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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 23, 2023
People wait for the start of an ecumenical prayer service attended by Pope Francis at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Author’s note: During Pope Francis’ recent visit to South Sudan, I had the opportunity to speak to many people, including men and women religious who are deeply committed to peace in this conflict-torn land. In this article, I will share some comments I received from men religious, and in a follow-up article I will highlight the amazing work being done by some women in this, the newest state in the world but also one of the poorest, despite its abundant natural resources of oil and gas.

Before Mass at the John Garang Mausoleum on the morning of Feb. 5, I spoke with Kizito Kiyimba, S.J., the Jesuit superior for the Province of Eastern Africa, an area that comprises six countries: Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Born in Uganda, he is based in Nairobi and is responsible for the province’s 243 Jesuits, of whom 10 are brothers, 118 are scholastics, and some 115 are priests. Twelve of those Jesuits are in South Sudan, where they work in vocational training, education and peace and reconciliation efforts. Several of the Jesuits are in Maban, in the Upper Nile State, serving at the largest refugee camp of its kind in Africa, with over a 100,000 displaced people. Irish-born Noelle Fitzpatrick serves as the country director for the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Sudan, which also works in Yambio, in Western Equatoria State, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Father Kiyimba told me the Society of Jesus is “blessed with vocations. We have so many young men of a high caliber coming to join us. They’re coming in droves from all five countries, with the biggest number from Kenya and Tanzania. We have over 35 in the novitiate, and I’m interviewing around 30 to join this year.”

Father Kiyimba told me the Society of Jesus is “blessed with vocations. We have so many young men of a high caliber coming to join us.”

Father Kizito told me he was overjoyed with Pope Francis’ “amazing” ecumenical visit to South Sudan. “He came to gather us together to pray as believers in Jesus, to pray for peace because there’s a lot of bloodletting in this region,” he said. Importantly, he said, the pope “is drawing the attention of the world to this region, to South Sudan, because we need the attention of the world.”

When I asked if he was confident that Pope Francis, together with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, would manage to change the thinking of people in this country and move them onto the path of peace, Father Kizito responded:

Maybe not at once because the hatred and division are deeply rooted. But when we think about the two symbolic gestures he made—kissing the feet of the leaders in Rome in 2019 and then coming here in a wheelchair—these are powerful gestures that reach people’s hearts. They may not bring change overnight, but when we reflect on these, I think something will change. I think someone has cried on our behalf enough. Let us now cry for ourselves. Let us change something.

Father Kizito spoke also about “the amazing meeting” Francis had with 12 Jesuits from South Sudan at the Vatican nunciature the previous evening. He said his head was “still spinning” from that encounter. He was struck above all by “the pope’s simplicity! He was so simple. He was so relaxed, maybe because he was surrounded by brother Jesuits. But it was amazing; you could easily forget we are with the pope.” (The Jesuit journal La Civilità Cattolica has published a transcript of that meeting.)

“Pope Francis’ message is really about a personal relationship with Jesus,” Father Kizito said. “His message remains after him. When you think about what he has said, it’s not these broad, dogmatic statements out there about what the church teaches. No! He brings Jesus next to you…. It’s a very personal message. Peace! Let’s have peace around here. Let’s grow tired of war. I hope that message will sink in when he’s gone and we go back home to our daily lives.”

“He came to gather us together to pray as believers in Jesus, to pray for peace because there’s a lot of bloodletting in this region.”

“I think people have become tired of fighting to some extent,” he said. “There is fatigue. And then there’s prayer, the prayer for peace; and you know the longer we stay with peace, the more we get used to it, and then maybe we can rediscover one another.”

I asked what it means to the South Sudanese that the pope came in a wheelchair. Father Kiizito replied: “I think in Africa, that means a lot. He’s an old man. He gets off a plane and gets into a wheelchair. That strikes us; grandfather has come!... We admire his courage. He’s in pain, and he’s still coming to visit us…all the way from Rome. There is power in that symbolism. And if his words don’t mean anything to us, his actions, I think, will make us think. That’s my hope.”

I recalled that when we drove in from the airport with Pope Francis to Juba city, we saw hundreds of thousands of people turning out to greet him. They cheered, danced and waved branches of trees. That seemed to indicate their great desire for peace. I asked Father Kizito how he read this tremendous welcome.

“I think Pope Francis is the one man in the whole world that can gather people from across the board,” he said. “People will come because he’s a head of state. Others will come because he’s the head of the Catholic Church, which is quite significant around here. Some will come because he’s a Christian. And this time around, its ecumenical, so he can cut across political divides. He can cut across nationalities and religious divides in a truly unique way.”

“You know the longer we stay with peace, the more we get used to it, and then maybe we can rediscover one another.”

Earlier, I asked Father Kizito about the work the Jesuits are doing in the country, and he mentioned that some are running Loyola Secondary School, which has a vocational component, in Wau, the country’s third-largest city. Before the Mass, I spoke with the school’s principal, Jean Baptiste, S.J., who told me the school was started in 1984 by the Chicago Province of the Jesuits. “Everything went peacefully up to 1987 when the government transformed it into a military barracks for the next 23 years,” a period of armed conflict, he said. But after the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement signed in Nairobi, Kenya, it was reopened as a school, and the Jesuits took it back.

Since 2008, Father Jean Baptiste said, it has been a mixed secondary school of boys and girls, with new compartments added for vocational and technical training. Last year, it had some 500 students. While there are other secondary schools in the area, he told me that “this is the only one owned by a religious congregation, and it is the most outstanding. It is the only Catholic secondary school in Western Bahr el Ghazalstate.

The students don’t have to be Catholic, he said, and they come from all different walks of life and age brackets; some are single mothers. They or their parents pay a small contribution if they can afford it, but the Jesuit province, helped by “well wishers,” covers 85 percent of the total cost. After graduation, some students go to work for government institutions, while others go to the vocational sectors to specialize for different jobs. During the holidays “almost every boy goes to [work at] a construction site to be able to get something for school fees.” Being educated enables them to find employment in a land where still too few have any qualification. There is a great need for qualified people in this war-torn nation of 13 million people, two million of whom are internally displaced; 2.3 million are refugees in neighboring countries.

As we concluded our conversation, Father Kizito introduced me to the Irish-born priest James Greene, a member of Society of Missionaries of Africa, the head of the Religious Superiors Association of South Sudan and the executive director of Solidarity With South Sudan. Father Greene, he said, is “making an extraordinary contribution” in this country.

“The pope is giving a fresh heart and a fresh spirit to the church here,” Father Greene said. “His message to the politicians—and the fact that it is an ecumenical message—is huge.”

Father Greene came here four years ago and is based in Juba. He explained that the Solidarity With South Sudan project was set up in 2008 by the two Unions of Superiors General in Rome in response to a plea for help from the Sudan bishops’ conference, which expressed grave concern at the lack of education and health care in South Sudan.

Father Greene described the Solidarity With South Sudan project as “an inter-congregational initiative, set up especially before independence [in 2011] to be a collective response of [religious] congregations to the situation here.” He explained that “it was also seen by congregations to be a new way of living religious life, so men and women, priests, brothers and sisters from different congregations, different spiritualities, living and working together. And the primary focus is capacity building, such as training of teachers, training of nurses, training of midwives, training of farm workers, training of pastoral workers.” Today, he said, “we have 23 members from 17 religious congregations here on the ground,” and “we have probably about a cohort of 200 to 300 congregations who support us.”

Commenting on the pope’s visit to South Sudan, Father Greene said, “There’s a big focus on the pope and his message, but I think it’s wrong to view it in isolation.” He recalled that since he (Father Greene) had come to this country, Pope Francis has appointed four or five new bishops, and as a result already a huge transformation is happening here, as they are trying to animate their dioceses, both in terms of pastoral ministry and in terms of reconciliation. “That’s important background to the pope’s visit,” he emphasized.

“The pope is giving a fresh heart and a fresh spirit to the church here,” Father Greene said. “His message to the politicians—and the fact that it is an ecumenical message—is huge. This is unique in Africa, that the pope comes with the leaders of the Anglican Communion and of the Presbyterians, and they come together and speak together to the leaders and to the people.”

More: Jesuits / Africa

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