Lithuania-born Rwandan missionary preaches live Word, disdains pulpit

  • 2010-07-15
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

ON A MISSION: Shaken many times, Father Hermann Schulz’ faith nonetheless has remained strong throughout his decades of devotion to preaching God’s word.

KLAIPEDA - Ten years ago, when Lithuania-born missionary Hermann Schulz, for the first time, brought a bunch of exotically clad Rwandan tribesmen, ardently clattering African drums and exalting God jauntily in high-pitched tones, some parishioners at a rural Lithuanian Catholic Church were struck with awe. However, the sources remember that, a handful of churchgoers rushed out outraged, accusing Father Hermann Schulz of blasphemy and demanding an Archbishop his punishment.

“Oh, God, I do still remember the uproar. If Satan had descended through the domes, people would have not been horrified as much as they were when seeing God-worshipping Christians from Africa,” the 75-year-old missionary laughs unquenchably. Then he gets serious, thoughtfully nodding and juggling his strikingly white fingers, sticking out from the sleeves of his cassock, as if he were going to tell his rosary.

Schulz has been bringing Rwandan Christians to Lithuania for over ten years now - whatever church they go to, they fill it up. A month ago, on their trip to Lithuania, in Gargzdai Catholic Church, just 15 kilometers from Klaipeda, everyone witnessed something extraordinary - fully filled pews, many of which were taken by young families, couples and youngsters, some of them coyly trying to give in to the African rhythm.

“There is one God. However, after a dozen years in the ministry, I am still amazed at the variety of ways we worship Him. In Lithuania, like in other European countries, people stand for conventional sermons. Frankly speaking, after over thirty years in Rwanda, I do not imagine the local tribesmen and tribeswomen petrified in pews. That is why people dance, sing and beat local drums while praying over there.

He founded Hameau des Jeunes Youth Township, when he arrived in Rwanda in 1974. Respect for him and his accomplishments extend outside the 150-place orphanage into the local community, where he has built homes for many people, several churches, parish houses, a charity dining hall and a gymnasium.

With the Catholic Church all over the world engulfed in pedophilia-related scandals, and defrocking being not an exception, Klaipeda-born Father Hermann Schulz obviously is singled out as a vivid standout in the burden-plagued Church. “I am a Salesian Father of Don Bosco. My ministry takes up active preaching of God’s word. No hair can fall if God protects you,” the septuagenarian smirks as if reading my thoughts. Those times, when he held Mass under an African tree, using his knapsack for a makeshift altar, is the past of which he speaks humbly. “To tell the truth, I have never been fond of massive movements, whether they are secular or ecclesiastical. When I started my mission in Rwanda, I met many missionary priests there, fully devoted. I wanted to be one of them, so I got actively involved in the activities,” Schulz grins.

When did his determination to serve people on a pastoral mission ripen? “Back in the ’40s, when the Red Army was about to invade Lithuania, a bomb’s shrapnel tore up my father. While in a war-refugee camp in Germany, our fatherless family suffered from hunger and humiliation, and my brother was severely beaten by a local farmer for gulping down hogwash. Paradoxically, the farmer would frequent a local Church on Sunday, piously accepting the Blessed Sacrament. It was then that some enlightening struck me, urging me to choose the minister’s path,” the Salesian Father recalls.

When he joined a Salesian monastery, it was then that he heard his brother’s prophetic warning: “It is solely your choice. However, you should be aware that no one – neither our mom, nor me, nor other priests – will help you in the toughest minutes of your life. Are you really ready to solely rely on God?” the sibling questioned, who, as it turned out, has become a staunch believer; however, he has expunged the Church and its priests from his life.

Hermann was ready for the mission, though his faith has been shaken many times. As Father Hermann Schulz acknowledges most profoundly, amid the Rwanda genocide massacre back in the ’90s. “When the ethnic carnage between Tutsi and Hutu broke out in 1994, the machete-brandishing rebels slaughtered a hundred and eight of my Rwandan children, as only twelve kids escaped.

Quite miraculously, I was away then, though the murderers were after me. I hid in the African savanna, surrounded by the killers on one side and lions and crocodiles on the other. Starving and scorched by the merciless African sun, I clung to life, nibbling on nutritious plants, while my heart was tearing apart. I was rescued by a United Nations’ convoy after three months, something I see as God’s touch. When I came back to the village, the burned-flesh stench was still lingering. My orphans, those that escaped the massacre, had been hiding in the jungles, turning into wild-men and feeding on lizards and plant roots. Sadly, two of the poor children committed suicide. Did my faith sway? Being a 50-year-old man, after the slaughter I cried like an abused little boy, but my faith in God has not trembled. God has given absolute freedom to humans, letting them take their own decisions and assume responsibilities and, therefore, bear the consequences,” the witness to one of the bloodiest ethnic conflicts of the 20th century maintains.

The Salesian Father says the genocide remains on the minds of the Rwandan people all the time. “They have songs about it; they talk and pray about it. They are people of great resilience and hope, but it has had a great impact upon them. However, having suffered so much, their faith has not wavered,” Schulz asserts. According to the missionary, when it comes to the near past, the Rwandans are still puzzled over the lack of a response from the West - most of which was eager to move militarily into far less deadly zones such as the former Yugoslavia - Rwandans have exhibited an amazing Christian ability to forgive. While murderers of their family members and friends may still saunter among them, they are quick to say that “We are no longer Hutu and Tutsi. We are Rwandans.”

He is amazed at their intellectual faculties, something, let’s be honest, is attributed, first of all, to us, the representatives of the white race. “No one can match a Rwandan in imitating nature’s sounds. While we, the people of the Western civilization, use the same numbers when counting other people, items and animals, Rwandans have a different method for live and lifeless things. They do that out of respect for every kind of surrounding things,” he explains.

While the ranks of believers are constantly shrinking in Western Europe, Africa’s Christian congregation is permanently growing. Though some attribute the decline to a wide variety of reasons, including schism, the pedophilia scandals and higher living standards in the West, Rwandans stick to the basics - God’s preaching the way Father Hermann does - through the acts of kindness, love and self- sacrifice. “Quite undeservedly, often we overlook Africans as inferior beings. However, in terms of approach to life, they exhibit much more love and compassion than the rest of the world. When I tell Rwandan women that in Europe abortion is widely acceptable, they are aghast at it. In Rwanda, where people struggle to satisfy their daily needs, they, though, are very life-conscious, as they see it as God’s blessing. In Europe, we have distorted the understanding. As Western society, no doubt, we are far more advanced, but, in terms of sticking to Nature’s laws, which are the essence of Christianity, we have broken them. Rwandans live in line with them,” the Salesian Minister points out.

He rejects the notions of revoking celibacy, ordaining women or altering views on homosexuality - the much-discussed and landmark-defining questions that the Vatican clings to their status quo, unwavering. “Celibacy is a good thing, as it gives freedom for a priest. If I were married, I could not entirely devote myself to my parishioners and the Church. Did I ever fall in love with a woman?” he chuckles, as he adds, “I did, while I was at a gymnasium in Germany; we even kissed. I have not scorned the woman’s love, but it, resulting in family, would have restricted me. I have always sought encompassing love, which derives from devoting oneself to God,” says the Lithuania-born missionary, chopping some endings of Lithuanian words, while drawling in a heavy accent.

He may assert that he has become “one of his Rwandan sisters and brothers,” and he may claim he cannot see himself pasturing in cozy Europe, but the Salesian has not forgotten his Motherland, Lithuania either. Not only does he come with his flamboyant entourage every year and celebrates Mass “in Rwandan Christian style,” but, probably more importantly, he has contributed much to the local community and the Church. Being a spiritual leader and founder of the Youth Homestead, a kind of shelter for a group of Lithuanian orphans and kids from social risk families located in the Kretinga district, 30 kilometers from Klaipeda, he has become a real-life true father for many impoverished children.
The busy Father swings by once a year, straight from Rwanda. Likened to Jesus, he bursts out laughing, as he calls himself “a small man.”

“There are many people who have done much more in the Christian spirit. For example, an Italian doctor who has built Christian hospitals all over the world. My ministry is small. As I am getting old, I am getting more and more concerned over takeover of my mission. However, I believe I have found reliable young Rwandans who will successfully carry on. They did promise to fulfill my last wish - to bury me in Rwanda, under an oak in the savanna - as well. There is nothing I could wish more,” Father Hermann Schulz asserts, as the broad smile keeps shining on his youthful face.