Easter in South Sudan

A Personal Reflection

Richard O’Dwyer SJ

Our Holy Week in Lobone started with the blessing of the Palms on Palm Sunday, outside St. Kizito Chapel and the reading of the Passion according to Mark.

The following day, I drove to Torit, the seat of our Diocese, for the Chrism Mass with our bishop, Akio Johnson Mutek and the priests of the Diocese. The rainy season has begun and our way led entirely along unpaved dirt roads.

In many places along the 160 km long route, we made slow progress as often there were more large water-filled craters than roadway but after six hours, we arrived in Torit.

Torit is not just the seat of our Diocese; it is also the state capital of Eastern Equatoria, one of the ten states that comprise Southern Sudan. Single storey dingy and rundown shops line the main street. Most have red-rusted corrugated iron roofs. Torit had changed hands at least three times during the over two decades long civil war between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). As we walked around the diocesan compound, our hosts pointed out shell after shell of derelict buildings. The Italian Comboni missionaries who thrived here in the 1930s and 40s had had their entire mission reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment. The hope is now that a technical school will form the nucleus of a new University of Science and Technology of Southern Sudan.

The next day the Chrism Mass was held as dusk faded into night. All that remains of the Catholic church which was consecrated as the cathedral twenty five years ago are the entrance steps and the arches of the porch. We, priests and people, sat under a temporary structure of wooden beams and uprights covered by the ubiquitous corrugated iron. And then as the liturgy began with beautiful music and singing, I marvelled at the resilience of both people and priests and their bishop humbly presiding over all of us. I knew that everyone here except me had suffered dreadful losses of family and friends, adults and children and now their time had come to sing. The corrugated ceiling over my head felt strangely comforting and nurturing. I felt suddenly delighted I had made the trip, it was worth enduring every bump and crater and being bounced around for six hours the day before. 

Bishop Akio Johnson Mutek invited God’s Spirit on the oil of catechumens and the sick and when he poured the balsam and breathed onto the chrism its sweet fragrance filled the air. Towards the end of mass, the clergy of each parish were introduced and asked to stand and greet the congregation. I, an unknown stranger among them, was warmly greeted and cheered as one of their own. I marvelled at how these joyful, smiling people whose church, town and whose very lives had been reduced to dust, were able to rejoice so exuberantly, I felt I was witnessing a new beatitude in the making.

After supper, the bishop hosted a supper for the priests. After we had eaten, he rose to speak. In the middle of his speech, I was astonished to hear him publicly thank me for journeying all the way from Lobone to Torit and for helping to re-forge a strong link between the Diocese of Torit and JRS. The following morning I collected the oils for the people of Lobone and we drove back to Lobone, energised by our experiences in Torit.

On the evening of Holy Thursday we celebrated the mass of the Lord’s Supper after night had fallen. Six men and six women were chosen from among the congregation to have their feet washed. I smiled as I recalled my first time washing feet in 1993 in Boston, Massachusetts as a deacon and the perfumed pedicured feet of the Americans ladies. Somehow washing the feet of the farmers of Lobone, male and female seemed much closer to Jesus’ unexpected washing of his disciples feet.

On Good Friday, at noon, we held an outdoor stations of the cross walking for 2 hours all around Lobone. We began with about 50 children and adults but our numbers swelled at each station until we were close to a hundred people. Despite the advent of the rainy season we walked dry shod until the raindrops began to patter on our heads as we recited the final words of station thirteen. In the afternoon, when we held our ceremony of the passion of our Lord the chapel was full again.

During my leave in Kampala, I was able to buy an Easter candle and to bring it safely intact back to Lobone via air and road. Initially there was some resistance to holding the ceremony after dark but once I explained that the first part of the vigil was the ceremony of light and that it needed to be held after dark, everyone seemed satisfied. As it turned out we were able to hold our entire vigil by candlelight with a little help from a couple of storm lanterns and the presider’s head torch. However, I was very glad I had collected the oil of catechumens and chrism in Torit because we baptised 33 infants and babies at our vigil. For me this was the highlight of Easter. There was a great sense of anticipation and excitement. Everyone was very patient because it took some time to anoint and baptise such a large number of children. It was a marvellous celebration, full of energy and life making this an exuberant and joyful calling to mind and remembrance of the new life the resurrection bestows on all of us.
 
The next day, Easter Sunday, the mothers of the newly baptised infants invited me to a celebration to be held in the home of Odera and Florence, our storekeeper and his wife. We had food, music and singing. I arrived there at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and stayed for five hours. It was a delightful and joyful celebration. As I stood to leave for the JRS compound with one of our catechists, the mothers rose as one and sang and walked us, as I thought, to the gate of their home. However, we were escorted by the singing and dancing procession all the way to the JRS compound about a kilometre distant. I felt deeply honoured and cared for by this grateful and happy group. For me, it was a perfect end to my first Easter in Lobone and a wonderful taste of joy and exuberance of the Lord’s resurrection in the midst of a truly Christian community.

Richard O’Dwyer SJ, Pastoral Coordinator, Lobone, JRS South Sudan

 

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