ROME — In the past several years, Pope Francis has made it very clear that he would like to visit South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011. 

However, the incredible optimism that came with the independence, “is being replaced by a sense of great realism,” said Father Jim Greene, an Irish priest who serves as executive director of Solidarity with South Sudan.

The Argentine pontiff has dangled the carrot of a papal visit for whenever the country achieves a lasting peace. Greene told Crux that even though such a visit would be “a dream,” the situation is far from being ideal.

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Violence in the country, he said, can be “random, senseless, and terrible.” 

Catholics are almost forty percent of the South Sudanese population, and the Church operates by far the largest network of schools, hospitals and social service centers.

Speaking from Juba on Dec. 13, Greene spoke to Crux about the organization he leads, what Catholics from around the world can do to help a country that usually tops all the underdevelopment rankings.

Crux: When did you arrive in South Sudan?

Greene: I arrived on January 26, 2019. That makes me a rather new person here. Having said that, I work in an organization that has been here since 2008.

And did you ask to be transferred to South Sudan, or how did it happen? 

I think I was sitting out in the sun for way too long one day! I was living in Jerusalem. I was there for seven years, and all along, there was something that I found attractive about South Sudan and Solidarity with South Sudan. When I was in Rome, between 2004 and 2010, there was an entire inter-congregational movement product of what was happening in this country. I was very taken by it, but didn’t have the opportunity at the time to join.

Men brandish weapons in the Holy Trinity Peace Village in Kuron, a remote community in South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria State. The region has been plagued by cattle raiding and child abduction in recent years. The Catholic Church-sponsored Holy Trinity Peace Village, centered in Kuron, has worked for years to foster reconciliation and peace between the region’s pastoralist communities, where weapons are commonplace. (Credit: Courtesy Solidarity with South Sudan/Paul Jeffery.)

In 2018, I realized that my mandate in Jerusalem was coming to an end, so I wrote to my superior, asking if I could come to South Sudan. And he agreed. I come from a congregation that’s called Missionaries of Africa, so of course, we’re very interested in what happens in Africa. And at that stage, we didn’t have a permanent presence in South Sudan. So he agreed that I come here and more recently, which I’m very happy to say, we have decided to open up a new parish in the diocese of Malakal. 

So I was kind of the first experiment from the Missionaries of Africa in South Sudan, but we are now four members. 

It’s a country that notoriously is at the bottom of every development list. And I think that as a new independent African country, it arrived with a lot of excitement and optimism between 2006 and 2010, but now I think that optimism is being replaced by a sense of great realism. 

Congregations are showing interest. By coincidence, I’m also the chairperson of a group that is called Religious Superiors Association of South Sudan, and we have 49 religious congregations present in the country. Now some of them might be just one or two members, but most of them would be either one or two communities. 

And all together about, I’d say there are about 400 religious members working in the country, including priests, brothers and sisters. I think it’s quite an expression of the Universal Church’s solidarity with what has been happening in South Sudan for the past decade, or 15 years.

Why do you think the Universal Church is so invested in this country? Because John Paul II got involved in the dialogue efforts, and of course, we have seen several gestures from Pope Francis. And this is not the only country currently suffering. 

There are many reasons. It’s a new country, and it’s one that continues to suffer a lot for all sorts. It’s also a country that comes from decades of conflict. Sometimes very hot conflict, sometimes a little more latent, but conflict and violent intervention in the country has long been a reality. There is also the background of optimism of a newly independent State in Africa, and how the Church was persecuted in the past by the mainly Islamic north. There is solidarity there, and I think that people who follow South Sudan see that it continues on many fronts. Hence the continuous solidarity. And Pope Francis in particular has taken this conflict resolution and seeking peace to heart.

In the next few weeks we’ll have the visit of Archbishop Richard Gallagher [Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State], and the role of the Church building this peace will obviously be discussed. 

And then there’s also the possibility of Pope Francis visiting South Sudan, as he’s said many times he would like to go.

That is the dream. Every year people ask if this will be the year, or if we will have to wait still. But I think that Gallagher coming is a good first step, and hopefully, the Church will be able to contribute even more actively in bringing the people together. And I think Francis is waiting for there to be a more lasting peace before he actually comes. 

You mentioned you’re working with Solidarity with South Sudan. What is this group about?

Let me go back a little bit. Solidarity with South Sudan was born during a congress for religious life in 2004. Part of that congress was about looking for new ways and expressions of religious life for the 21st century. By coincidence, some of the bishops of what was then southern Sudan, came to Rome and asked for the congregations to help in their country. It was then that the idea of collaborating was born, and it is in many ways, a new paradigm of religious living, because it’s intercontinental, inter-congregational, intercultural, and it includes man and women, religious brothers, sisters and priests, working and living together and trying to form a community despite the diverse background, and witnessing with their professions and lives that it is possible to work together.

Image captured in Riimenze, South Sudan, in September, 2021, related to the work of Solidarity with South Sudan. (Credit: Courtesy Solidarity with South Sudan/Paul Jeffery.)

We quickly said that we are obviously not big enough to address all the challenges in the country, so we tried to focus on strategic programs that would have a lasting benefit. And we came up with the idea of capacity building, that is, building the capacity of the Church in the country so that when the initiative is handed over, something will remain.

And the first two projects that came up were a teacher training college, for primary school teachers, because to this day there are very, very few nationally trained and recognized teachers; And also a school for nurses and midwife, because due to the war and other crisis in the  past, there were very few place for the formation of these. 

Both are thriving today, and the analysis of the need that was done in 2008 is as valid today as it was then. And then on top of that there an agricultural training program, which is to train farmers on new and diverse methods for agriculture that are environmentally sustainable.

And finally, on the pastoral level, we are training lay leaders, catechists, and also religious and priests with ongoing formation and retreats on the area of psychosocial trauma healing. More and more we realize that everyone in this country has been touched, either directly or indirectly by violence and trauma in the past.

Since 2010, we have trained 181 nurses and 87 midwives, and we never closed our doors, even during the civil war. The numbers might seem small, but we have deliberately focused on quality over quantity, making sure that the nurses and midwives we send out are people who are able to accept their own professional responsibility and work for the safeguarding of life no matter where they are.

We have also formed 734 primary school teachers, in our pre-service that includes a two-year residential program and diplomas from Juba university and recognized by the government. And we have also given short and long courses to existing teachers who had started teaching without any specific education, many of whom had barely finished primary school themselves.

In the pastoral department, we have had hundreds of sessions and workshops for lay leaders and religious, as well as thousands of hours of therapy, to help heal.

We are about 19 people working in Solidarity with South Sudan, including priests and religious. We have five communities. And what we are doing, can at best be described as yeast. It is very, very small, and we hope it will have an impact in the country, but unfortunately, it is a country where, for various reasons, the government is not capable of accepting its full responsibility in terms of education and health. We are helping there, but there are so many other needs, there is so much that needs to be done, that I think we have to be modest when speaking about what we have been able to do. We know our numbers are small, but we are happy with the quality of the formation and the contribution that they themselves make to their own country.

We are operating in the country, which has at best a fragile peace, but which can often degenerate into violence. Recently, I was at the plenary council of the bishops’ conference, and Bishop Erkolano Lodu Tombe, of Yei a small diocese in the south bordering with Uganda. And he gave a very passionate plea about the forgotten conflict that has been going on in his diocese. His diocese should have eight parishes, but it has been reduced to just one, the Cathedral Church, a little enclave of security within a government controlled area. Surrounding it, there is a conflict between the rebels and government forces. We don’t really know what is going on there, and the bishop was rightly frustrated, wondering what can he do to speak on behalf of his own people, who have had to flee, live in Uganda, and they don’t know if they will be able to come back. 

Children jump back and forth over a drainage ditch as they play inside the Protection of Civilians area in the United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan. Some 35,000 people live in the camp, protected by UN peacekeeping troops. They were displaced from Malakal following the outbreak of a civil war in 2013. The armed conflict has a strong element of ethnic tension, and the mostly Shilluk and Nuer residents of the camp fear for their security from the largely Dinka population that has moved into their former town. (Credit: Courtesy Solidarity with South Sudan/Paul Jeffery.)

Another tragic event took place on August 15. There was a celebration in a parish in the diocese of Torit, recognizing the 100 years of the Church in mission in the area. It was a great celebration, and people traveled three days by foot to be there. There was a minibus going back to Juba, with some Sacred Heart sisters in it. It was attacked by unknown people, and two of the sisters were killed. Both of them were involved in what we are doing. This just gives you an idea of how random, senseless, and terrible the violence in this country can be. 

What can people do to help?

It may sound very pious, but I certainly believe it, and that is the power of prayer. And I think if people can continue to pray for peace and for our leaders to be motivated to have a greater desire of a lasting peace that benefits everyone in the country. I believe this is something that parishes and individuals can pray for, and Pope Francis is personally mobilized over. We all believe in the power and necessity of prayer.

Of course, I’m usually looking for lay volunteers, but not many people volunteer to come, since most governments, understandably, recommend their people not to come, and I can understand why, but volunteering for a year or two, is a great way of contributing.

And there is also, of course, the possibility of contributing financially. The challenges the Church faces are many. Just to give you an example, the Bishop of Malakal spoke at the bishops plenary about the fact that to visit the different parishes, he has to travel either by plane or helicopter, because the infrastructure of his diocese does not allow for him to go by car. The region is currently facing the worst flooding of the past 60 years, and he is in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Just to be clear, he needs to travel by plane or helicopter because of the size of the diocese, or due to infrastructure?

In this country, both due to security and lack of infrastructure, a lot of the movement is done by small plane. The bishop of Malakal is in a difficult situation because his diocese covers a third of the country. To visit the parishes, he needs to go to Juba, and then take a flight that might only do the route once a week or every ten days, which means that the parishes are very, very isolated.

Seeing the challenges of these dioceses, I have to ask. Will we hear the voice of South Sudan in the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality, that includes a consultation at a parish, diocesan, national and continental level before the actual summit in Oct. 2023?

I think we will, but it will be very uneven, because in some dioceses it would be virtually impossible to organize a consultation, or if they do organize it, it would be in the cities, where there’s some sort of infrastructure, but in the rural areas, it will be very, very difficult. The bishops, however, are very keen on trying to do something, and the bishops of South Sudan are already talking with the bishops of Sudan, to make sure that something is in fact, organized.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma