|Words cannot adequately express what an unforgettable, memorable experience it was to see the Pope in South Sudan.
It all began on friday morning Feb.3rd when I went to the Juba airport to greet our 50 IDP’s (25 from Bentiu and 25 from Malakal camp) welcoming them to participate in this Papal visit.We then chose four of them to participate in an interview with a staff member of UNHCR office.After a nice lunch provided for us ,the four men and women named Thai and Elizabeth from the Beniu Camp as well as Jokino and Teresa from the Malakal camp were interviewed by Charlotte from UNHCR. Our people spoke from the heart about the reality of living in the camp and of their hope for the future.
On Saturday morning Feb.4 there was a meeting with Pope Francis for all Bishops,priests and religious sister and brothers at St.Theresa’s Cathedral in Juba at 9:00am. Sitting near the end of one of the pews,I was able to catch a glimpse of the Pope as he came down the main aisle in a wheelchair. His message to all all of us gathered there was to be prophetic in our searching for justice and peace in South Sudan. It was a message to end this senseless bloodshed of war and be prophets of peace.The day before when speaking to the president and governmental leaders,he reiterated that message to stop this senseless bloodshed and return to fulfill the peace agreement of 2018.
Pope Francis also referred to Moses saying that we also must help people out of suffering to a new life of hope and peace.
In the afternoon the IDP’s from Beniu,Malakal Wau and Juba were invited to special gathering to meet Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields. There over 800 people in attendance. After the opening prayer,the deputy of the head of UNMISS gave a speech explaining the serious crisis going on in South Sudan with renewed fighting,displacement of thousands of people,the increase of violence and sexual abuse against women and children and the severe food shortage crisis where over two thirds of the country(8 million people are hungry.
Following this came the most touching and impressive testimony of three young children named Joseph,Johnson and Rebecca (from the Beniu,Malakal and Juba IDP camps.
Joseph spoke to the Pope saying;
“Pope Francis,I have lived in an IDP camp since I was eight years old. I am asking for your prayers that one day I may leave this camp in Beniu and start a new life“.
“Pope Francis I am living in the Malakal POC camp and my parents are not able to find any jobs to help have food and the basic necessities we need.It is my Uncle who was able to get a job and provide for us.My dream is to leave the camp one day and fulfill my dreams.”
Rebecca spoke and said:
” We love you Pope Francis thank you for coming to be with us.I am asking your blessing today for all the children of South Sudan and those in my camp in Juba that one day we can all live in peace..“After the children spoke the Pope gave his message thanking the children for their words and assuring them of his support,prayers and blessings. The Pope was very clear in his message saying: “The future is not in refugee camps.”
He was encouraging all of to look to the future with hope. Immediately upon concluding his address ,twenty people were invited to personally greet the Pope,the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to shake hands with them. I had the honor to accompany one of the people from our camp named Teresa Nyagak to go with her and greet them.Each person upon greeting the Pope was given the gift of the rosary. It was an unforgettable moment to be with the people in greeting the Pope.
The gathering came to a conclusion with singing and dancing by the IDP’s and the blessing of them by the Pope. It was an incredible gathering to witness.
After this,I went with members of the South Sudan Council of Churches to an ecumenical prayer service by the three leaders at 6pm. The theme was “May they all be one.”(John chapter 17) and the reading from Acts of the Apostles chapter 2 “And they were all of one mind and spirit”. The service concluded with the three leaders blessing the people:
“May the Lord bless and keep you.
May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.“(Book of Numbers,Chapter 6).Upon conclusion of this Ecumenical Prayer,we all returned home for a needed rest to prepare for the next day.
On Sunday Feb.5 at 8:45am was the Celebration of the Eucharist with Pope Francis on his last day here in South Sudan.We all rose early at 5am to go to the John Garang Mausolem Park where we had the Ecumenical Prayer the evening before. Over 50,0000 people were in attendance as he came in the Popemobile to greet all of us before beginning the Mass. At the celebration he told the people that what jesus said long ago is now real today that they are the “salt” of the earth and the “light” of the world in South Sudan today .
.. The Pope also the people gathered there that two words are also important to remember,”hope and peace” He went on to say that the women of South Sudan are the hope of this country because of their resilient faith despite the struggles and sufferings they have faced for so many years. Everyone then immediately broke into applause and all started singing.
Before his final blessing he told the people of South Sudan:
“I hold you in my heart as I return to Rome today. You will always remain in my heart.”
When the celebration had concluded and the Pope left with the Bishops for the farewell at the airport all the young people and everyone else continue to dance and sing for what they had seen and heard today
Father Mike Bassano, mm
17 February 2023
Fr. Mike Bassano
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