By Michael Hill
The rain thundered down in Juba, the capital city of south Sudan, making for what seemed a rather inauspicious beginning to the 101 Days of Prayer campaign that was kicking off on the International Day of Peace, September 21.
After all, hundreds of people were expected to march through the streets of Juba to official ceremonies held at the cultural center of the University of Juba. That seemed impossible with the heavy downpours turning the dusty dirt streets into oceans of mud.
But it turns out that the Sudanese would not look at rain on their parade as a bad sign. In this part of the world, where people live close to the ground, where droughts are all too well-known, rain is a good sign. Rain brings life. If it rains on a couple’s wedding day, that’s a fine omen. Rain was blessing the 101 Days of Prayer for Peace.
So people didn’t march through the streets, but hundreds still made it to the cultural center. Brass bands played spirited songs. Choirs sang moving hymns. Uniformed students marched in carrying banners. Officials spoke. Juba’s Archbishop Paolino Lukudu Loro gave his blessing to the proceedings.
The 101 Days of Prayer for Peace is aimed at the January 9 referendum on possible independence for the south. The north and south of Sudan have fought long and devastating wars in the past. Many fear a return to violence.
“The options of unity or separation are both means for us to achieve the long awaited peace of Sudan that we are looking for,” Archbishop Loro said. “Starting today, for 101 days, we religious leaders and followers will all kneel down, raise up our hands and close our eyes in prayer asking our Father to grant us a just, fair and respected referendum.”
The 101 Days of Prayer was launched by south Sudan’s bishops, but it is the brainchild of Sister Cathy Arata who has been in this part of Sudan for the last two years. A native of New Jersey who grew up there and in southern Maryland, she now calls Baltimore home as that’s the where the mission house of her order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, is.
Sister Cathy saw all the complexities and tension that was building up over the referendum, the many dire predictions that this country would revisit the brutal warfare that killed over a million and displaced millions more, many into refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and other neighboring countries. But even as she saw the bickering of the politicians, she also saw the deep faith of the southern Sudanese people.
Sister Cathy said that Catholic Relief Services was one of her major backers as the 101 Days of Prayer campaign moved from an idea to a very powerful reality. The 101 days stretch from the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21 to New Year’s Day when the Pope traditionally calls for peace in the coming year. And this year that call will come only a few days before the referendum.
“What we hope the 101 Days of Prayer does is create a space, a sacred space, where the planning and discussion and all the preparations for the referendum can take place,” Sister Cathy said. “We hope that people around the world will join us.”
The bishops joined in quickly mainly for one reason—they have seen the power of prayer in such crises before. Father Nicolas Kiri told of the hunger that gripped Juba in 1988 as the war raged around the city.
“We added a special prayer of Francis of Assisi to our Masses,” he said. “That year the mango trees had an especially large harvest. We saw that as a sign that God had heard our prayers.”
The next year food aid from the United States arrived and the people of Juba did not face such hunger again. In 2005, their prayers were again answered as peace came to Sudan with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that included the provision for the January 9 referendum.
After a day of speeches and song and sports and celebrations at the cultural center, several hundred people gathered in front of Juba’s cathedral for a special late afternoon Mass, celebrated in English and Arabic to mark the end of the first day of the 101 days. Archbishop Loro presided over the colorful rite with dancing and song and ritual that celebrated the traditions of many cultures.
He called the referendum “the greatest event in the life of our country.”
“This is something that has never happened before and it is happening in our time,” the Archbishop said. “That is why we must be responsible, before God and before the people, in our decision.”
Monsignor Joseph Ciampaglio, a CRS Global Fellow visiting Sudan, was among the many clergy on the temporary stage that held the altar. As the Mass neared its conclusion after the sun had set, Archbishop Loro called on Monsignor Ciampaglio to address the faithful.
He said that the Catholics in the United States would be joining the Sudanese in the 101 Days of Prayer. “I am here to let you know that we stand and we pray in solidarity with you.”
As Monsignor Ciampaglio looked out over the crowd, a nearly full moon looked down at him.
“This day began with rain but the clouds have separated and now the moon has come out,” he told those gathered there. “A new day has begun and our prayer is that your future be filled with hope.
“God bless you all.”
Michael Hill is a senior writer for CRS, based in Baltimore. He traveled to Sudan as part of a CRS/USCCB delegation for the launch of the 101 Days of Prayer for Peace in Sudan.
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