The Catholic bishop in Seychelles, Denis Wiehe, is leaving his post after 19 years. In early December the Roman Catholic Diocese of Port Victoria Seychelles will receive a new bishop, Alain Harel from Mauritius, who was consecrated as the new head of the Catholic church of the island nation in a special mass celebrated at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the capital city of Victoria.
SNA caught up with Wiehe to know more about his retirement plans, his best memories on the islands and his wish for the Catholic church in Seychelles.
SNA: Tell us a little bit about yourself, where were you born, your family, about your childhood.
DW: I was born at Curepipe, Mauritius on May 21, 1940, the second son of four boys. In 1949 my father, who was working with the Ministry of Agriculture, was transferred to Malawi. The whole family went to live there for four years. My elder brother and myself were sent to a Jesuit-run boarding school for three years.
We returned to Mauritius in 1953. At 19 years old I decided to join the Spiritans Congregation to become a Spiritan priest. I did the first part of my training with the Spiritan Congregation in Ireland. Besides the studies for the priesthood, this comprised of going to University to be qualified as a teacher: I obtained a BSc from University College, Dublin in 1965.
The second part of my training for the priesthood was at the Gregorian University, Rome. I was ordained a priest in Mauritius in 1969 by Bishop Jean Margéot. My first assignment as a priest was to be part of the team of priests teaching and taking charge of the school at Quatre Bornes where I had been a pupil.
SNA: Tell us about your calling and vocation.
DW: This is a very difficult question. Vocation-Consecration to God for life concerns what is most intimate and personal: it is, therefore, difficult to describe. For me, it is a total and unconditional act of love in response to the experience of God’s overwhelming love felt in one’s whole being.
That is why after struggling with the idea of vocation for several years as a teenager, once I lived through the above spiritual experience, I made my choice and never looked back. This experience also enabled me to make many sacrifices and overcome many difficulties given the choice I had made when I was 19. My response to God’s loving call has filled me since then with great peace of mind.
SNA: Tell us about coming to Seychelles. What memories do have of the islands?
DW: Coming to Seychelles as the newly-appointed Bishop of the Catholic Church in 2001 was a big challenge. I remember my arrival: the then Bishop Xavier Baronnet and the priests gave me a very warm welcome which greatly encouraged me. After my ordination as Coadjutor Bishop – August 15, 2001, I spent 10 months with Bishop Baronnet before taking over the Diocese. This helped me considerably because I was anxious to know the people, the country, and culture. I was able to roam around, visit Mahé, Praslin and La Digue, occasionally the outer islands. Seychelles is a very beautiful country, and I had to witness the great beauty of our islands.
SNA: What are the things which you would have liked to see an improvement or change?
DW: Without a reference to someone bigger and greater than anything on earth, we human beings lose our sense of values and our direction in life. Seychelles’ society needs to reconnect with our spiritual values. Formal ‘religious education’ was quasi-abandoned in schools when the confessional schools were taken over by the state around 1978.
This has had a negative effect not only on the two or three generations of children attending school since that date but also on the parents and families whose children are at school today. I have committed myself to improve this situation in schools, in family life and the parishes. There are signs that certainly there is an improvement. But very much still has to be done at family, school and church levels. Several people have talked to me recently about their desire for ‘spiritual formation’. For me, this is a very positive sign.
Another area in which I invested considerable time and energy during the past ten years is in ‘interfaith dialogue’. The Seychelles Interfaith Council (SIFCO) certainly has had an impact on our society. Although many people agree that it is better to seek how we can accept each other despite our differences, not many are ready to put this into practice when it concerns differences of faith and religious belief. So far SIFCO has done good work among religious leaders and representatives of the different faiths and denominations in our society. Perhaps the future agenda for this Council is to promote how we can all live out this mutual respect in our daily lives.
SNA: Now that your replacement has been announced what is a retirement plan?
DW: I plan to stay in Seychelles until about Christmas to help with the handing over to Bishop Harel. Nothing is yet for the moment except that, wherever I will be, I will continue to serve the church and society as a Catholic priest and a retired bishop. When the handing over is done, I plan to go for some holidays in Mauritius to meet with friends and family members.
SNA: What is your vision for the Catholic Church on the islands?
DW: The church has contributed much to Seychelles in the past. More recently, after two decades of great difficulty, it has regained a new momentum. With its 20 parishes on the three main islands of Seychelles and its numerous prayer and social organizations manned mostly by volunteers, it is deeply rooted in Seychelles’ history and culture and well placed to play its role alongside the government and other NGOs to promote the well-being of Seychelles society. In the immediate future, the church is called to bring forth from its heritage “new things as well as old” (Matthew 13/52) for the common good of Seychelles.