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A simple, learned man, a polyglot and one of strong convictions. He challenged the church, joined the national liberation struggle movement, which almost cost him excommunication, but he resisted all and today, celebrating 50 years of ordination, he talks about his trajectory, inside and outside of religion.
In a 14-minute lecture to an audience composed mostly of students from Maputo’s Pedagogical University (UP), Father Filipe Couto spoke of the 50 years since he was ordained a priest by the Catholic Church.
Filipe Couto was ordained a priest in the city of Lichinga, Niassa province, on December 21, 1969, under the direction of Dom Eurico Dias Nogueira. It was the beginning of a life dedicated to the work of the church which today, in short, he ranks as “fifty years of union with God”.
In his brief retrospective address, Father Couto explains that, contrary to what it may seem, “the experience of God comes with the ups and downs of life”. With character and conviction, he explains that despite his “marriage” to the church, there were moments of deviation.
“I know the things that I have done. I speak with Jesus and through him, with God, but always certain that I am a great sinner,” he confessed.
“But also, I know that I will not be crucified, because Jesus died for all of us, and also for me,” he said.
A priest among guerrillas
Two years after being ordained, Father Couto challenged church principles and joined the guerrilla movement of the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) in Tanzania, an adventure he still remembers.
“I lived with Frelimo from 1971 to 1975, I worked with them (guerrillas) and I always thought of Jesus,” he recalled, in an address with no questions.
The daring adventure in exile, he recalls, almost cost him excommunication from the church, and he was saved by a Jesuit priest, who interceded before the Consolata community to mitigate his fate.
“This was a great point of dialogue between me and the Consolata priests and I was fortunate because the [superior] general of the Jesuits (deceased Father Arrupe) helped my [superior] general to understand that the fact that I fled the colony into exile and sit with those we called “turras” [expression coming from terrorists], was not cause to suspend me, but to understand,” he recalled.
Half a century later, Father Couto made his ‘mea culpa’ and delivered a note of thanks to the Consolata community.
“On this 50-year anniversary, I thank the Consolata missionaries to whom I belong, and to whom I have not always been good, but they have always been good to me. There were times of war and conflict which always ended in good results,” he said.
Misunderstood upon return
Even escaping punishment, Padre Coutro’s life in the church was not totally peaceful. According to reports, there were questions among believers because of his bond with the guerrillas.
“I came to Mozambique, and Dom Manuel Vieira Pinto received me and appointed me as parish priest of Nampula Cathedral,” he explained, recalling less-than-positive episodes with believers who questioned his presence.
“He’s the one who came here – he was with the guerrillas and now he’s a parish priest, he can’t confess us,” he recalled.
At loggerheads with the regime
The strength of his convictions even put him on a collision course with the leadership of the Mozambican government. One such moment was a disagreement with Samora Moisés Machel, the first President of Mozambique.
“There was war between me and the late President Machel. He knew I would close the church and pick up people from Frelimo, and regularise their marriages,” he recalled without going into further detail.
He recalls philosophical disputes with Armando Guebuza which have left their mark too.
“There were discussions with President Guebuza. You remember the question of ‘The Generation of the Turning Point’… .”
In summary, Father Couto describes his trajectory as “…a fearful and beautiful experience, full of conflicts and never boring”.
By William Mapote
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