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ROME – Bishop-elect Christian Carlassare, who was shot in a grisly attack at his residence shortly after he was appointed as the new bishop of Rumbek, has recovered and is preparing to return to his diocese with forgiveness and a desire to work for peace in his troubled adoptive nation.
A Comboni missionary, Carlassare, 44, will be ordained a bishop March 25, on the Catholic feast of the Annunciation, in the cathedral of Rumbek.
His ordination was originally set for May 23 2021; however, on April 26, shortly after his arrival in Rumbek, he was attacked by two gunmen who entered his compound just after midnight and shot him in the legs.
His injuries required at least six surgeries and almost a year to heal, and he received treatment in Juba, the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, and his native Italy.
Speaking to Nigrizia, the official magazine of the Comboni missionary order, Carlassare said that he has reconciled with what happened and is ready to offer “true forgiveness from the heart.”
“Unfortunately, evil always finds space. To err is human. But no one is condemned to remain in wrongdoing. As Christians, we are all called to conversion and to sanctity of life,” he said, saying he is looking to the future with confidence.
“I know I’m not alone. And I feel deep solidarity with many people who ask to have a pastor who takes care of the people who live in abandonment. I return with the desire to put myself at the service of this church and to walk the journey with the people,” he said.
Carlassare said he has lived the past year as a sabbatical, dedicating himself to rehabilitation and reflection on what happened “in light of the Gospel and of the call I received in the church for the mission.”
“Last year’s attack made me reflect on the fragility of my own life, as well as that of every strategy and program; and on how important it is that I live every day life with courage and generosity,” he said, adding that he wants his daily life to be spent listening to and serving the people around him.
What happened last April “will help to purify and make space for the work of God,” he said, noting that God’s work is often most visible when accompanied by the cross. “So, I seem to be able to glimpse God’s care and presence in what happened for the greater good of the mission and the church of Rumbek,” he said.
“It will be a difficult journey and I pray for my conversion and availability as well as that of all people of goodwill who have great hopes, as well as those who have allowed themselves to be led by a closed and divisive mentality,” he said, adding, “Our conversion is a miracle that is always possible.”
Asked what concerns he has heading back to his diocese after the attack, Carlassare said he now has the awareness that he is no longer in control of his life, but that he is being led “by a people to assume this ministry for the good of the community.”
Having spent 17 years of joys and difficulties as a missionary in South Sudan, arriving a year after his priestly ordination in 2003, Carlassare said he feels that he has been “fully adopted” by the country with his appointment as a bishop.
“My hope is to operate as a humble son of the church and a worthy son of the people God entrusts to me, a people who want to live in peaceful coexistence after the independence was achieved in 2011, but who still struggle to achieve peace due to the many divisions,” he said.
Some people “will see me as a ‘white’ bishop. And I know that I am. However, I feel no different from my sheep: We have the same eyes, the same hands, the same feet, and the same heart,” he said, insisting that what divides people “is not the color of the skin, but the inability to open one’s heart and show one’s appreciation for different cultures that do not deny the humanity of each one.”
Unity, he said, “comes when we learn to set our relationships on due consideration and mutual acceptance.”
Ever since he was attacked last year, it was rumored that the assault was ethnically motivated, given that Rumbek is an area belonging primarily to the Dinka tribe, and Carlassare before his appointment had spent 10 years working closely with the Nuer tribe, which is traditionally the sworn enemy of the Dinka.
Carlassare’s appointment ruffled feathers, as many Dinka tribe members believed that Father John Mathiang – who had led the Rumbek diocese as Diocesan Coordinator since December 2013, after the previous bishop, also a Comboni missionary, passed away – should have been named bishop.
In June of last year, police arrested six suspects believed to be responsible for the attack, one of whom was Mathiang.
A trial for Mathiang and five others began last month in Juba, and is being followed closely by national and regional ecclesial authorities. Lake State authorities have reportedly arrested more than 20 people in connection with the incident since last year.
Carlassare said there are “innumerable” challenges that await him in South Sudan, most of which are tied to ongoing violence and the ease of access to weapons in the country.
“The population is very polarized, frustrated, and divided: there must be a great effort to promote relaxation, listening, and reconciliation; and to overcome a deeply rooted hostile dynamic,” he said.
At the social level, poverty is also a major concern, he said, not because the country lacks resources, but “because the population has very limited access to these, as well as to basic services,” which is where the church steps in to provide concrete help to “those who try to raise their heads.”
He praised the educational commitment of the church in South Sudan, as well as its efforts in health care, saying international support in this regard is generous, but “over time we will have to work to give local foundation to these interventions so that they are increasingly sustainable.”
“My concern is that Christ is at the center of all the work of the church because he is the beginning and the fulfillment of a true process of humanization of individuals and of society,” Carlassare said.
He spoke of the many expressions of solidarity he received from the Vatican, his fellow bishops, the local church of Rumbek, and the South Sudanese government after last year’s attack, saying he will continue to count on this support in the future, “when it is even more needed.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen