Pilgrimage for peace in Rumbek, South Sudan

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Our process of “Becoming One” with the sisters of the IBVM – the other branch of Mary Ward’s Institute – is taking many different forms. One of them is comon missions in different parts of the world. Last year, Sr Helena CJ from Germany, joined of Loreto Rumbek in South Sudan. She supports the team of Sr Orla IBVM. At the beginning of January, pupils of Loreto Rumbek went on a pilgrimage for peace and Sr Orla and Sr Helena went with them. Read the report of Sr Helena:

People sometimes ask me what has remained of the Pope’s visit last year, whether anything has changed. I can’t answer that for the country, for the Church as a whole – but for our diocese here in Rumbek: yes, something has remained. Yes, something has changed.

For the Pope’s visit in 2023, a colourful group of schoolgirls from our secondary school, together with other young people from the diocese as well as our bishop and some priests and religious, set off to welcome the Pope. Through their pilgrimage and their prayers, they expressed their desire for peace and at the same time practised this peace together during these days. On their return, the young people met every two months at their own request to pray, talk, eat and sing together. And the desire for another pilgrimage quickly arose. A small group was chosen to organise this new tour. This time, the route was to lead through our diocese in order to bring young people in the parishes into contact with each other and to promote peace here too.

On Saturday, 6 January 2024, the time had finally come. 80 young people from the 16 parishes of the diocese met with the bishop, some priests and religious in Loreto Rumbek to set off together on Sunday morning. Around 125 kilometres on foot, from Rumbek north-westwards to Tonj, lay ahead of us. Most of the time we walked along the main dusty road, past many small settlements and sometimes in single file through the bush. The daily distances varied from 16 to 27 kilometres. Setting off at dawn, we usually arrived at our destinations around midday and were greeted with cheers, singing and dancing. People generously brought their chairs, sometimes even their own beds and mattresses, so that we could rest. In almost every village we were also given a cow, a goat or chickens, which we then ate in the evening. The afternoon was spent unloading our luggage from the accompanying vehicles, cooking, eating, meeting more local people, holding discussion groups, a Holy Mass and an evening reflection session.

Pope Francis’ speech to the young people in South Sudan accompanied us on our journey. “Be seeds of hope” was the motto. We reflected on what it means for young people in South Sudan to be salt of the earth and light of the world, and allowed ourselves to be guided by texts from the Holy Scriptures and Francis’ words towards a deeper understanding of prayer and discipleship.

The topic of vocation also met with great interest. In the Dinka culture, it is almost inconceivable to decide in favour of a life beyond the traditional extended family, and those who feel God’s call within them have to fight hard for this path. There were therefore many questions to be answered and numerous prejudices to be dispelled.

When we arrived in Tonj on Saturday, despite all the tiredness and numerous blisters on our feet, we were full of gratitude for this experience of community and for the great commitment and responsibility with which the young people carried out their tasks day after day, making this tour possible in the first place. There was no question that there should be another pilgrimage next year and the young people, strengthened by the spiritual experiences of these days, wished that Bible sharing, the rosary and more silence should be included in the programme.

This year’s peace pilgrimage ended on Sunday with the diocesan opening mass of the Eucharistic Congress. The one-year Eucharistic Congress aims to strengthen the unity of Christians among themselves and between the states of Sudan and South Sudan. After the Mass, it was time for us to say goodbye, and with heavy hearts everyone left in different directions, with the mutual assurance that we would stay in contact with each other.

Text and photos: Sr Helena Erler CJ

CJ Generalate