Archbishop Michael A. Blume
By Lyn Stegemiller, South Bend Tribune Staff Writer
People try to touch him, kiss his ring and receive his blessing. As the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio (ambassador) to the West African countries of Benin and Togo, Archbishop Michael A. Blume, a former altar boy at Our Lady of Hungary Catholic Church in South Bend, is surprised to be treated like the pope. One little girl even thought he was the pope.
“I’m still amazed at the enthusiasm people have for the Holy Father’s representative”, Blume says in a series of e-mails to The Tribune. “When I think of Pope Benedict XVI, it’s a lot to try to act and think like him, a real challenge,” Blume says. “Thank God, people put me at ease, and I don’t have to try doing extraordinary things to carry out my work. It’s enough to be Christian, loving and human, and the rest comes.”
Blume, 60, recently completed his first year representing the pope to the Roman Catholic Church and governments in these two West African nations. He shares what his life is like. His first duty is “to pray with and for the Church and all peoples,” he says. When home in the port city of Contonou, Benin, Blume tries to begin his days at 5:30 a.m. with prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, he says. The Eucharist is celebrated at 7:15 a.m. weekdays, with about 20 to 30 people participating.
Then the more specialized work begins, he says. He tries to support and encourage the bishops currently serving 14 of the 17 Roman Catholic dioceses in Togo and Benin. For instance, in the recent controversy regarding Pope Benedict’s comments about Islam, Blume says he communicated three official documents to the bishops in an effort to make the pope’s real intentions known.
“They are the ones who have to deal with relations among religions in nitty-gritty local circumstances,” Blume says. “Getting resources to them quickly – thank God for e-mail – including Arabic versions, was important and appreciated.” Blume himself carried the same documentation to the ministers of foreign affairs of Benin and Togo, both of whom are Muslims. “That initiative was also much appreciated, for the major religions are important factors in both societies, and dealing quickly with what can produce misunderstandings is in everyone’s interest.” Blume says both countries have long histories of the many different religions living together.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, 7.8 million people live in Benin and 5.5 million reside in Togo. About 50 percent of the populations hold indigenous beliefs, about 30 percent follow Christianity and about 20 percent are Muslims. About 22 percent of the countries’ Christians are Catholic, Blume says. “Their influence and importance is more than 20 percent because the internal unity of the Church gives it a religious force beyond its numbers,” he adds. Blume usually speaks French in his dealings, though he uses Italian in communications with the Vatican and with the attaché of the nunciature, a young Chilean priest still working on his French.
Asked to describe the church’s priorities in Africa, Blume starts with the practical need of people to feel they belong to the Church. “Building Church as family has a high priority,” he says. Blume adds that evangelization also is a key concern because people have a right to hear the message of Jesus and, “without compulsion of any kind, receive the invitation to accept the Lord and his community. Some other dimensions of evangelization include deepening our knowledge and practice of the scriptures and our faith, promoting integral human development, education and health programs and institutions – things that really witness to the love of Christ being active in the world,” Blume says.
For the two countries are not without their problems. Togo has received a lot of criticism from human rights organizations and has been pressured on the issue by the European Union in particular, Blume says. That pressure includes suspension of many assistance programs, though improvements have caused some assistance to be resumed, he notes.
It is hard to find accurate statistics regarding AIDS/HIV rates, he says. Any numbers that are used “represent a situation to which no one can be indifferent.” Literacy rates are 60.9 percent in Togo and 33.6 percent in Benin (the CIA assigns a 99 percent rate to the United States). About a third of the countries’ people live below the poverty level.
Another priority is in the area of faith, culture and worship, Blume says. “If faith is to really enter people’s minds and hearts, it has to enter deeply into the local cultures, perfect what is good in them and transform them in the mystery of Christ.” West Africans tend to be expressive with their faith, Blume says.
“Time is not a problem. Sunday mass can easily last three hours. You will find religion much more explicit here, including varieties of religion. Daily language abounds with references to God.” The archbishop cites a pastoral priority of young people. About 44 percent of the countries people are under 15, he says. Ordaining young men to be priests is one of his more memorable duties.
Blume says that “with important matters of Church and State often in mind,” he is not enthusiastic about dealing with the likes of building maintenance, accounting and shopping. “But sometimes there isn’t any choice; our staff here is small and everyone has to pitch in, including myself.” The practical question of time – possibilities and demands – is the most challenging aspect of his position, Blume says. “Important to remember is that the Lord gives this vocation and trust that He will also give the means to carry it out.”
Blume assumed his apostolic nuncio duties on Nov. 5, 2005, having been ordained an archbishop on Sept. 30 of that year in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. About 250 people attended a reception for Blume at Our Lady of Hungary School in October 2005. A custom-made framed card containing prayer requests, presenting to him by students, now sits in his office at the apostolic nunciature (Embassy of the Holy See). Blume lived and worked in Rome since 1990, first as the secretary general of the Society of the Divine Word and then, for 10 years, as undersecretary to the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. Though he did not request his assignment, Blume actually returned to West Africa when he assumed his duties as archbishop. He had served in Ghana as a Divine Word Missionary from 1974 to 1990, occasionally visiting Benin. Blume attended Our Lady of Hungary School from kindergarten through the eighth grade. His sister, Annmarie Forman, now lives in Mishawaka. His brother, Robert Blume, lives in Edwardsburg.
“I often served mass and helped with the liturgies. That certainly had an effect on my vocation,” he says of being an altar boy at the church. It was in his last year at Our Lady of Hungary that he “started getting serious” about becoming a priest. He enrolled in the Divine Word Seminary in Perrysburg, Ohio, at age 14, attended Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, and went on to study Theology in Rome from 1969 to 1974. He notes that, today, 14 may be considered a young age for making such an important decision. “But mine was basically about accepting an invitation, as Jesus said to two future disciples following him: ‘Come and See.’
“By God’s grace, I kept looking and haven’t regretted it.”
(Reprinted with permission from the South Bend Tribune)