Jesuits serving as witnesses in South Sudan



Noelle Fitzpatrick

Missionary Sunday Supplement
“You will be my witnesses”

Today, October 10 is the feast of Saint Daniel Comboni, an Italian missionary and one of the first to come to Sudan. He was the only surviving child in a family of 8. He endured the judgment of many for leaving his aging parents to follow a deep conviction to dedicate his life to the service of the people of Africa. Like so many before him, he died young (at age 50) during a cholera outbreak, but not before leaving an incredible legacy of love and service that lives on in South Sudan today. Tonight, St. Theresa Cathedral in the Archdiocese of Juba was packed with people who came to pay their respects. Her legacy is in education, in defending the role of women and the laity in an inclusive and expansive vision of the Church. He is considered an honorary patron saint of South Sudan. Today, his feast was celebrated throughout the country. The strength of tonight’s gathering testifies to the power of one person’s response to the call to witness to God’s love, a witness that inspired generations later.

With the support of Irish Jesuits International and Misean Cara, we as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) have a significant and valued presence in South Sudan. One is in Maban County, Upper Nile State, where we have a teacher training program, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, refugee and community services for local hospitality and provide various support to local schools. JRS Maban also supports the local parish and provides pastoral care to many people in the absence of a parish priest. Maban which is a very isolated and disadvantaged area bordering Sudan and Ethiopia where approx. 160,000 refugees and 60,000 locals live very simple and precarious lives. On August 17 this year, people here endured many severe flooding incidents. Heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands were carried up the Yablus River, flooding low-lying areas of Maban, destroying homes, crops and drowning small animals. When the floods started with our own compound flooded, pit latrines full and road access to many places including the refugee camps cut off, it was hard to begin to know how to start meeting the needs of others! Yet, by directing our attention outward, one of the ways we accompany people in their suffering is simply to go out and move among them, to be visible, to witness the suffering and resilience and from there, in faith, we find a way to meet the most critical needs – food, blankets and shelter. Jesuit and SVD (Society of the Divine Word) priests working as part of our extended team also continued to mobilize community preparations to celebrate the feast of St Comboni. In this way, we are also helping to create some normalcy, lifting people’s eyes and minds from the water to focus for a short time on this community celebration.

You will be my witnesses – in big and small ways, day by day

As we were moving through some of the communities affected by these floods, a woman started screaming. She was angry and frustrated. We stood up and listened. We understood that the heavy rain the previous night had taken its toll. She was tired of the water, the mess and the misery, and she needed to let off steam. So we listened, and after two minutes she was silent. Nothing was immediately resolved, but she felt heard and seen in her misery and frustration which seemed to give her some satisfaction. As JRS, we must also accompany and witness to people in this way. It is important to take the time to listen, to help carry a heavy bag over a body of flood water, to give something to the hungry animals around our compound, to take the time to drink coffee with the elderly as a sign of respect and care. These things do not require, in the early stages of a crisis, silver and gold, only a heart turned outward to the suffering around and around us.

For me, having a missionary spirit means courageously loving God and neighbor in word and deed in daily life. It means an “all-inclusive” bodily commitment to working day in and day out for justice and the common good. It means, in faith, doing what we can with the gifts we have been given and trusting the rest. You don’t have to come to Africa, or even leave your hometown to experience this commitment. Rather, it means making a clear choice about the life we ​​want to live, out of a deep desire, and being ready day by day to make sacrifices in the service of that choice.

When I visited other Jesuit works in South Sudan, I saw this same spirit alive and alive. The Jesuit mixed secondary school in the city of Wau, Loyola Secondary School, was occupied by the armed forces for 26 years during the civil conflict before being reopened in 2006. The Jesuits here have lived through much conflict and d insecurity but make this school a beacon of hope and possibility in which students realize a dream for their life. This year, the school was the top performer in the state in high school leaving exams. Father Jean-Baptiste is the headmaster who is known to give extra civics lessons at 6.30am at the request of the students!

In the Jesuit community of Cuibet in Lakes State, Father James is the headmaster of a small teacher training college and secondary school for students from rival Dinka clans. He knows that some of his students carry weapons. The culture of revenge as a form of justice for past wrongs is strong among these clans. The environment is fragile. Yet through this college where students live and study side by side, he models a different way and opens up a different vision of the future – a vision that connects the best of tradition and culture with a new way of to be and to think. In Rumbek, the Jesuits have also lived through many difficult years, moving with the people from periods of extreme violence to the current period of greater peace where new possibilities continue to emerge, and they work to meet the growing demand for quality vocational training.

In South Sudan, there are many difficult, dark and heavy challenges. It’s a place where your heart can be shredded over and over again, but it’s a place I love with all my heart. There is so much life, color, culture, diversity, kindness, kindness, humor and giving among the many peoples of this land. There is so much beauty and so many needs. We are the blessed ones to experience it. By starting with what’s in our hearts, minds and hands, working with people, we can help create new pathways into the future. If there is a more satisfying way to live life, I haven’t found it.

Noelle Fitzpatrick is National Director of JRS South Sudan. To donate to Maban Flood Response, contact Irish Jesuits International on 01 836 6509 or

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