|As those already familiar with Solidarity with South Sudan know, ours is an inter-congregational initiative of the UISG and the USG. The UISG (International Union of Superiors General) is the organization for congregational leaders of women’s religious communities around the world. The USG (Union of Superiors General) is the organization for congregational leaders of men’s communities, but its focus is more regional and less international in scope.
Every three years, the UISG holds a plenary assembly. This year, the gathering brought more than five hundred congregational leaders to Rome, with more than two hundred additional leaders participating remotely, through online technology. The meeting, held at the Ergife Hotel in Rome, went on for five days, with various keynote speakers and lots of small group discussions at various tables throughout the large auditorium. As Mission Promoter for Solidarity with South Sudan, I was invited to be in attendance.
On Thursday, we had a private audience with the Holy Father Pope Francis. By “private”, I simply mean that it was limited to members and guests of the UISG. In spite of his consistent leg pain, the Holy Father appeared, being pushed in a wheelchair. But, lest one think that his physical limitations in any way reflected a decline in his general health and wellbeing, I can assure you that he was as engaged and as animated in his interactions with the group as ever.
The pope had a prepared text, but he decided to lay it aside in order to entertain questions generated spontaneously by those in attendance. Nevertheless, his written remarks were well worth reading and reflecting on.
In those written remarks, the Holy Father describes women religious as “experts in communion”. This author can certainly relate to that image. Catholic Sisters have historically been the “connective tissue” bringing the people of God, and especially those on the margins and peripheries of society and of life, into relationship with the Church. Often it has been these Sisters who mediated the true meaning of the Catholic faith to those to whom they ministered in schools, hospitals, clinics, and social service agencies around the world. They are “the face of the Church” who, through their relationships and their various ministries of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, have brought people closer to God and his Church throughout history.
Pope Francis calls this style of ministry the “ministry of accompaniment”. Women and men religious do a lot of good in the world—teaching, nursing, counseling, advocating, etc.—but, for the Holy Father, what is essential above all is not so much “doing” as “being”: being present to people, being the face of Christ and his Church to people, especially the most vulnerable. Of course we should always do what we can to alleviate human suffering, but, at the end of the day, ours is a broken and sinful world and history teaches us that we will never succeed in eliminating all the suffering that we humans, in our cruelty and stupidity, inflict on one another. And so, even as we work to diminish the suffering in the world, being truly present to one who is suffering, not abandoning those who are already on the margins, is the greatest gift we can give.
The men and women who minister in Solidarity have chosen to lay aside the other options open to them in order to enter into relationship with the suffering people of South Sudan, a relationship of mutuality that “dignifies and heals”. We seek to live the gospel by “approaching the feet of wounded humanity and walking alongside [our] wounded brothers and sisters”. In addressing the leaders of women’s religious congregations, Pope Francis said, “You are expected to be weavers of new relationships so that the Church will not bea community of anonymous people, but of witnesses to the Risen One, in spite of ourfragility”. “The important thing”, the Holy Father reminded us, is to be able to give a faithful and creative response to the Lord”. Faithful and creative. That is what we seek to do with and for the people of South Sudan.
(Sr Carolyn Anyega, SSND in the photo)
11 May 2022
Fr Dave Gentry, Mission Promoter
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