my birth.

2018 33S Strasbourg FKalan DSC 0003Please tell us briefly of your missionary experience prior to your appointment as Superior general.

Having entered the African Missions in order to serve in Africa, I had hoped to be able to leave for Africa as soon as my theological studies had been completed. But instead I was sent to Rome to pursue biblical studies.

Having spent a year at the Angelicum in order to obtain a degree in Theology, I went on to do three year to complete biblical studies at the Biblicum.

A few months before finishing my studies, I reiterated my desire to go to Africa to the Provincial Superior but was posted as the team leader at the SMA student hostel in Strasbourg with Fr Gérard Bretillot. There were about twenty young men there at that time, but most of them opted to follow other paths after completing their studies in Philosophy.

As the students attended the Theology faculty of Strasbourg, I decided to enrol myself at the same faculty, to do a doctorate and thus for five years I worked with Professor Joseph Schmitt on a thesis of biblical theology which I defended on the 19th of April 1975 under the title “Luke, interpreter of ancient traditions on the Resurrection of Jesus”

Being a missionary, the Resurrection of Jesus continued to be for me the starting point and centre of witness which a missionary must impart to the people to whom he will be sent to look after and nurture.

Then after a year of an in-depth study of English in London, I left for Ibadan, Nigeria, to teach sacred Scripture at the Regional Major Seminary of Saints Peter and Paul.

At that time, it was extremely difficult to obtain a visa for a long stay in that county. I eventually arrived there in January of 1977 and began my teaching at the start of the second term of the 1976-1977 academic year.

1982 was a special year of preparation for the General Assembly which began in May 1983.

For this assembly, the SMA had decided to change the methodology from the “parliamentary method” and opted for one called the “prospective method”.

Four members were chosen to be trained in this method. As I was bilingual (French and English), I was chosen as a member of the team.

We had several training sessions during eight days in Rome; and then I had to visit the countries of West Africa where our SMA members worked, to share with them what we had learned about the methodology and also to hold meetings and training sessions with the members in preparation of the General Assembly.

Following on from that, I was elected as the delegate of my Province (Strasburg) to the General Assembly and also appointed as one of the facilitators of that assembly. I was elected Vicar General of the SMA during that same assembly.

After this first term in office of six years, I wanted to have a sabbatical year at the Biblical School in Jerusalem. Without even asking for it the School offered me a six-month scholarship.

I was thereby able to really renew my love of the Bible and prepare myself for what was offered to me later on, that is, the Rector of the new SMA Formation House in Ebimpé-Anyama in the Ivory Coast.

Having lived the relatively difficult life of being a student, helped me enormously to identify with the SMA students with whom I was called to live.

I held this post up until the Assemblies of 1995, all the while teaching scripture at the CUWA (Catholic University of West Africa) and also in the major national seminary of Ivory Coast.

I was then elected Provincial of the Province of Strasburg for two consecutive terms of office (1995 – 2007) and then found myself once again in Rome as Vicar General of the Society during the General Assembly of 2007. Three years later, I replaced the Superior General, Kieran O’Reilly, who had been appointed Bishop of Killaloe in Ireland.

2007 0054 Benin SMA 1During your terms of office in leadership, you travelled to visit your brothers at their missions. Were you impressed by what you found on the ground?

Many things impressed me in the course of those visits on the ground to see the brothers: first of all, the strength of their faith, their devotion, their patience and their fidelity towards local Christian communities, the brotherhood amongst the brothers, their confidence and collaboration with the catechists, their kindness to the poorest of people who came knocking on their door. Then I was furthermore impressed by their creativity to establish structures, a fair number of them gave themselves fully to constructions; their ability to change posts and to start over, which for many of them was clearly quite a significant wrench; and lastly their really good relationship with the local clergy and the bishops and their closeness to the people.


Which specific mission struck you the most?

Each mission is distinctive and brings its share of effort and renunciation, but at the same time brings its joys and its satisfactions.

At the very beginning of my first term of office, (June 1983), I was to visit a group of brothers, French and Dutch, who were investing themselves into what we referred to as the ‘Urban Apostolate’ in Accra, Ghana, the country was going through extreme difficulties, on the edge of famine. I admired the determination of those SMAs.

Another mission that impressed me hugely was the mission to Turkana – the diocese of Lodwar, a place verging on a desert environment.

Also a missionary who impressed me enormously by his faith, his determination and desire to go that step further was Father Jean Klein, who was at the mission in Tchébébé, in the south of the Sokodé diocese (Togo) and who went on to found a new mission at Affassalokopé, the other side of the Mono river, in an area where Christianity had not reached, those were the years 2005-2009, he had to start from scratch.

Some 164 years have passed since the Venerable Mgr Melchior de Marion Brésillac founded the SMA. Following on to your discoveries during your trips visiting the brothers in their respective missions, do you feel that the SMA charisma is still pertinent these days despite the times and changing realities of today?

Each member or each team, especially in Africa tries to work emulating the legacy of the charisma left and shown by Mgr. de Marion Brésillac “to go to those most abandoned” and towards those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. They try to set up communities which will slowly take responsibility for the evangelization and the catechesis, and the structures, finance, and development. There are still areas in Africa where we are doing primary evangelisation.

In many of the missions which I visited where our SMAs work in Africa, I was struck to see that in the premises of the mission, there were frequently present the poor who sought refuge, clothing, and food for they had nowhere else to go. These poor unfortunates appeared to be there as the protectors of the mission.

039 SMAR 353 6The SMA has gone through many changes. Provinces, Districts, Districts-in-formation, Foundations and now a return to Districts and Provinces. In your humble opinion, do you believe that these changes have affected the SMA mission?

What has changed the physiognomy of the SMA, is the desire to go back to the initial intuition of the Founder: to welcome members from all nationalities, as long as they are suitable. It was during the Assemblies of 1983 this began. Since that time, the SMA has put in place some structures to welcome and form candidates from churches in Africa that we had helped to establish. The SMA went to India, to Tamil Nadu, to introduce the charisma of the SMA and attempted to begin recruitment in Poland and the Argentine.

As far as structures are concerned, the SMA remained faithful to itself and resisted being bullied. The current structures are a carbon copy of those established pre 1983: Provinces, Districts, Districts in Formation, Foundations. The latter were for a while known as Zones but now are known as Delegations. However, in the years preceding the General Assembly of 2007, the Society spent a lot of time in the important work of rethinking and presentation of various models of possible structures to improve the services provided by the mission. The assembly of 2007, simply ignored the preparatory thoughts and we were left with the traditional structures. The SMA in Africa, by necessity, had adopted intermediary structures by establishing districts -in-formation beyond geographical boundaries in 2008, basing itself on two important criteria, internationality and financial solidarity. However, in the ensuing years, it would appear that each national group wished to assure itself of its own security and we saw a return to the traditional geographical boundaries. Finally, the General Assembly of 2019 applied the previous old structures of Africa. The fundamental difference compared to the old structures is that anything which touches the initial formation comes under the jurisdiction of the Superior General and his council and that, because the different entities can no longer cope with the demands of formation either because of the lack of personnel or funds.

According to you, which areas should the Superiors General and the Provincials and their councils pay more attention to?

- that which impacts the initial formation. In this area, the SMA could perhaps focus its research on how to approach new cultures, the fringes of large cities, ecumenism…

- determine that which could perhaps be the specific mission of the SMA, prioritizing places where this is an option.

- promote the sharing not only of funds but also of personnel and skills…

 Are you satisfied with the quality of the formation the young brothers of the SMA receive?

There is always a certain lack of satisfaction in relation to the formation open to the mission candidates in the SMA, in relation to the balance between the intellectual aspects of the formation and the initiation of pastoral practice. To this, we have never really found a total solution. On the one hand, there are the demands of the Church and of programmes which need to be completed, and on the other, the appropriate formation in view of the mission itself. In any case, the formation is a life-long process.

2007 0027 Benin SMA 1Are you happy being an SMA priest?

On the whole yes! This would seem to me to be a somewhat naïve question seeing that I have spent my entire life with the SMA. You might as well ask me if I am happy to be alive. I suppose it references the period of my early engagement, why did I choose the SMA? I entered the SMA to be a missionary in a rural area and in order to live among people as witness to the Gospel, but my life has been nothing like what I had imagined it would be. I tried to accept all that was asked of me as challenges, proposals that would help me develop talents I was unaware of.

At the beginning of our noviciate, our novice master, used to tell us that the first aim on entry into the SMA was our personal happiness. In my life, there have been highs and lows, tough moments, loneliness, lack of understanding, and moments of sheer euphoria and enormous bliss. I learned very quickly that it is up to oneself to work towards obtained one’s own happiness. One should not wait for happiness to come to one from the others. Life is always a gift to be appreciated and enjoyed with gentleness.

What helped you to go forward in spite of the challenges you came across over the years?

- the certainty that in any situation I found myself in, I responded to my missionary vocation in the SMA and that Jesus alive, the risen One, leads us

- my ability to accept in all humility what was asked of me

- SMAs and others, even outside the SMA and the people who were at my side and who often, without being aware of it helped me on my journey.

Narobi fomation houseWhat advice would you give to students in their formation houses and to young priests who are about to set out on their mission?

- to be open to anything that may come their way and to be able to discern what is useful and worthwhile for their commitment.

- to be convinced that we are members of a communal mission that belongs to all the SMA, which is beyond us and belongs to God himself.

- and to kind to anyone one meets along our road, Christian or not, rich or poor, as emissaries of God.