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The father of Uganda’s charismatic movement leaves
Publish Date: Jan 05, 2015
By Mathias Mazinga
One story that has always excited me is the story of a donkey in Spain, which was used to carry the relics of saints from village to village so that they would be venerated by the people. The donkey imagined that the people, who went to venerate the relics, had come to praise him.
Many human beings are like that donkey, but Rev. Fr. Roger Marie LaBonte, a priest of the Catholic Missionary Society of White Fathers (also called Missionaries of Africa), was different. Whenever people started to point to him as the one who introduced the Catholic charismatic renewal movement in Uganda, he rejected their praises. He always argued that it was the work of the Lord.
Even though he opted to keep a low-profile, Fr. LaBonte will always be remembered by future generations in Uganda. He introduced the Catholic charismatic renewal movement here, in 1973.
Who is LaBonte?
LaBonte was born in a devout Catholic family at Putnam, Connecticut, USA. He received the call to become a missionary of Africa after hearing a talk by a White Father, who spoke of the enormous needs of the Christians in Rwanda. The country did not have enough priests.
“A mysterious attraction grew, but I could not let go of my family. Until my mother passed away.”
After studying theology at the White Fathers’ Scholasticate in Carthage, Tunisia, LaBonte was ordained a priest in 1962. He then did a diploma in education, in Dublin, before being sent to Lumen Vitae University, Belgium, to study about Vatican Council II.
“I can never thank God enough for that opportunity, which helped me move from a legalistic, pharisaical mentality to that of the gospels of mercy and compassion that Pope Francis is now living and inviting us all to live.”
LaBonte arrived in Uganda in 1964 and started to learn Runyankole as he taught English at Kitabi Minor Seminary. Here, he taught prominent Ugandans such as Bishop Callistus Rubaramira and Prof. Peter Kasenene.
Labonte went back to the US in 1968 and returned in 1973. He was then posted to St. Paul’s Minor Seminary, Kabale, to teach English.
“During the holidays, I began giving spiritual retreats, especially to sisters and priests. I introduced the Catholic charismatic renewal, which has done a lot to put fire in the faith of traditional Catholics all over the world.”
When I arrived in Uganda, in 1973, I was sure that what I had experienced in the US and in the UK had to be shared with Ugandans. I was always on the lookout for ways to spread the good news of the Spirit of our risen Lord.
I was drawn to the more interior and silent action of the Spirit that the shouting ‘alleluia’ and waving of hands — inner healing, forgiveness and meditative prayer. But some of the people I prayed for had become aware of the charismatic gifts and began looking for them. In an African context, this created a lot of fear about “spirits” and witchcraft. One bishop was so fearful that he prevented me from promoting the renewal. He later apologised after reading Fr. O’Connor’s book on charismatic theology. Even the twin-sisters of Mbarara opposed me until they too were touched by the Spirit. They became some of my closest collaborators.
LaBonte was part of the White Fathers’ team that set up the White Fathers’ Seminary at Kisubi in 1978. Later, in the 80s, he was made the in-charge of the White Fathers’ Formation House in Chicago. LaBonte moved to Ottawa, Canada in 1989, where he founded a group for Christian-Muslim dialogue.
He later went to Jerusalem, where he was absorbed even more in the spirit of the gospels living in the very land of Jesus.
“I was amazed to discover that Jerusalem is a holy city, not only for Jews and Christians, but for Muslims as well. A thought of a great pioneer in Muslim/Christian relationships, Louis Massignon, touched me deeply. The Muslims are best characterised by faith, the Jews by hope and we Christians by love. We all have Abraham as our spiritual father, hence the call to be one in our diversity. In 1993, I studied Islam at the Pontifical Institute for the study of Arabic in Rome. I found it absolutely fascinating to study the beginnings of Islam, always comparing it to our Christian history of salvation,” he says.
In 1994, LaBonte was posted to Kampala, where he started to reach out to Muslims. With the help of Richard Yiga, LaBonte formed dialogue groups first with the Muslims of the Mityana mosque and eventually at Makerere University.
“We were able to go to various places to dialogue and give workshops. Our team comprised of both Muslims and Christians. I can still remember how some Ugandan sisters expressed their joy and amazement to one of the Muslim presenters: “We never imagined that Islam has a lot of positive elements, similar to Christianity,” one said.
This work of Christian-Muslim dialogue gave birth to the inter-faith magazine.
LaBonte’s new ministry
LaBonte says he will now devote the rest of his life to prayer. “Of course, I will miss my spiritual children in Uganda, especially the single mothers and the orphans who I have been taking care of. But I know God is working behind the scenes. Going back to the US will help me to devote myself more to praying for the universal Church.”