A Discussion with Abbé Georges Diouf, the Diocesan Director of Catholic Teaching of the Archdiocese of Dakar
March 16, 2015
Background: Abbé Georges Diouf is the diocesan director of Catholic teaching of the Archdiocese of Dakar. As director, he is deeply involved in shaping Catholic instruction in Senegal. Lauren Herzog met with Abbé Diouf in March 2015 to learn more about the Catholic education in Senegal. Abbé Diouf explains the Catholic philosophies and teachings that are at the heart of Catholic instruction in Senegal, and he emphasizes in particular that it is necessary to educate all dimensions of a person (material and spiritual). He highlights the importance of the interreligious aspect of Catholic schools in Senegal, indicating that interactions between young Christians and Muslims within the education system allow them to better know and understand one another. This contributes to reinforcing tolerance, which is an important tradition in Senegal.
I was born in Fadiouth, which is on the Petite Côte, south of Dakar. I grew up there. I went to elementary school in Fadiouth. I was born and grew up in a Catholic family; even without counting my family, the place I was born is deeply Catholic, since my village, with a little more than 7,000 inhabitants, is 95 percent Catholic.
That is extraordinary in Senegal. Did you attend Catholic school?
Almost all my education was in Catholic schools, at all three levels—elementary, middle, and high school. There was only one year I did not study in a Catholic school. That was the third-from-last year of high school (equivalent of tenth grade in the U.S.), which I did in a public school called Lycée Blaise Diagne. Other than that, all my studies were at Catholic school.
What did you study?
After my high school diploma, I entered the seminary to do the philosophical studies that are prerequisites for studying theology. I did that whole first level of study at the seminary in Casamance, then the second level, theology, at Sébikotane. I was ordained on July 1, 1995 at the Cathedral of Dakar, where I became a priest. This was a very important day in my life.
How did you decide to become a priest? What attracted you to it?
As I explained before, I was born in a very devout Catholic family, and outside the family and parish community, the fact that the village is 95 percent Catholic means that there are often priests there. One sees them everywhere in the social life of the village—and, more specifically, one sees how committed they are and the respect that people give them. They are role models, because, when they are in school, kids need direction; and where I am from, the devoutly religious environment has made it natural to look to priests for this kind of direction. This is attractive, and it really makes you reflect on the priestly vocation. I liked this priestly life, the vocation, and little by little I became used to it. Af first, when you’re in the early years of school, you don’t really know what you want, you’re just sort of feeling your way around. The priests there would sometimes ask us what we wanted to do. I would answer that I wanted to be a doctor, then a priest; finally, the priestly vocation won out over the medical vocation.
What is your role in the Church?
I am Diocesan Director of Catholic Teaching for the Archdiocese of Dakar. Throughout my education, I have always worked in youth education. After my ordination, I taught at the Ngazobil Junior Seminary, where I was a professor of French and history/geography. After that I was appointed to the Directorate of Works, where I coordinated the lay apostolate and was in charge of youth and Catholic advocacy movements from 1998 to 2002. It was only in 2002 that my bishop sent me to study education in France.
I did a master’s degree in education research at the Catholic University of the West, in Angers. When I came back from studying there, I went back to Ngazobil to direct the seminary where I had previously taught. I was Director of the Junior Seminary from October 2005 to October 2013, for eight years. In October 2013, I was named Director of Catholic Teaching for all the Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Dakar In this job there is a lot of work required—in terms of direction, guidance, coordination and initiative-taking—to both bring spirit to and stay abreast of what is happening every day in the Catholic schools.
What would you say is the philosophy of Catholic education here in Senegal?
I was just talking about the philosophy of Catholic education last Saturday, in a meeting with the entire faculty and staff of the Catholic schools. There were 1,327 of us gathered at Popenguine, where I was talking about this mission of Catholic education. The mission of Catholic education is to promote mankind, it is the full promotion of mankind. Pope John Paul II used to say that Catholic education should take care of mankind in all our dimensions, material and spiritual. The commitment of Catholic education is to promote the human person in all these dimensions.
Given the large number of Muslims in Catholic schools, are there differences in the way Catholic and Muslim students are taught?
The philosophy of Catholic education is to educate the whole person. This is the basis for everything, but, obviously, since not everyone shares the same faith, you have to be respectful. Catholic school will never proselytize; it will respect the faith of every student. You have hit upon a theme I have worked on before. When I was studying at the Catholic University of the West, in Angers, I wrote my master’s thesis on "Catholic education and religious difference." Catholic education and religious difference, the question of Muslim students in Catholic schools. I did this research thinking of the work I would soon be doing back in Senegal, in Catholic schools where 74 percent of our students are Muslim, 25 percent are Catholic and 1 percent are of other religions.
You can see that Muslims are very much in the majority, so in the education we give students we are going to respect their religious convictions. We respect the young people we teach, and we don’t proselytize, but we want to help them grow as human beings, obviously with the spirit of the Gospels embedded in how we structure things. We educate according to our own being and our religious conviction that one should respect others.
For Catholic students, is there a component of Catholic teaching?
In Point Eight of Gravissimum Educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, it is said that teaching should commit to helping grow this new creature that children have become through baptism. This means that, for Christian children, we go beyond that, through the Catechism, the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, and by helping them grow in baptism. There is always more to bring to those who are baptized, a religious education to those who are baptized. This is very important.
In Senegal at the moment, young people are confronted by many challenges. What are Catholic schools doing to prepare these young people for the next steps of their lives or of their education?
As I have said, education is the basis for everything else in a society, and we know everything that we must bring to help in the transformation of Senegalese society—in order to produce a new kind of Senegalese, as they say, and to get rid of everything one might call a counter-value. I said this in my remarks to the teachers last Saturday. Catholic education needs to teach values, and this is very important for the transformation of society. We are trying to teach young people values, first and foremost by our personalities and by the way we live around them, since we all know a picture is worth a thousand words.
I reminded these Christian educators that they must teach values—first by their own lives, but also by their behavior around the young people who are watching them and looking for direction. It is the educator who must show that direction most profoundly by the way he is, and his words will accompany that way of being. This values education that we give in Catholic schools are fundamental in helping the transformation of society, since the students we teach are the adults of tomorrow. We really insist on values education in Catholic schools because this is where we want to make our particular contribution to the transformation of society.
In English, we say that actions speak louder than words. Is this what you mean?
Exactly. Like I said, education is my area of expertise, and I am very insistent about what we are passing along to young people. These young people are looking for direction, they find direction among the adults around them, and this is how we are able to successfully pass something along to them.
You mentioned a Catholic organization for youth. It seems like there are many different organizations within the Church. Is this the case?
Absolutely. It’s in this framework that I coordinate what we call the lay apostolate, as in the parishes, there are organizations for youth, for children, for Catholic women and for men, and at the diocesan level, there is the Lay Association, or the Direction of Works set up to coordinate this work. That is where I worked for four years, from 1998 to 2002, when I was specifically responsible for youth movements at the diocesan level.
What are the goals of these associations? Is it to share values?
Precisely. These are faith organizations whose goal is to teach faith, teach Christian faith, and proclaim Jesus Christ. These are apostolic movements to announce Jesus Christ, to take mankind under their wing and evangelize him. These are means for evangelism. In the apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, on the vocation and mission of the laity, and specifically on the involvement of youth, the Pope said that lay people of faith are the spearhead of the Church in the larger society. Therefore, they are the Church’s forefront in social life. This is why we organize this apostolate—so that they may take part in evangelical work and be true witnesses through the Christian values they live in society.
One often hears that Senegal is a model for Muslim-Christian relations. What is so unique here, in Senegal, that has allowed contributed to such strong relationships?
Obviously, the dialogue between Muslims and Christians is profoundly anchored in a life shared by Christians and Muslims. We are all brothers. This is something we live well with. Each of our communities appreciates the other. We respect each other. I don’t like to talk about tolerance because tolerance is a constraint, in spite of itself. But there is a feeling of cooperation and well-being between Christians and Muslims, a relationship that is rooted deeply in our families.
Families and communities who are exemplary compared with others and with all we see around us? This is really a kind of grace that we are living, and I think that Senegal anchored itself very early, rooted in all that one might call "openness to others." When you open yourself up to another, this dimension allows you to accept that other in his or her differences. Openness to others is very present in our cultures—respect for the other in his or her difference, and dialogue. Our first president, President Senghor, always used to say that Senegal is a country of dialogue, and this dialogue helped to allow social peace, respect for others in interreligious dialogue, and dialogue between religions to take root.
Could you give an example of Muslim-Christian relations in Senegal?
I come back to a story from my childhood, from my village. When there was a Muslim holiday, Muslims would bring food to us Christians. And vice-versa—on Christian holidays, we would take food to the Muslims. This meant that whenever there was a Muslim holiday, we as Christians would get excited, because it meant that the Muslims were going to bring us a holiday meal. We were really happy and couldn’t wait for the Muslim holidays. Likewise, they were happy when they knew we would be bringing them meals for Christian holidays. This kind of sharing is very important. In addition to this kind of exchange, in the afternoon, in our holiday clothes, we would go visit Muslims, who would give us coins. We were always happy to receive from them something that would help us celebrate our own holiday. And the Muslim kids, for the Muslim holidays, would come visit Catholic parents, who also gave them coins to celebrate their own holiday. This is deeply rooted.
I have close relatives who are Muslim and for whom I have a profound respect, in terms of religion, and it is reciprocal. In my mother’s family, my grandmother was the only Catholic, all her brothers and sisters being Muslim. I therefore have many Muslim relatives, cousins to whom I am bound by mutual respect. One of my cousins made a big poster of his marabout (Muslim religious leader); next to the marabout, he put a picture of me in my priest’s robes. When people come over to his house, he is proud to say, "This priest is my cousin," right next to his marabout.
It would seem that in Senegal, very often, it is not religion itself that is important, whatever religion that may be, but rather that one have faith.
And he who believes in God cannot help but respect others. Faith in God encourages respect for others. You can’t say you believe in God if you hate your brother and have no respect for him. He who believes in God, who knows Him and knows that He is love, peace and compassion, cannot help but live this and show it to his fellow man, whoever that man is. Faith encourages you to live love every day.
When I have spoken with clergy from the Lutheran and Catholic churches, I have been told that it is important to develop community, without regard to religion, race or ethnicity, because we are all in this together. Do you see examples of this philosophy in your own work?
Absolutely. You have seen that, in terms of education, I talked about Muslim students who make up 74 percent of our students. We educate all students in the respect of their religious convictions by trying to develop the people they are. It’s the same thing at Caritas: giving and charity are realized without regard for religion, for everyone. At our health centers, in our Catholic clinics, we admit everyone. We treat the human being. We want to encourage the human being, to prop him up, and to keep him up.
Do you have anything else to add about the Catholic Church and its activities here in Senegal?
When a parish is established in an area, it takes responsibility for everyone. As you said a little while ago, we are trying to be part of the development of everyone. That is our philosophy, and that is how you proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel must be proclaimed in words and actions, and the Church tries to stay faithful to this proclamation of the Gospel in all areas of life.
I strongly believe that the Catholic Church has a huge contribution to bring to development and to the social peace that we are aiming for here in Senegal. Because the youth who get to know each other here, who are discovering what the Church is—especially young Muslims—through its works like Catholic school, as they grow up, they learn and retain all the respect and consideration that has been shown to them in Catholic education, as well as the love of those who have educated them without regard to religion.
Tomorrow, when the youth become adults, they won’t be able to help but try to reproduce this esteem. This will enable them to meet others in peace and mutual appreciation. And the young Christians who will meet their Muslim friends will have even more esteem for them. When I was in Catholic school myself, I met young Muslims, and this helped me know them better and appreciate them more in what they do. We share the wealth of others much more by living together in this way. Catholic school is a meeting place where we learn to discover, appreciate, and love others.