Bishops Ricard and Cooney Travel to Sudan

Bishops Ricard and Cooney meet with CRS country representative Mark Snyder and head of programming Hani El Mahdi. Photo by Bill Schmitt/CRS.

Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, and Bishop Patrick R. Cooney of Gaylord, Michigan, are currently in Sudan to meet with the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference as well as Catholic Relief Services staff. Here, Bishop Ricard shares some reflections from his first days in the capital.

Khartoum, Sudan — July 24, 2007

For the first time in almost 20 years, Sudan’s bishops are reunited in Khartoum, having come together to participate in the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference plenary. This joyous occasion marks a new unity, with the separate north and south conferences merged once again into one.

This Sunday on the grounds of St. Matthew’s Cathedral a sense of jubilance and relief prevailed at the open-air Mass and subsequent celebration of music and dance. Around 5,000 people gathered outside the church, expressing an incredible outpouring of affection for the bishops by shaking and kissing their hands. Young dancers and drummers from every major tribe in South Sudan entertained the crowd with music, song, dancing and prayer. The festive mood moved audience members — including nuns, priests and a bishop — to join the dances of their related tribes. This celebration felt like a real turning point, as if people were removing the last restraints of war and feeling free to finally express their faith and joy.

When we met with the bishops the following day, it became clear that the reality in Sudan has changed. Peace has created a whole new set of issues for the conference to address. People returning to the South have rising expectations and are looking to the Church and parishes for schools, medical care and more. Anxiety over delivering all that is needed tempers newfound optimism as people realize that rebuilding won’t happen overnight — even if people are ready to return home now.

Khartoum has also changed. The quiet sleepy town I visited with Ken Hackett in 2004 is now a burgeoning capital with plenty of traffic and construction cranes. There is also a greatly increased presence of southerners, especially young southerners taking advantage of Khartoum’s growing employment opportunities.

Today we will move on to Darfur to visit with some officials and tour CRS projects. Our briefings to date have noted a relative decrease in terms of violence and insecurity and an improvement in the ability to reach more people than before; nonetheless, most access is by helicopter because roads remain dangerous. We should bear in mind that this conflict is far from solved, and 2 million people are still not able to return safely to their homes.

The Sudanese bishops are deeply concerned for their country, both in regard to Darfur and the challenges of facilitating return to the South. They are working closely together to address common problems and are speaking with a unified voice. This represents a new day and is clearly the result of the long-term commitment of CRS and other NGOs who stuck by the Sudanese people, walking with them and accompanying them in their struggle.

Peace and hope for the future now exists between the north and south. May it soon reach Darfur.

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