Sudan: Proud to be Christian

Sudan is the bridge between Africa’s Islamic north and black south – Recently a delegation of Aid to the Church in Need has visited the country. Only in 2016 the charity supported the church with almost half a million Euros.

Sudden rumbles shatter the quiet of the evening. The Comboni priests stop eating to listen. They only continue with their evening meal when it becomes clear that the noise was caused by thunder and not by aerial bombs. “This country has gone through so many wars and military coups that you never know what is going on,” an elderly priest, who has been living in Khartoum since the 1950s, remarked. And then explained that, in those days, Sudan’s capital, located at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers, was still a backwater on the edge of the Sahara.

The city was made up of single-storey mud brick dwellings that made the city hardly distinguishable from the soil on which it stood. The only architectural exceptions were some churches and the administration buildings that were still left over from Anglo-Egyptian colonial times. This all came to an end in 1956 with national independence. Since then, the country’s development has closely followed that of so many post-colonial countries, including the extreme social inequality and the urban-rural divide. The glittering high rises of glass only serve to accentuate the stark contrast to the misery being suffered by other parts of the population. As the plane begins its descent to the airport located in the middle of the city, the tin roofs of the shanty towns blaze in the relentless glare of the summer sun.

Hundreds of thousands moved to the capital from rural areas in their search for a better life and are now carving out a meagre existence at its fringes.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has ruled the country since 1989, which in and of itself is already a feat. The period when rival fractions of the army regularly staged coups against each other – the source of the trauma of the priests gathered for their evening meal – ended with this last coup. At least in Khartoum. Because even after almost thirty years of al-Bashir’s government, peace is practically unheard of in the country. Turmoil reigns in every corner of this multi-ethnic state, caused by ethnic conflicts, struggles over the distribution of oil, pastureland and other resources as well as religious tensions.

The east was embroiled in conflict up until a few years ago, when an agreement was reached by Khartoum and the Eastern Front. In the south, the government is regularly dropping bombs on opposition groups in the South Kordofan region. And in the west, in Darfur, the conflict cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. An international arrest warrant has been issued for al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the government in this region. Amnesty International claims to have evidence that the government army even used chemical weapons against the people during the last year.

However, the bloodiest conflict is currently taking place there, where Sudan’s black south once was. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the youngest country in the world descended into a bloody civil war. Warring ethnic groups – the Nuer and Dinka people – began to wage war against each other with what was at times inhumane brutality. Until just recently, the country was at the very brink of a hunger catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of refugees pushed back north, which they had left because they felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of skin colour and religion.

Many Arab North Sudanese still call the black people of the south, regardless of whether they are Christians or followers of one of the African religions, “abd”, or slave. And many were practically enslaved in the north. Christian human rights groups pressured the US government to step in for the independence of South Sudan. And that is what happened.

This is why Sudan, once Africa’s largest territorial state, is now just a torso. Now that the south has gained independence, the north has become even more Arab, even more Muslim. There are only a few native Christians in the more than 90 per cent Sunni north. They come from the sub-Saharan Nuba Mountains in the southern part of what is today North Sudan or from the state of Blue Nile. The rest are descendants of Egyptian or Levantine immigrants from the time when the Arab world knew no borders. Most of the Christians living in the north come from the south. Their situation in the north is extremely precarious because they lost their citizenship through the secession of the south.

The Roman Catholic church is the largest of the churches. It gained a foothold in the 19th century, scattering the Seed of the Word in an uncultivated field. Because after centuries of Islamic hegemony, nothing but ruins were left of the Christian kingdoms that had once existed on Sudanese soil for hundreds of years, beginning in Ancient times. Meanwhile, the British colonists tried to avoid religious tensions between Muslims and Christian missionaries and diverted the Christian missionary efforts to the south. They supposedly even had the grave of Daniele Comboni destroyed to prevent a pilgrimage.

Historically, the form of Islam practiced in the north is not considered a radical one. “My aunt is Muslim. But she always slaughters a pig for me on Christmas,” a Catholic cleric from the Nuba Mountains remarked, describing the religious tolerance one sees in day-to-day life. In general, Sudan does not seem to have a fanatic Islamic population. The veils of the women are often carelessly draped. The people, it seems, have enough to do with organising their daily lives and survival that they are not worrying about the observance of Sharia law in every aspect of their daily lives. A severe economic crisis has shaken the country, largely due to the secession of the south. The secession cost Khartoum 75 per cent of its oil revenue, about 30 per cent of the overall national budget. This led to cuts in energy and food subsidies. A potential for unrest. Which is why the ever-present police state is being especially vigilant.

Meanwhile, Sharia has now become the law of the land all the way through to the penal code, which includes floggings and other corporal punishments. The renunciation of Islam is a capital crime. As is blasphemy or insulting the prophet and his companions. Sudan’s foreign policy may recently have become less aggressively Islamic – in the 1990s, terrorist leader Bin Laden stayed for some time in the country – but little has changed in its interior. However, as long as they are members of registered communities, non-Muslims can usually practice their faiths without constant harassment. But things are a little more difficult for the representatives of unregistered communities, such as the evangelical free churches. Just recently, Czech preacher Petr Jasek was pardoned by the president after being sentenced to 23 years in prison. The man had been accused of spying. In reality, though, it was because he had aggressively proselytised among Muslims – a red line.

However, even registered churches are strongly discriminated against. The country is still a long way from the religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution. “Churches are being torn down each month,” a cleric said. “You never hear that about mosques. And if, then because they had to make room for a street and the mosque is rebuilt somewhere else.” Approval to build new churches is practically never granted. The church manages by using multipurpose buildings for divine services. The Catholic Church in particular despite massive discrimination is on fair terms with the government because of its charitable endeavours. Hospitals and more importantly schools relieve the burden of the state, making it more amenable to the concerns of the church. Especially prestigious schools are even attended by the children of ministry officials. This is not a disadvantage in a country where “friendship” is the underlying force of all things. This may be the reason why the state tolerates the large number of clerics from the south who lost their Sudanese citizenship through independence, transforming them into foreigners in the north. Visa-issues for foreign clergy remain a huge problem for the church though.

In spite of the many governmental restrictions, however, the church is actually its own worst enemy. Financially, the church is completely dependent on the support of the world church, the clergy is spiritually burnt out, tribal rivalries are often more important than communion in the body of Christ. “We are only at the very beginning of evangelisation here,” Archbishop Michael Didi of Khartoum confirmed to Aid to the church in Need. He has been the head of the national church since November 2016. “Up until now, we primarily focused on the figures. It was considered a success when a large number of people had come to be baptised. However, we baptised so many heathens without there having been a conversion,” the spiritual leader from the Nuba Mountains and thus one of the few native Christian North Sudanese, said. “Many people also misunderstand Holy Baptism. They bring their children to be baptised because they are sick and the parents believe that baptism will bring healing. But that is not the proper attitude. It shows us that the faith has not really taken root. Moreover, our local traditions are very strong,” In concrete terms, this means: going to Mass and then visiting a witch are not considered mutually exclusive.

The doctrine of marriage is especially problematic. The archbishop said, “The people want offspring and heirs at any price. And this is why they often have more than one wife. And if they only have one wife, but the marriage sanctified by the church remains childless, they take a new one. That of course cannot be reconciled with the Christian concept of marriage.” Archbishop Didi would like to react with a catechetical offensive. “We really need to start at the very bottom here and evangelise the culture. After all, it is not as though the doctrine of marriage is not being understood when you try to explain it to the people.” However, despite the many difficulties, the archbishop is not disheartened. “It gives me joy that the people are happy and proud to be Christians. They also wear Christian symbols with pride and conviction. And the people enthusiastically take part in church life. As I said, we lack depth. But the people have good intentions and an open heart for Christianity.”





Sudan: We must teach the Art of Living

Archbishop, you have been in office for only a few months as yet. What do you see as your biggest pastoral challenge?

I am concerned above all about education and the formation of the faithful in general. But I am particularly concerned about the spiritual formation of the religious, the seminarians and the priests. That is why we must use our facilities better. These have suffered greatly in terms of personnel since the division of the country in 2011, when many of our staff left us to head back south.

To what extent has the division of the country in 2011 affected the life of the Church?

Massively. For the greater part of the clergy and our pastoral co-workers were originally from the South. Here in the North there are very few native Christians. And even today we are in a situation where the overwhelming majority of my clergy are not from the North. Of the 51 priests and deacons only five are from the North. The rest are all from the South. This has consequences in terms of their right of residence. Following the split between North and South, the South Sudanese automatically lost their citizenship in the North. And so they are often at best tolerated here. Theoretically they could even be expelled from the country. But the authorities have understood how important the clergy are for us in the Church. So for the present we have no problems in this regard, thank God.

What is the situation with regard to priestly vocations?

Rather bad. Unfortunately, we have only a few seminarians. And the reason for this is hard to put our finger on. But undoubtedly it has to do with the fact that the mentality of young people has changed. Perhaps the strict discipline that I still remember from my own formation is no longer attractive. But perhaps also there is a lack of awareness as to how crucial the priest is for the Church. We are after all a sacramentally ordered Church. And so without priests there can be no Church. Consequently, we will have to encourage a deeper awareness of this among the people. Above all in the families. They must learn to see the need for priests as something that concerns them directly.

How deeply rooted is the Catholic Faith in Sudan? After all it only arrived here in the 19th century.

We are only at the beginning of the evangelisation in this regard. We need to rethink the way in which we proclaim the Word of God. Until now we have tended to look above all at the numbers. It was seen as a success if many people were baptised. But we baptised so many heathens without there being any real conversion. Many people also misunderstand the meaning of baptism. They bring their children for baptism because they are sick and they think that baptism will heal them. But this is not the attitude we need. And so the Faith is not really deeply rooted, but above all it is not fully understood. What is more, our local traditions are still very strong.

Can you give an example?

Yes, take the question of polygamy. The people want to have offspring and heirs at any cost. And so they often have several wives. And if they have only one wife, to whom they were married in church, but don‘t have any children, then they take another. That is of course not in accordance with the Christian understanding of marriage. And they also do not understand that our priests are not allowed to marry.

How are you responding to this?

Well, we have to really dig deep here and evangelise the culture. It is not in fact the case that there is absolutely no understanding for the teaching of the Church on marriage, when we endeavour to explain it to people. But we have to make them more fully conscious of it. This is a catechetical challenge of the first order, which I intend to tackle with my priests. We also need to form our catechists better. But above all it is down to us bishops and priests to proclaim and bear witness to the Faith. But as I have said, we cannot play down the problems, above all in conveying the teaching of the Church on marriage. We are fighting here against a deep-seated cultural mindset.

We have been speaking about the problems. But what encourages you when you look at your local Church?

I take joy in the fact that the people are happy and proud to be Christians. They also wear Christian symbols with pride and conviction. And moreover the people are strongly involved in the life of the Church. As I said, what is lacking is the depth. But the people are of good will and have an open heart for Christianity

How can ACN help the Church in Sudan?

ACN is an important partner for us, and we are very grateful for its support. You have to realise that as a local church, we have practically no income of our own but are almost 100% dependent on help from the universal Church. And so when we begin any major project, then we also need the support from ACN, which indeed we have been receiving for years now for our schools and other projects. We sense the solidarity of the universal Church and we are grateful for this. The Holy Father himself is following the situation in the Ttwo countries, especially in South Sudan.

Given the fighting in South Sudan, many South Sudanese Christians are also fleeing into the North.

Yes. This is a massive challenge for us as the Church. We are talking of several hundred thousand people who have fled to the North from the South. As the Church we are considering launching a major appeal to address the humanitarian challenges. In addition to the war refugees in the camps there are also those South Sudanese who, following independence, wanted to make their way back to their home lands, but have been forced on account of the war to remain in the North. Theoretically, they are not allowed to work here officially, because they have no papers. That has serious consequences. We in the Church are trying to help where we can. Above all we are trying to teach the children in our schools. But there are so many of them, and our resources are limited. We don‘t even have enough money to feed the children. The need is great; we cannot cope with it alone.


Egypt: We will never leave our country

Interview with Bishop William Kyrillos of Assiut on the occasion of his visit to the national office of Aid to the Church in Need in Brazil.

by Rodrigo Arantes (ACN Brazil)

Aid to the Church in Need – What is the significance of being a Christian in Egypt today?

BISHOP KYRILLOS – The significance of being a Christian in Egypt can be found in the joy of being salt, salt that is the giver of life, that gives life flavour. It is the sourdough that leavens a handful of flour – in the sense that it changes society and makes a difference. The gospel does not deceive us when Christ says, “If they have persecuted me, then they will also persecute you. But have no fear, for I will be with you, and no one will take your joy from you.” This is a joy that we experience even in times of persecution and sorrow.

What dangers does a Christian in Egypt face?

The challenge lies in the fact that just being a Christian already presents an obstacle. This is because an extremist group believes that redemption is only possible through one religion, through Islam. This minority has a negative impact on the lives of Christians. Because it pursues the goal of destroying them. However, we are confident in the words of Jesus, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

How do Egyptian Christians feel about being the target of persecution in the same country that offered Jesus and his parents refuge when they fled from Herod?

Egypt has always been a welcoming country. However, when the extremists – the Muslim Brotherhood – took power and the presidency, they openly said, “We want to cast out the Christians. They all have passports, we will send them to the United States and to Canada. We want to transform Egypt into a caliphate, into a Muslim republic.” We Christians answered, “This is our country. We will never leave it. You will not live in Egypt without us and we will not live in Egypt without you. Following the synod of the Eastern churches, Pope Benedict XVI said that a Middle East without its Christian minorities would no longer be the Middle East. The Christians had already established their civilization before the Arab onslaught. Afterwards, they adapted to living together with the Muslims. They could all continue to live side by side until the end.

What expectations do the Christians in Egypt have now after the recent trip of Pope Francis?

Doubtlessly, the Holy Father’s trip to Egypt strengthens the position of the Christians. It shows that the small flock of Catholics – with its less than 92 000 believers – is not completely isolated. Catholics from all over the world stand by us. From an ecumenical standpoint, this trip represents the seeds for a better harvest for Christians in general, but especially for relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, after the pope met with His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and they signed documents agreeing to take steps towards each other. They found that “there is more that unites us than that separates us.” The trip also shows the willingness of the current patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox church to move towards the Catholic church – to a greater extent than his deceased predecessor. This will strengthen the connection between the Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. As regards the Muslims, this trip tore down the wall that went up after a statement of Pope Benedict XVI was misunderstood. Another outcome of the visit was that the Muslims are now more open to a dialogue with Christians, especially after the embrace “between brothers” exchanged by the Holy Father and the Grand Imam of al Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University. The photo of this gesture, which is now being spread all over the world, is reminiscent of the embrace that St. Francis of Assisi exchanged with the Sultan of Egypt 800 years ago. The pope also reaffirmed his respect for Muslims. He said that violence and terror committed in the name of God or Allah or in the name of religion is an aberration and a sacrilege. These are not religious acts. The pope praised the efforts of the current Egyptian president, who has changed the image of the country in just a short time – he is transforming it into a modern country, he is taking care of the country and its citizens.

What has the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Needachieved in Egypt?

Aid to the Church in Need has provided much support in Egypt. Once when I met the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need in Germany, he showed me a list of the aid that the foundation has granted my diocese over the last ten years. It equalled a large sum of money. Thanks to this aid, churches have been built, future priests have been able to finish their training, convents have been built for religious sisters, vehicles have been bought, etc. All of this is part of pastoral care. I was also very surprised how many dioceses and local churches from all over the world have contributed to our maintenance. Because we have no other sources of funding. The priests live off of the annual Mass stipends – however, these are small sums. More important than the financial support is the fact that Aid to the Church in Needgives a voice to those Christians who do not have a voice in their own countries, so that they can make themselves heard all over the world. This is greatly appreciated. It is very important for all those who feel excluded and discriminated. I thank Aid to the Church in Need for the fact that, as a well organised aid organisation, it gives voice to Christians all over the world. Furthermore, Aid to the Church in Need sends out worldwide calls for prayer for a people, for a country. This is an important gesture, because joint prayer can move mountains. I myself have visited several offices of Aid to the Church in Need worldwide. It was quite remarkable that the same spirit was palpable everywhere. Both the full-time staff as well as the volunteers share the same deep spirituality. That is fantastic!

Behind the aid that is sent to Egypt are thousands of benefactors who can often only donate small sums, but still contribute to these efforts. What would you say to them?

You are the saints of the modern era. You are emulating the widow who could only give two small coins to those who were most needy. We can learn what Pentecost is all about from these kind of people.

 How do you manage to appear so calm despite having so many worries?

Pope John XXIII, who had to deal with many problems during his papacy, always took his worries to the tabernacle. There he laid them down and said to God, “These problems are not mine. They are yours. Take care of them!” On his desk, Pope Francis has a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. Every time he encounters a problem, he writes a note, “You are sleeping, but dream of my problem and offer me a solution.”


Central Africa: Catholic Bishop shelters Muslims

Effects of the violence are also being felt in other dioceses, says Bishop Cyr-Nestor of Alindao.

Spanish missionary Bishop Juan José Aguirre of Bangassou in the Central African Republic, has denounced the outbreak of revenge violence against Muslims in his city by the Anti-balaka, a group of mainly animist and anti-Muslim guerrillas. He was speaking to the Spanish office of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)

“They attacked Bangassou and the Moroccan soldiers of the UN forces called on all the Muslims to leave their quarters and go to the mosque. As a result, the mosque was packed full. They started to attack them and shoot at them; they were three days without eating or washing”, Bishop Aguirre told ACN. “I myself went there to stand in front of the mosque and persuade them to stop shooting. But they killed the Imam. We organised lorries so that we could carry them to the buildings of the Catholic Church.”

The bishop confirmed that the Catholic Church is at present sheltering some 2,000 Muslim refugees in its centres in Bangassou, in the southeast of the country. “We are sheltering them in my own house, and we have reorganised the minor seminary, the cathedral and some other churches. The UN forces are taking steps to organise food deliveries and to set up tents for the refugees.”

Also present at the time in Bangassou, together with Bishop José Aguirre, is Cardinal Nzapalainga of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. “Together with him we are engaged in dialogue with the local chieftains to stop the people looting in the Muslim suburbs, which have been systematically attacked. And we are also negotiating with the Anti-balaka to persuade them to leave Bangassou. This is what we were negotiating about this afternoon”, Bishop Aguirre added.

“In the 35 years I have lived here I have never seen this inter-communitarian violence before. Ever since Chad sent in fighters of the Islamist Seleka alliance into Central Africa, we have been witnessing violence”, the bishop explained. “Now we have 2,000 people here who have no idea what has happened to their property, their homes; everything has been stolen from them. We have buried over 50 bodies, together with the Red Cross. We helped them with the vehicles of the Catholic mission.”

“Now we have to set up refugee camps for these homeless people, and on top of this the rainy season is just starting and we have to provide shelter for the people. But we hope and believe that one day they will be able to return to their homes and that there will be peace here once more”, Bishop Aguirre concluded.

Another Bishop, Mgr. Cyr-Nestor of the diocese of Alindao, which is also in the south of the Central African Republic, has likewise addressed a message to ACN, denouncing the new clashes between factions of the Seleka and the Anti-balaka, who are still present in the region.

The violence erupted on 8 May in response to the abduction and murder of several young people in Datoko by the Seleka. Following the intervention of UN troops, the situation appears to have calmed down for the moment. Nevertheless there are still around 5,000 refugees, who are currently being cared for in various centres of the Catholic Church, including the bishop’s house, the catechetical centre, a school and a convent. The diocese is beginning to have difficulties providing food and water for everyone and the priests are seeking help from the local population, given the lack of NGOs in the region.

ACN has offered help to the diocese of Alindao, where for the moment the local diocesan Caritas is addressing the most urgent needs.


Christians give Hope - Algeria

Algeria is a ticking time bomb, with a surge in migration, an uncertain political climate, and an economic crisis facing its 43 million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are aged under 30, with one-third of its young people unemployed. And the Islamists are waiting for their moment.

Such a situation needs hope, hope in the future of the country. Father Paul-Elie has this Hope. He knows his own country, he knows his own people, and he has an insight in to what people are thinking – and not just the Christians. As a young man he was a Muslim, in those days he was called Ali. He lived through the dark years of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.

Over 200,000 people died, in a pitiless battle between Islamist extremists and the army. That was when he lost Hope, no longer believing in anything, focusing only on his studies towards his diploma in information theory. One day he went with a cousin to a hidden chapel run by an Evangelical Christian community. ‘There I heard Jesus’, he recalls. ‘He spoke to me by my name and told me He was protecting me and had always done so. I felt loved as never before. I was deeply moved, and for ten minutes I could only weep.’ 

He was baptised, but he still hungered for the Truth. Years later a Catholic missionary revealed the fullness of Truth and he converted. But Islamists learned that he had converted, and hunted him, threatening his family. He left for Europe, still restless at heart. In Belgium he joined a religious community, then moved on to France and at the age of 34 began to study Theology. Six years later, in 2016, he was ordained to the priesthood.

Now he is home again, a priest of the Missionary Fraternity of John Paul II. In the name of the Fraternity, or rather ‘in Jesus’ name’, he has returned to Algeria. ‘I am needed here’, he says. ‘My heart is at peace, even if the storms should rage around me.’ He recalls the words of Saint Teresa of Avila who once complained to the Lord, saying Where were you, my beloved Jesus? Where were you during this terrible storm?’ 

Our Lord responded, I was in the innermost depths of your heart.’ That’s how Father Paul-Elie feels as well, and it is this inner peace from God that he wants to bring to his people. According to the Protestant Church of Algeria there are over 200,000 converts from Islam, most of them are Protestants, but the number of Catholics is also growing.

Precise figures are hard to come by. Most live in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria where Father Paul-Elie comes from. Many of them live widely scattered among the mountain villages.

He wants to bring them the Lord in the Eucharist. He wants to lead a ‘dialogue of coexistence’ between Catholics and other faiths in the villages so that they can all experience the love of Christ.

But for this work he needs a robust vehicle, and he has asked us to help him. We have promised to help him bring Hope, invincible Hope in the Risen One.

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

Co-workers in the Kingdom of Love

In her ‘Prayer on growing older’ Saint Teresa of Avila says: ‘Lord protect me from gloomy saints. Keep me reasonably sweet, for a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil’.

The discalced Carmelite Sisters of Barquisimeto in Venezuela are not necessarily all saints, but old and sour they certainly are not – rather they are all loving and affectionate.

And yet these daughters of Saint Teresa do not have an easy life. Barquisimeto’s eleven Sisters also suffer from the poverty afflicting their once oil-rich country, which has been brought to its knees by political and economic mismanagement – and a social crisis bordering on civil war.

The worst thing for them is the lack of medical supplies, which two of the Sisters depend on for their lives. Many foodstuffs are largely unobtainable and even water is in short supply.

Moreover, they have no running water, and they cannot afford to bore a well in the convent grounds. Meanwhile, there is a growing climate of superstition and idolatry in the country, involving the theft of human organs and bones obtained through the desecration of graves.

To avoid this danger, the Sisters have had to remove the mortal remains of their deceased foundress and fellow Sisters from the public cemetery and laid them in a place of safety.

‘Through our prayers we are co-workers in the Kingdom of Love, even in this world’, writes their 37-year-old abbess, Mother Isabel. Five of the 11 Sisters are younger than her. Without outside aid they could not fulfil their vocation and mission of devoting their whole lives to God in prayer.

It is a similar story for the 32 Trappist nuns in Barquisimeto. Sister Lilian has already had two strokes and Sister Bernarda suffers from muscular dystrophy and high blood pressure. The others go without in order to pay for their medication, yet as Mother Paola writes, ‘This will still not be enough. Nevertheless, we continue to pray and work, with joy and hope in our hearts.’

Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto adds his own plea: ‘Please help. The Sisters are indispensable to the archdiocese. We need the prayers of these Sisters.’ 

ACN is determined to provide the Carmelite and Trappist Sisters in Barquisimeto the little they need to survive.

It is likewise a matter of survival for the Carmelite Sisters in Sebikotane, in the Archdiocese of Dakar in Senegal. Again, as Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye assures us, their prayer is ‘an enormous support for the diocese, and especially for the seminary where Senegalese priests have been trained for generations’.

But the Sisters need a car, to transport the vegetables grown in their convent garden and the chickens they raise to the market in Dakar, 30 miles (50 km) away.

This is the main way that the Sisters, who come from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, the Cape Verde Islands and Senegal support themselves.

The old car is now worn out by and costing them too much in repairs. We have promised them a new car.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

The Truth about Prayer: Light from Light

In the book that he considered his most important work, the Doctor of the Church Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote something many people today might find hard to hear: The person who prays will most certainly gain Heaven. But the person who does not pray will likewise certainly be eternally lost.’

The book has the challenging title, ‘Is Prayer Necessary?’ The contemplative Sisters answer the question with their lives. For some Sisters their work is to pray for the Church, others serve God in a more active life. Prayer always has a social dimension – but social work without prayer redeems no one.

For the Poor Clares in Madagascar this is self-evident. They have five convents on the island, knowing that the social problems here cannot be resolved by work alone. ‘We want to fulfil the wonderful dream of saving many souls through the offering of our lives’, says Sister Laura. She is one of six Sisters living in the newest convent, which has just been founded.

Like three of the Sisters there – Chiara, Gloria and Celeste – Sister Laura comes from Sicily, the other two – Agnes and Francesca – are from Madagascar. From their convent they hope to light up the Diocese of Ambanja. It is called ‘Kintana Manazava’, which means something like the ‘Convent of Light from Light’.

They want this light to light up the darkness of people’s lives here, especially the lives of the women, who often find themselves left alone with their children – as there is little sense of family cohesion in Madagascar.

There are only a few schools, the illiteracy rate is high and even the religious life suffers from a lack of education, while across the island superstitious practices are widespread. Poverty and unemployment, prostitution and drugs are a bitter truth of daily life. Electricity and running water are a luxury, and many people have never even seen a car.

In order to light up this darkness, the Sisters begin with the light of faith, with prayer. One of the major concerns of their foundress was always to keep this balance between work and prayer, in which prayer must always take priority.

Rule No. 7 of the Rule of the Poor Clares says, ‘The Sisters must work with fidelity and dedication – but without suffocating the spirit of prayer and devotion. All other temporal things must serve HIM alone.’ For the Sisters it was a sign from heaven when one of the parishes gave them a statue of Our Lady to mark the opening of the convent. During the Marian months of May and October the statue of the Virgin of La Salette travels from house to house so that people can pray the Rosary before it.

As well as the six professed Sisters there are four novices and four young postulants living in the new convent. They devote themselves to prayer and religious formation. The land is paid for, but they do not have the funds to extend the house or build the chapel, which will also serve the Christians of the local community – especially the women. They want everyone to be able to draw strength from prayer. We have promised the sisters part-funding. The Sisters’ dream is a selfless and godly one; it will find fulfilment.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

The Church Under Attack - Lenten Appeal

The people of Nigeria, particularly in the Diocese of Maiduguri have endured great atrocities.

Their churches have been desecrated; their loved ones slaughtered – and the women, girls and young men have been kidnapped.

The Islamic fundamentalist (BOKO HARAM) Campaign of Terror has:

  • Destroyed 200 Churches and Mass stations destroyed
  • Displaced 1.8 million people in Borno State  and
  • Created 5,000 widows and 25,000 orphans in Maiduguri alone

Over 100 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014 are still being held in captivity by Boko Haram and their whereabouts are unknown.

But it is not just the Islamic militants who are causing misery for Nigeria’s Christians – nomadic Fulani tribesmen are attacking towns and villages.

Problems such as these along with extreme poverty and widespread corruption confront the African Church throughout the continent and this largely goes to explain why in 2017 almost 30% of Aid to the Church in Need’s help went to support the Church in Africa.

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Matthew Man-Oso Ndgoso of Kaduna, Nigeria  said:

‘Aid to the Church in Need’s solidarity visit gives us hope and courage. We are immensely indebted to all of you.  Please be assured of our continued spiritual support and cooperation in your commitment to help the Church in need wherever she exists.’ 

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Riches of Grace - Seminarians

Nowhere is the Church growing faster than in Africa. Nowhere is there such a great wealth of vocations, of Catholic schools and of seminarians as on this continent. And yet nowhere is the Church materially poorer.

The bishops and seminary rectors are delighted at the growing number of candidates for the Church across Africa. They always check carefully to ensure that these are genuine vocations and not merely driven by the desire for security and safety. But then in practice, security is by no means certain anywhere, and in some dioceses life in the seminary can be quite dangerous.

In Burkina Faso – the ‘Land of the Upright’ – in the diocese of Dori, on the frontier with Mali, it takes courage and perseverance to consecrate your life to Christ. The people here are among the poorest in Africa, and gangs of Islamist terrorists sometimes cross the border.

But Damien, Ambrose, Daniel and the 42 other seminarians here are still determined to serve the Lord. They continue to study and in the holidays they live and work in the local parishes to deepen their understanding of life here in the Sahel zone. This will help them later when as priests they play a crucial role, leading the people to Christ. ACN is supporting their studies.

In the Central African Republic the Cardinal Archbishop of Bangui is rightly proud of his seminarians. Last year they all passed their end-of-year exams, three of them with distinction. And this despite the chaos that war has brought to the country. These young men long to lead their people to reconciliation and the peace of Christ. We are helping the Cardinal and  his 53 seminarians.

In Tanzania there are another 46 seminarians and in Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo several hundreds more.

Thanks to your generosity, they are able to devote their lives to God in the seminary. In this way, you too are sharing in the grace of this wealth of vocations.

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Thank you for caring for labourers...

Thank you for caring for labourers in the Lord’s vineyard

Africa – a continent of vast expanses, rich colors, torrential rainfall, remote mountain regions, and arid deserts. Marked by simple faith, with deep trust in God, Africa’s people are often resigned to adversity. Despite all the wars, Africa is by no means a continent without hope. Mission in Africa means facing the challenges of nature and constantly seeking new solutions.

One solution to the challenges of nature is a lightweight motorcycle. For Father Juliano, of the parish of Our Lady of Victories in Dedza, Malawi, it was almost his salvation. On his old bicycle he would constantly arrive exhausted at the outstation, 13 miles away, bathed in perspiration in the heat or soaked to the skin by the rain, often arriving late because of the mud, punctures or simply the need to take a rest.

‘It not only hampered my pastoral work but sometimes made it impossible’, he writes, ‘it was also a severe trial of my own faith, even in the very first year after my ordination’. 

Thanks to the new motorcycle we provided him, he can now do twice as much in half the time, and also better channel his energies and focus more on the needs of the people themselves.

Again in Malawi, Father Stephen, of the parish of Christ the King in Domasi, writes enthusiastically,

‘Thanks to this motorcycle I can climb every hill and mountain, and we have many small villages and chapels up there. Now it takes me one hour instead of three and on Sunday I can say two Masses instead of just one. Now I can perform funerals for Christians even in places where there is no public transport. I can organise Bible study groups and visit the elderly and sick. I take the sacraments to them, and we pray together. It’s as though by turning the throttle, I can also speed up the spiritual life and my evangelisation work.’

There are many other priests in Malawi and Zambia who feel the same way as Father Juliano and Father Stephen. Indeed we have funded 50 motorcycles in these countries and were able to get a 40% reduction in price by placing a bulk order.

Cars are much more expensive, both to buy and to repair, but their advantage lies in the distances they can cover and their ability to transport more people over flatter and wider expanses of territory. But in many places, notably Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda and other parts of Africa, motorbikes are the ideal solution.

Recently we have funded or promised around 100 motorcycles at a cost of €100,000. As Father Juliano writes, ‘Everything is fine. Things are running well in the vineyard of Our Lord Jesus.’

For the Sisters from the discalced Carmelites in Antioquia, Colombia, the convent chapel is the place where they live their vocation of prayer most intensively. That is why, in thanking us for our help in building their chapel, they also thank us ‘for believing in our vocation that God has given us, of praying here in seclusion’.

For these enclosed Sisters it is something of a miracle that their chapel has been built and consecrated.

‘Now we feel truly a part of the great ACN family’, writes Mother Maria Alba Lopez Rios, ‘not only because we have received so much from you, both spiritually and materially, but above all because we can now take part in your mission daily, through our prayer here in front of the Tabernacle.’


This article can be found in Mirror 0817.