In Equatorial Guinea, the name of José Si Esono is synonymous with the country’s first evangelization.
Serving as a Catechist at a time when the Catholic Church was persecuted during the Central African nation’s 11 years of communist dictatorship that ended in 1979, Esono paid the ultimate price, leaving behind what has been described as “a witness of unshakeable faith”.
And now, the Catholic Diocese of Ebibeyin in Equatorial Guinea where Catechist Esono served, wants him beatified.
Bishop Miguel Angel Nguema Bee of Ebibeyin told the Catholic Pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, that the local Church in Equatorial Guinea has a lot of respect for Catechist Esono for also introducing the Claretians who, in 2019, marked 100 years of evangelizing the country.
“We want to open a beatification process for José Si Esono,” Bishop Nguema said, and added that the Catechist “was a remarkable example of great faith, thanks to whom evangelization was able to reach these areas.”
Esono goes down in history as the first Catechist to be martyred in Equatorial Guinea, having served just after the country became independent from Spain in 1968.
In what has been described as the most difficult period for the Church in Equatorial Guinea, public worship is said to have been forbidden, and churches converted into cocoa and coffee warehouses.
At this time of persecution, it was Catechists who undertook the task of evangelization, Bishop Miguel Angel recounted in a report that CAN published on January 25.
Recalling these times of persecution, Bishop Nguema said, “I remember when I was small, in the 70s, my grandmother and my mother would take us to work on a farm on Sundays. They’d make us grab our tools, and we’d head into the woods, where we would be met by a Catechist and celebrate the Word of God.”
“We’d take spiritual communion and spend two hours in discussion, before returning to the community, as if we had been working. If it had not been for Catechists, many Christians would have been unable to keep the fire of their faith alive in those years of cruel dictatorship,” the Equatorial Guinean member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) said.
Born in the village of Ebansok, Esono had never heard of Christ until, one day, he went to the coastal city of Bata, as he often did, to sell his coffee.
In the city, the birthplace of Bishop Nguema, young Esono is said to have met a Claretian missionary, who taught him to pray the Holy Rosary.
“José noticed that after reciting this prayer with the priest, the things he had come to do in the city were easier than usual,” Bishop Nguema told ACN, adding that when the young man returned to his community, he decided that he would teach everyone to pray the Holy Rosary.
Those that Catechist Esono taught the Holy Rosary wanted to know more about the prayer, which is said to have been a novelty for them. And so, when the Catechist returned to Bata to sell his coffee, he sought out the missionary and told him, “My people already pray the rosary, but now I want you to come and explain to us who this Mary is, who we are praying to.”
This way, the Claretians, officially called the Congregation of Missionaries Sons of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are said to have arrived in Ebansok.
Recalling the arrival of the pioneer Claresians, Bishop Nguema said, “There weren’t even any roads!… It was a dangerous 80-mile trek through the bush.”
“This catechist got his entire community to embrace the Gospel,” the SDB member recounted, and added, “What’s more, he also got them to accept white people. Whites were considered hostile, colonialists who mistreated and oppressed, but he interceded on their behalf. And that is how the first mission in the Diocese of Ebibeyin began. In 2024, we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Gospel in my diocese.”
Catechist Esono fell out with the community leaders when he asked them to stop praying to their amulets, and to surrender to the Gospel of Jesus Christ fully.
“He asked those who still wore their amulets to bring them to him, to burn,” Bishop Nguema said, and added, “The chief of the village became angry and refused. At this point, he stopped seeing José Si Esono as a Catechist who had taught them to pray, but instead as someone who “wanted to erase the beliefs their ancestors had passed down to them.”
Esono, who is remembered for walking around with a large wooden cross on his neck, was accused of witchcraft and burned alive.
His spirituality, however, lives on among the Catechists in Equatorial Guinea who, according to the Catholic Bishop of Ebibeyin, continue to be very important in the country.
“Catechists are not simply people who spread the faith and prepare the faithful for the sacraments. They also play leadership roles in their communities. Without them, there would be no faith,” Bishop Nguema says, adding that his Episcopal See that has a paltry 46 Priests and more than 347 prayer centers rely on the support of Catechists.
“In (Equatorial) Guinea, the work of the Catechists is valued enormously. They do this job full-time, as volunteers. They find it important to dedicate a large portion of their lives to God,” said, adding that around 380 Catechists in the Diocese of Ebibeyin received nine months of special training, and constant accompaniment, to carry out their apostolate.