I had never been overseas before. So when Bishop John Kinney asked me in the fall of 1997 if I would like to accompany him on a trip to Angola, in southwestern Africa, I jumped at the opportunity.
Little did I know what I was in for.
Bishop Kinney was a board member of Catholic Relief Services, and each year the agency sent him to visit a country in which it worked. The trip was meant to encourage the CRS staff, who often worked under harsh conditions to serve people in great need. Angola had just emerged from a two-decades-long civil war. The country was experiencing a tenuous peace that could end at any time. I always sensed that Bishop Kinney liked to visit the tougher countries. Angola certainly was one of them.
We flew in small planes from town to town because of safety concerns. The roads and fields were still dotted by landmines, and their devastating impact — men missing limbs — was evident everywhere we traveled. Bishop Kinney and I walked through a minefield where workers were removing them one by one. Diocesan reporters frequently walk with their bishops through figurative landmines in covering the news; I’m probably one of the few who has had the opportunity to walk with my bishop through a literal landmine field. Their removal was an issue he was passionate about, and he urged their ban worldwide in his column for our newspaper when we returned home.
During our 10 days in Angola, I tried to follow the advice that Bishop Kinney gave me on our flight out of New York: “The best way to approach a trip like this is to just jump right in.” We visited small villages where Bishop Kinney celebrated Masses and talked with the people. To this day, I have a photo hanging in my office of three young people dancing at a Mass to give thanks to God for his gift of forgiveness. Bishop Kinney asked for a print of the same photo to hang on his wall as well. We visited hospitals, feeding centers and overcrowded city neighborhoods. We chuckled together every time our CRS guide, Frank, tried to make order out of traveling chaos by telling the planners to “get with the program.”
Everywhere we went, Bishop Kinney smiled, encouraged people, prayed with them and thanked the CRS staff for their efforts to assist Angola’s war-ravaged yet resilient people.
During our time in Angola, he taught me a lot about the importance of breaking out of my comfort zone, of putting our “First World” problems and challenges into perspective, and of seeing Christ in the faces of those most in need.
“Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words” is a saying we often attribute to St. Francis. In Angola, Bishop Kinney was definitely preaching the Gospel with his words and actions. The time we spent together in Africa is my favorite memory of him. May he rest in peace.