the Church in the Sudan and Saint Bakhita

Saint Josephine BakhitaIn January of 2001, I had the privilege of interviewing William Saunders for an article about the persecuted Church in the Sudan. Just three months earlier, Pope John Paul II had canonized the first Sudanese saint, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, and so Saunders told me a bit about her in the context of helping me understand the situation of the Church in the Sudan. The Church now remembers her in its liturgical celebrations on February 8th of each year.

Pope Benedict XVI references Saint Bakhita at the beginning of his encyclical, Spe Salvi, as a model of Christian hope:

To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

Below, I’ve reprinted my article about the Church in the Sudan.

The Church in the Sudan Gives Witness to Christ During Persecution

This article originally appeared in the April 2001 edition of The Catholic Servant.

“In the holy days of Lent the ‘offering’ assumes a deeper meaning, because it is not just giving something from the surplus to relieve one’s conscience, but to truly take upon one’s self the misery present in the world. To look at the suffering face and the conditions of misery of many brothers and sisters forces us to share at least part of our own goods with those in difficulty…. The world expects from Christians a consistent witness of communion and solidarity.”

These words, taken from Pope John Paul II’s message for Lent 2001, invite all the faithful to examine the suffering face of Christ present in today’s world. The image of the suffering Christ manifests itself vividly today in the trials borne by the people of the Sudan. William Saunders, an attorney from Washington, DC, who is the founder and director of Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., spoke about the sufferings of the Sudanese people at a conference on evangelization held this past January at the University of Saint Thomas.

The Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is situated just south of Egypt and has a population of nearly 30 million people. A third of the population lives in the southern part of the country, where about half of the Sudanese people are Christian, and half are animists. Since 1983, when civil war broke out in the Sudan under increasing pressure from Islamic fundamentalists to impose sharia (Islamic law) on the country, more than 1.9 million people have died from war-related causes: starvation, bombings and other atrocities. This death toll—which is larger than the number of deaths due to the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda combined—averages out to about 14 deaths every hour since the outbreak of the war. Another 4 million people have been displaced from their homes. This is an Islamic holy war, or jihad, carried out presently by the ruling government, the radical fundamentalist group known as the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF, representing only about seven percent of the Sudanese population, overthrew the elected government in 1989 and immediately intensified persecution of all non-Muslims in the Sudan. William Saunders notes that the Christian population—in particular the Catholic Church—has been a special target for persecution, since it is seen as an obstacle to the NIF’s goal to make Islam the sole religion of the country. Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools are a regular target of bombings and other forms of oppression. However, moderate Muslims, who are tolerant of Christians and other religious traditions within the population, are also persecuted by the government.

The jihad—which seeks to eliminate all non-Muslim elements of the population through tactics such as torture, bombing, and the withholding of food and water from non-Muslim populations—operates on the premise that Islam is the rightful religion of the Sudan. However, Christianity was the religion of the land for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. In fact, as Saunders notes, the Church in the Sudan has apostolic roots. According to the book of Acts, one of the first non-Jewish converts to the faith was an Ethiopian from the court of Candace, who received the gospel from the deacon Philip. Scripture scholars say that Candace is a reference to modern-day Sudan. Christianity was eventually suppressed by the rise of Islam, but made a revival in the nineteenth century through missionary efforts. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, when the Sudan achieved independence from Britain, Christians again began to experience intensified religious persecution.

Since the southern part of Sudan is almost entirely non-Muslim and non-Arab, persecution is currently most intense in this area. Bombing raids are carried out regularly from high altitudes; according to Saunders, the precision of the bombing is not as important to the government as the creation of an atmosphere of terror. Many people have been forced to seek shelter in remote areas, such as the higher elevations of the Nuba Mountains in the south. Interestingly, the Christian population has been growing in the Sudan, flourishing amidst the persecution.

The Sudan also has a long history of support for the slave trade, and the present government has legitimized the practice of slavery; in a holy war, it is not considered a sin to take slaves. In a gesture that rankled the conscience of the present government, the Catholic Church canonized its first Sudanese saint in October of 2000, Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a woman kidnapped and sold as a slave late in the nineteenth century. Saint Bakhita eventually arrived in Italy, was emancipated, and became a member of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Her writings, which document the torture she endured as a slave over a number of years, are also a beautiful testament to her virtue, willingness to forgive, and the natural goodness that contributed to a holy Christian life when she was later catechized and received into the Catholic Church.

Saunders says that although there are regional efforts to put pressure on the Sudanese government, complicating factors have given the NIF some leverage. A border war between Sudan’s neighbors to the east—Eritrea and Ethiopia—has prevented these countries from uniting their efforts against the oppressive Sudanese regime. Also, the government is now profiting from the Sudan’s newly-discovered oil resources; by selling oil to other countries—most notably, to China—the Sudanese government has obtained a lucrative source of income to fund the jihad.

The greatest sign of hope for the persecuted Church in the Sudan has been the prophetic presence of a courageous, native-born Catholic bishop, Reverend Macram Max Gassis. He is bishop of the diocese of El Obeid, an area of Sudan that is twice the size of Italy. Named a bishop in 1988, he began speaking to international organizations such as the US Congress and the United Nations about the Sudanese atrocities. The NIF declared him a criminal for exposing the government’s human rights abuses, and he now lives in exile in neighboring Kenya. Saunders says that Bishop Gassis regularly carries out clandestine operations into Sudan to bring in supplies of food, water, seeds, and building supplies for wells, schools, churches and hospitals. The bishop also helps educate and house 1,200 orphaned children. In one region he visits, northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, there have been no resident priests for over twenty years. The faith is spread by courageous catechists, many of whom are women trained as part of Bishop Gassis’ efforts to advance the education of women in a country where women are considered to be second-class citizens. Gassis calls the catechists “heroes of love,” who live under the threat of torture and even murder. The bishop makes great efforts to be present to his people, holding clandestine Masses in the thick of sycamore trees for hundreds of Sudanese Catholics at Christmas and Easter. Sudanese Catholics travel many miles to receive with joy their faithful shepherd. During the holy days, the government will often launch bombing raids because they know the Catholic population will be gathered in larger numbers at these times.

William Saunders met Bishop Gassis in 1997, when Gassis was in Washington, DC, speaking about slavery and genocide in the Sudan. At the request of Bishop Gassis, Saunders founded Sudan Relief and Rescue, Inc., an non-profit 501(c)(3) organization designed to fund and support the work Gassis is doing in his native land. This is volunteer work for Saunders, whose livelihood is his pro-life and human rights work as an attorney.

Saunders has traveled with Bishop Gassis to the Sudan, notably during the Christmas season in 1998, and has moving stories to tell about visiting with orphaned children, viewing damage from government bombings, and participating in clandestine liturgies in the Nuba Mountains. Saunders is not simply a human rights activist; he is also, like Bishop Gassis, a man of deep faith who can penetrate the meaning of the suffering of the Sudanese people. “The persecuted Catholics in the Sudan are offering their sufferings for the whole Church! As Bishop Gassis says, the Church of the Sudan is a donor Church, offering up its sufferings on behalf of all the faithful,” says Saunders. They are expressing their communion with us; how will we express the same to them?

Acutely aware of the gift of the Sudanese people, Saunders notes the great witness they offer to the Church in this country, and notes that the current situation gives us the chance to serve our persecuted brothers and sisters across the globe. “If you say, ‘I am a Catholic’ in the Sudan, you are going to suffer. So if you don’t mean it, you don’t say it! In the materialism of America today, our enemies are more subtle and we don’t realize the compromises we’re making. It’s a great blessing for Christians here to realize what it costs to be Christians in other places; it wakes us up here in the United States so that we can help to alleviate the suffering of others and build up the Church.”

What, practically, can we do to reach out to our Sudanese brothers and sisters? First, Saunders says, we can offer our prayers. Second, we can make financial contributions to Sudan Relief and Rescue (SRR) to assist Bishop Gassis in his work of building hospitals and schools, training catechists and seminarians, caring for orphans, and providing food, water and medical treatment. While there are other relief organizations, SRR reaches territory that no other organization can reach: “The UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, a kind of a consortium of relief groups, had to negotiate an agreement with the government in order to be able to deliver food. The government won’t let them go into these areas where we are going. They do a lot of good in other parts of the country; I’m just saying that if you want to help in the areas served by Bishop Gassis, just about the only way to do it is through our organization.” Third, we can ask our elected representatives to push for a UN-backed no-fly zone over central and southern Sudan in order to end the bombing raids.

As Pope John Paul II noted last October during the canonization of Saint Bakhita, the plight of the Sudanese people is the responsibility not only of world governments, but of every Christian: “I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St. Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.” May this Lent be a privileged time for Christians worldwide to express their communion with the persecuted Church of the Sudan.

To contact the Sudan Relief Fund, write to: PO Box 7084, Merriffield, VA 22116-9798 or call toll-free: 1-888-488-0348. You may also visit the organization’s website at: sdnrlf.com. All donations are tax-deductible.

the virtue of hope

SpeSalviLately I’ve been thinking about hope: in particular, hope as a theological virtue. Given all of the sexual, financial and theological scandal in the Church in recent months, and all of the political scandal in the culture, many of the temptations I face today are temptations against hope. The recent popularity of the movie Joker, for example, impressed me as a troubling bellwether of a climate of despair. And in the Church, even in quarters in which the virtue of faith seems evident, often a corresponding hope is not manifest. Sins against charity are usually easy to spot, but sins against hope tend to be more subtle. The days are dark, and the temptations to let the light of hope be extinguished are legion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope (and defects of hope) as follows:

2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment.

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:

By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

In order to explore the topic of hope more deeply, in the coming weeks I’ll be returning to meditate on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), which was released on November 30, 2007.

In 2008, I hosted three evenings of discussion of Spe Salvi. All three discussions were audio recorded and edited (roughly!) and are available as audio podcasts:

  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 1-12: Introduction; Faith is Hope; The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church; Eternal life – what is it?
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 13-31: Is Christian hope individualistic?; The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age; The true shape of Christian hope
  • Spe Salvi, paragraphs 32-50: “Settings” for learning and practising hope: Prayer as a school of hope; Action and suffering as settings for learning hope; Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope; Mary, Star of Hope

my memories of Archbishop Flynn

Flynn-1I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.

And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.

Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.

I love him still, and I love him sorely.

I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.

As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:

Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.

Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity

His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.

What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.

Monsignor Romano Guardini

He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.

Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.

Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops

He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:

Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path.  (May 13, 1996)

Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it.  (May 29, 1997)

I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be.  (December 23, 1997)

Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27

May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.

more from pope emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope_Benedict_XVIThis week, in the German journal Herder Korrespondenzthe Pope emeritus has weighed in on the negative responses to his April letter on the sexual abuse crisis. From the National Catholic Register:

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has responded to criticism of his essay on the abuse crisis, saying many negative reactions have confirmed his central thesis that apostasy and alienation from the Faith are at the heart of the crisis – by not even mentioning God in their critique of his essay.

This strikes me as a very astute evaluation. Of course, in some quarters of the Church, his attempt to assess the situation in light of an abandonment of God is not being well received… see the combox over at America magazine, for example.

In Genesis 3, the serpent approached Eve and insinuated that an unhealthy mandate had been given by God. When Eve and Adam decided that the serpent had given the correct evaluation of the situation, everything crumbled into suspicion and fear. Once suspicion and fear were given reign, and the attempt was made to find happiness by declaring autonomy — the abandonment of dependence of God — Eve and Adam lost their true identity and everything went haywire.

Saint Paul made a similar point in the opening of his letter to the Romans:

Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions.

Are we really unwilling and unable to understand our current situation in light of this primordial and perennial situation?

The Second Vatican Council articulated it well:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.

Gaudium et Spes, 22