Cardinal Wako of Khartoum, Sudan: Appeal for Peace

Author: Francesco M. Valiante


Francesco M. Valiante

Signs of hope for a suffering nation

There are two important "icons" of holiness on the journey of the Church in Sudan at the beginning of this millennium. The first has the simple smiling face of Josephine Bakhita, the Canossian Daughter of Charity who became the symbol of freedom and emancipation from every form of slavery. The second has the generous and intrepid features of Daniel Comboni, the great evangelizing Bishop of the African continent.

These two saints have opened the doors of the third millennium to Sudan. John Paul II canonized Josephine Bakhita on 1 October 2000 in the heart of the Great Jubilee. He proclaimed Daniel Comboni a saint on 5 October, barely two weeks before the ecclesial community of Sudan received the gift of this country's first indigenous Cardinal, Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako of Khartoum.

Today, the Church in this tormented land — for decades the scene of a bloody conflict — is experiencing a crucial and exalting period as the new Cardinal knows. For 21 years he has governed the largest, most densely populated Sudanese diocese: its surface area covers 981,000 square kilometres and it has a population of 21,113,029, including 939,466 Catholics. "In these events", he admits, "we are aware of the forceful presence of the Lord who wants to help us on our way. In the canonization of Bakhita and of Comboni, we can recognize the Pope's desire to hold up two particularly significant figures to the Christians of Sudan, so that they may rediscover the courage to follow in their footsteps of holiness".

John Paul II's continuous encouragement

Anyone who looks at history with the eyes of faith knows that "coincidences" are often no more than "Providence". This is what the Church of Khartoum has experienced several times in these trying years that straddle the two millenniums. "During my episcopal ministry", the Cardinal reveals, "I have noticed that whenever we start a pastoral project, the Holy Father never fails to confirm and encourage us on the path we have chosen by a gesture, word or sign. In this period, for example, we are celebrating the Second Diocesan Synod (that began in 2001), after the first one in 1987. Well, the Pope is making us realize that we must now push our boat further out into the deep. I believe that Comboni's canonization has really given us momentum. We have rediscovered in the numerous themes linked to the holiness of the missionary Bishop, topics that have been the subject of our synodal reflection. For example, evangelization must be an absolute priority. Then the Liturgy needs to be continuously rediscovered and renewed, and let us not forget community life and the family that were part of Comboni's pastoral programme. Lastly, there is the need for justice and peace. These are all themes that we have addressed at this Synod and on which we continue to work so as to respond generously and consistently to our vocation".

Comboni liked to repeat that it was essential "to save Africa with Africa!". The Church of Khartoum has made her own this demanding apostolic and pastoral programme. She has understood that only by drawing from her own vital energy is it possible to build an authentic future of hope for the country. It is enough to think that today at least 77 Sudanese priests work in the Archdiocese; 54 are incardinated in it, 23 belong to the Diocese of Torit. This year alone, on 20 July, the Archbishop has ordained 10 priests, Twenty-one of the 29 parishes are entrusted to local priests and only eight missionaries come from abroad. The most important diocesan offices are almost all held by Sudanese priests: from the Auxiliary Bishop to the Episcopal Vicar for the Clergy, from the Episcopal Vicar for Refugees to the Director of the Pastoral Section, from the Rector and Spiritual Director of the Minor Seminary to the Director of the Institute for Catechists of the Third Millennium. Even the Presbyteral Council and the College of Consultors are mainly made up of indigenous priests.

In this country the Gospel "harvest" is still plentiful and there is no lack of enthusiasm and good will among the "workers" that the Lord has been sending in recent years. At the present time 35 young men are studying at the Major Seminary of Khartoum, 20 at the Minor Seminary, and six are taking the spiritual orientation course. Consecrated persons are also doing their part. Today there are 24 Sudanese women religious who live and work in the Archdiocese. Every year, between 4,500 and 5,000 adult catechumens receive the sacrament of Baptism during the Easter Vigil.

As the Pastor and guide of the Christian community, Cardinal Zubeir Wako has always been in the front line with his "flock". He has repeatedly taken a firm stand against the violation of human rights and against the war. He has written many Pastoral Letters urging the promotion of peace and the renewal of Christian life. He has built up a fatherly dialogue with the country's youth. He has worked hard to promote the inculturation of the faith and appreciation of the Liturgy. He has taken special care of the parishes of the Archdiocese, to the point that he visited them all during the Jubilee; in each he held a three-day mission which ended with the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.

The tragic situation of the refugees

The tragic plight of the refugees from the south and from the Nuba Mountains prompted the Archbishop to set up a special Episcopal Vicariate for Refugees in 1991. Concerned about the suffering of the weakest and the most defenceless, the Cardinal also implemented a large-scale project for child refugees in Khartoum and in the surrounding region. At least 70 primary schools have been opened for them; they are attended by 42,000 students and conducted by about 1,000 teachers. This is a conspicuous and demanding commitment which has required a great mobilization of means and stamina.

"Several times already", he says, "we have been tempted to close down the schools. We could hardly go ahead. Then the Lord helped us, especially through the support and encouragement of the people. If these schools have been open since 1986, it is a sign that God's Providence is helping us: there is no other explanation!

"What strikes us", he continues, "is the fact that families are continuing to send their children to school despite the difficulties. I am convinced that without our schools the majority of these 42,000 children would be left on the streets with no one to take care of them".

It was precisely his interest in the formation of the new generations that inspired the Cardinal to launch an appeal on the occasion of Comboni's canonization: to found a Sudanese Catholic University named after the new saint.

"We were wondering", he explained, "where these children would end up after primary and secondary school. We realized that it is up to us to train lay Christians to be able to carry out their duty in the Church and in society. The lay people themselves have begun to be aware that they must play a more important role in the ecclesial community; not only around the altar, but also where they live and work.

"If we want this to happen, then the Church must also be present in their educational process at university level. So far", the Cardinal admits, "the Christian presence in politics or the economy has not been very important. As we see it, this university must be an opportunity for lay people to be more incisive, also through a method of formation that will teach young people to reflect, think and question themselves on what they are learning.

"It is not enough to learn things by heart and repeat them by rote. We are convinced that education is an integral part of the life of this people. They have suffered deeply and want to be helped to rediscover themselves and their dignity".

The mission of teaching reconciliation

An important mission awaits the new Cardinal and the entire Sudanese Church at this decisive turning point in history: to build the country's future on foundations of peace. We hope there will be peace. The Bishops of Sudan have coined a slogan aimed to set a Christian lifestyle: Live peace even in time of war. The ecclesial community has made this its task. "We think", he said, "we must work to form people in a spirit of peace, collaboration and forgiveness. Only in this way will it be possible to turn away from the spiral of hatred and violence in which we are caught up. The Church wants to proclaim reconciliation, she wants to put in her word for peace and hope. This is not a political programme, it is a religious mission. And this is what we are seeking to do.

"I cannot tell when peace without violence will really be achieved. But even if a ceasefire is not reached immediately, we hope that people will at least begin to live in a slightly more human way and uproot from their hearts the spirit of hatred, revenge and destruction".

The people of Sudan have been brought to their knees but are not defeated. The experience of the Cross has tempered their souls. Their eyes, proud, if veiled by tears, are turned to heaven; and their hands are held out in search of comfort and solidarity. "We

must be able to listen better to what the Lord says", the Cardinal asserts. "We must ask ourselves what he wants of us at this moment in history. The canonization of Bakhita and of Comboni, and then the creation of the first Sudanese Cardinal are not only a cause of pride for the country. Above all, they are a sign that the Church and the Pope in particular are close to us, encourage us and share our suffering. Sudanese Christians feel helped and encouraged to forge ahead in these difficult times. We do not forget the visit of John Paul II in 1993, nor his repeated appeals for peace in the country. We thank him, and today, even more than for the past, we feel that we are not alone on our journey".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 November 2003, page 5

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