A Discussion with Abbé Jacques Seck, Vicar General and Curate of Dakar Cathedral (Retired)

With: Jacques Seck Berkley Center Profile

March 15, 2014

Background: Abbé Jacques Seck is an iconic figure in Senegal, a leader within the Catholic Church and a strong proponent of the interreligious dialogue and harmony for which Senegal is famous. Now officially retired, he brings a rare perspective drawn from his long history of activism and his willingness to consistently speak the truth, even where it goes against his government or his church. He describes himself as “a priest of joy.” He is also known for his intensive studies of Islam and mastery of Arabic. Katherine Marshall and Chris Riley spoke with him (in French) in Dakar, Senegal on March 15, 2014, as part of WFDD’s preliminary research mission to map the development impact of religious actors in Senegal and, in a separate project, to engage religious leaders on reproductive health. Abbé Seck has worked for the Catholic Church in Senegal and abroad for close to 45 years and has unparalleled perspective on the complex interweavings of Islam, Christianity, and Senegalese culture. Like many Senegalese, he is proud of his religious heritage but also acutely aware of the ties that bind families, communities, and societies together, often across religious, ethnic, and political boundaries. He emphasizes the importance of dialogue for maintaining peace, summarized in the maxim “you cannot love what you do not understand.”

How did you come to be a priest in this largely Muslim country?

I am almost 80 years old now and have retired! So I do many different things, whatever comes my way. I have been part of the Senegalese Catholic Church all my life and all of my career.

I was born in a village into a Christian Serer family. I was raised as a Catholic, but also with animist traditions, and indeed I can say that up to the age of 15 years old I was really an animist. I did not initially see myself becoming a priest. In fact, I began my career as a primary school teacher. As I got older, however, I realized the Church was my true calling. I went to the seminary at the age of 26 years old and was ordained in 1969. I was known as the talkative priest because then, as now, I talk a lot!

But, even as a Christian, interreligious relations were part of my life from the start. My sister is married to an imam, and there are many other interreligious connections within my family and community. My nephew teaches Arabic at a daara [Muslim school]. It is completely natural to have these different religious traditions in a Senegalese family. I have given money to family members to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and they have helped in similar ways. Intermarriage is quite normal. We know one another from work in the fields and every other part of life. We grow the same crops and keep the same animals on the same land.

Has your family been Catholic for a long time?

Yes, we have records showing that my ancestors have been Catholic since before the French arrived. The Portuguese spread Christianity to West Africa as far back as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. My family lived in western Senegal, on the coast, where Christianity spread most easily from European missionaries. However, these things are not viewed dogmatically here. As I said, our family, like our country, is interfaith now. There is one God: what need is there to complicate matters? We can learn from our differences and respect each other as fellow human beings.

Where did you complete your education? Have you spent time abroad?

I first worked in a small community in Senegal during my 12 years as a curate. But I was limited in what I could do in the Church as I had only passed the baccalauréat [secondary school]. I had the chance in 1973 to go to Rome to study theology at the Gregorian and to get a degree. I studied the Bible there (I read it all the time) but also Islam. I also traveled to Rome through a program that brought priests from Africa to study at the Vatican. Also, during 1975 through 1978, I lived in Tunisia, where I studied Arabic and the Qur’an further.

Shortly after independence in 1960, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal (who was Christian), sent a group of young priests to the Arab world to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. You cannot love what you do not understand, so he was very wise to ensure that there were scholars and priests who had an understanding of the texts and the scholarship. We went to Morocco, Saudi Arabia; I met many Arab Muslims there and learned about Islamic culture and theology, which served me well when I returned to Senegal. I have taught about the Qur’an myself; I was once replaced by a Muslim who had never studied the Qur’an.

Two of my own nephews (who are Muslims) have gone to Morocco for their studies.

Senegal is said to be over 90 percent Muslim. What has been your experience as a leader of a religious minority here?

The often-quoted numbers are not entirely accurate. Muslims make up no less than 65 percent of the population, and Catholics are about 7.5 percent. For many reasons, including the practice of polygamy, the proportion of Muslims in Senegal is growing. However, it is not an issue for us. We believe that Muslims and Christians are all part of the same family. We are all human, after all. We work in the same fields, live together in every part of our lives.

From where does this Senegalese tolerance stem, do you think?

As a Christian, Jesus is my savior, and he practiced tolerance and love for all. This view is also respected by Senegalese Muslims, who are persuaded by their Prophet. The reason for this mutual respect is also cultural. Our African ethnic heritage has traditionally focused on cultivating a common vision, a common peace within villages, cities, and throughout Senegal. As I mentioned, many families are in fact interfaith themselves, so it would not be very practical to live with intolerance. During my lifetime, there have also been explicit outreach programs, including a commission whose mission was to improve dialogue between the religions of Senegal.

Has the religious landscape of Senegal changed much over your long life?

When I was young, during the French colonial period, Christianity was perhaps a stronger presence than today. While Senegal’s first president, Senghor, was Christian, I do not consider it likely that another Christian will become president soon. Islam was also different: there were only two Muslim orders [confréries], the Tijaniyya and the Mourides. Later, the Layenes came to the Dakar region, although the Tijaniyya and Mourides are still the most prominent nationally. The Qadiriyya are a smaller group. That order is the most influenced by fundamentalism. The bishops of the Church do everything they can to stand against fundamentalism in any religion.

There have been some tensions as religion and politics have intertwined. In particular, the leaders of the Sufi orders have disagreed with one another. But there has never been tension at the base.

Under President [Abdoulaye] Wade there were some tensions between him and the Catholic Church. He insulted the Church. The priests came together to challenge the president. The matter was resolved. But we understand well that we must avoid confrontation. I go each year to Tivaouane and Touba at the time of Muslim festivals. The qalifs [leaders of the Sufi orders] show their respect in greeting me there. It is not theater. It is sincere.

How is Catholicism organized in Senegal today? Is it involved in politics?

There is a single cardinal in Senegal, with six bishops in the major cities: Dakar, Saint-Louis, Thiès, Kaolack, Tambacounda, and Ziguinchor. There are about 300 priests now in Senegal. There are many holy orders active here, including the Spiritan Fathers [Pères du Saint-Esprit]. It was their order that founded the Catholic Church in Africa. Other orders are the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the White Fathers [Pères Blancs], the Frères du Sacré-Cœur, the Frères du Saint-Joseph, the Carmelites, and numerous orders of nuns. The Jesuits are not active in Senegal.

The Catholic schools, which are everywhere, play an important role. They are in many ways a unifying force in the community.

Usually the Church does not do politics, but this is not always true. For instance, I worked for many years at the prison in Dakar, where I said Mass weekly. There I met some priests who were active in politics and had faced problems. In this case, they were engaged in raising awareness about issues of human rights.

Is there a large Protestant following?

Protestants are very few in number. There are some groups that come from Côte d’Ivoire and some Mormons from the United States, but they do not have a great influence.

Is the Community of Sant’Egidio active in Senegal?

Sant’Egidio is primarily active in Casamance, because of the political conflict that has been simmering there for many years. They are involved in conflict resolution and mediation.

What about Caritas?

Caritas is very active and does good work here.

How does the Islamic leadership interact with the Catholic hierarchy in practice here in Senegal?

For a long time, there was not really an intellectual strain in Senegalese Islam, except among the founders of the orders and their children. There is a tendency simply to repeat what one has learned, without much analysis. That was the wisdom of Senghor: in a secular state he sent both Muslim and Christian scholars abroad to gain real knowledge. Ignorance does good to no one. All must know the fundamentals of religion. Those who have gone abroad to study teach now in the universities. They will never make a revolution. The hold of fundamentalism here is not strong.

But today there is not necessarily a counterpart to the Catholic leadership to engage on many development issues. It is nothing like the intellectualism of Arab Islam.

What kinds of interreligious activity are significant in Senegal? Are there permanent organizations? President Wade spoke often of holding Christian-Muslim summits here.

There is not a significant interreligious organization or activity in Senegal. In many ways it is not needed. Interreligious cooperation is mostly grassroots and on-the-ground. It is not a paradise, but it works well.

To shift to a topic that we are well aware is sensitive: what is your view on the government’s National Action Plan on Family Planning, which seeks to more than double rates of family planning use by 2015? And on family planning more generally?

We in the Church are naturally a bit timid when it comes to taking action in this area, because Catholic teaching is clear. Abortion, in particular, is contrary to our belief in life.

But I believe in responsible family planning. We are not imbeciles! We cannot ignore the problems that women and families face when they have more children than they can care for. In the past, women had 10 children. That says enough. It is not healthy for the mother, the children, or the family. We must be intelligent. Science has given us new tools, so much is now possible. Playing with dates is not a sensible way to plan families, and other methods are not efficient. That is true for pills in many cases. People must be able to sleep peacefully. I am aware that infanticide takes place and can imagine the pressures that lead to it. Modern methods can work well, so that a mistake does not force a woman or family to have a child. A case of rape is a horror. One of my nieces was raped, so I am well aware of what damage it can do. It is not a crime or a sin to be modern.

The AIDS pandemic has forced us to look at these issues more openly. Many religious leaders in Senegal have a good understanding of the issues and a pragmatic approach. We have benefitted both from local wisdom and international understanding in approaching a challenge that is modern and in no way natural. We use the internet to increase our understanding.

Shortly after this conversation, Abbé Seck was interviewed on a Senegalese talk show. He spoke to many of the topics discussed during our encounter. Among others he emphasized his sense of joy in life.

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