“To discover Europe... there was that joy. That was the exciting part,” Ombeni explained, but leaving his family and everyone he knew was incredibly difficult: “I started really from zero to insert into this life [in Italy].”
The second greatest challenge was learning to speak Italian, he said. “When I arrived, I did not speak a word of the language, not even ‘hello.’ I learned it here.”
But Ombeni said the welcome from the seminary community helped him overcome these challenges, guiding him through integration into the diocese and giving him the space to learn and adapt at his own pace.
The Pius XI Seminary in Reggio Calabria assists in the formation of priests from the DRC and Madagascar, but “it’s a reciprocal gift, because their presence enriches very much both the formation in seminary and the local Church,” the seminary’s rector told CNA.
Fr. Salvatore Santaro, who is also the vicar general of the archdiocese, said he thinks the faith of the men exemplifies Pope Francis’ call to spread the Gospel “by contagion.”
Reggio also sends a few seminarians to the Diocese of Morondava in Madagascar for several months every summer.
The time in a different country and culture is formative for the Italian seminarians, the rector said, and noted that “the presence of the Malagasy priests ... has enriched the archdiocese a lot.”
About the cooperation with African dioceses, the rector said, “the very clear objective is this: to never impoverish a Church which sends its seminarians here.”
“Reggio does not welcome foreign seminarians so that they can become priests of Reggio. Reggio welcomes them to help form them so they can return to their dioceses.”
In the Diocese of Uvira in the DRC, according to 2017 statistics, 680,000 Catholics -- around 40% of the population -- were served by just 68 total diocesan and religious priests.
In comparison, in 2017, the Calabrian archdiocese had 157 diocesan and religious priests.
(Story continues below)
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“Clearly also the south, also Calabria, is affected by a difficult moment in respect to vocations,” Santoro said. “I would say, however, that the Archdiocese of Reggio goes a bit against this [trend].”
Ombeni said that being in Reggio he has noticed a lot of differences from his home diocese. For one, “the African Church is a young Church … a nascent Christianity,” he explained.
He pointed to the fact that his diocese has existed for fewer than 100 years, whereas the Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria-Bova can trace its founding to the first century, with the landing of St. Paul the Apostle on its shores.
In Calabria, “the way to believe is very different ... even the way of living the faith is very different from ours,” he stated.
The priest praised the popular acts of piety, such as processions of religious images, as “a treasure” he would like to share with Catholics in the DRC. The city’s traditions are part of the identity of the people in Reggio, he said, and they tell a story of Catholicism’s deep roots in that place.
He also said he appreciates Reggio’s “family atmosphere.”