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A paradigm for the Church

· Sr Pereira and the project for South Sudan where men and women religious from across the world work together ·

“Did God really call her?” asked Sr Yudith’s niece, opening her eyes wide, when her mother told her the story of this aunt who lives in Africa and whom the little girl and her parents had now come to see in the Eternal City, since she also spends time working in Rome. Our faces must probably have betrayed a similar amazement when we heard about the project on which this Spanish religious has now been working for several years in a country torn apart by conflicts and clashes of unequalled violence. 

It is a project unparalleled in the Catholic Church. Indeed, Solidarity with South Sudan is an unprecedented paradigm for the religious life: different congregations, both female and male, which come from every part of the world live and work together to respond as effectively as possible to the enormous and at the same time urgent needs of this African country. Their work is mainly in health care, education, pastoral development and agricultural training. Sr Yudith Pereira Rico describes them as “Luminous sparks of a miracle being performed”. Sr Yudith trained as an agronomical engineer (“In my missionary work I constantly apply what I learned at university in Madrid”).

Let’s start with South Sudan...

It is the youngest country in the world, less than three years old. It was previously part of Sudan and, even earlier, of Egypt. After three long civil wars in the past century, which culminated in independence, obtained in December 2013, the struggle for political and economic power unleashed the first civil war in the new country, which is still dragging on today. Peace and the national identity had no time to take root. Thus the fight for power became a tribal conflict close to genocide. We are talking about the most fragile state on earth, classified as at level 3 of emergency, the highest: a continuous silent drama which more than 200 international agencies and NGOs, including a large number of Caritas branches of various countries, are seeking to alleviate. A few data suffice: the average age is 16.8 years and life expectancy is 55; maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world: one woman in seven dies giving birth; 50 per cent of children suffer from serious malnutrition; and if 41.5 per cent go to primary school, only 2.3 per cent attend secondary school. Twice as many boys as girls go to school; eight women out of ten are illiterate, and at least 40 per cent of women suffer violence at home.

Education, health care, war: from childhood to adulthood is it always women who pay the highest price?

The violence that women in South Sudan suffer, as in many other places in the world, is an endemic problem. It is a doubly present reality: not only because of the increasing crisis and the armed conflict, but also because it is a constant daily characteristic in the country’s culture. It is a very deeply-rooted problem which has, has had and will continue to have devastating consequences on the health, wellbeing and future of entire generations of women. And yet, although living in this scene of war, desired and pursued by men, although they are victims par excellence, women nevertheless go ahead with patience and faith, struggling to survive and to enable their families to survive.

What does the Church do?

Through lay people, priests, men and above all women religious, the local Church works to assist victims in the refugee camps. She runs programmes that aim to help people overcome their traumas and to encourage reconciliation. The stories are terrifying, they leave indelible wounds: an effort is made to help the victims get over them and to live side by side in such a way as to become in turn capable of healing others; many priests and religious also have to take part in these programmes in order to recover from their experiences. The Churches – not only the Catholic Church – work directly with women, succeeding in enabling them to rediscover their dignity and to know their rights. Many pastoral challenges still exist, such as how to give access to the sacraments to women forced into marriage or into polygamy. However there is hope: the women survivors of the conflict, of different denominations, are joining forces to support neighbours and relatives. They chair discussions between the various tribal communities in order to foster healing and reciprocal trust in the face of the prevalent insecurity, as a basis on which to build peace. It is so important to listen to the women and to think with them in order to find together a solution to the armed conflict. Their presence in institutional dialogues of peace would lead to a difference in quality: people would not only speak of politics and power, but would also shed light on key subjects such as education, health care and justice, subjects which men don’t usually talk about.

Is this the context in which Solidarity with South Sudan operates?

Solidarity is an association of male and female congregations – today it has more than 200 supporters – who responded to the call of the local bishops asking for the women and men religious present in the country to do something, particularly in hospitals and schools. It is the first time that a common project has officially come into being, the fruit of a formal and substantial agreement by the male Union of Superiors General and its female counterpart, the International Union of Superiors General. In Spain there were several forms of collaborative work on behalf of migrants, but there was no project that came from the top. Subsequent to the bishops’ request there was a careful preparatory phase which aimed to examine situations and possibilities – and it lasted for several years. Since the outcome was positive, the project officially got off the ground in 2008. Our work is primarily the construction of schools and training centres for teachers, nurses, midwives, pastoral agents and farming personnel. Ours is a work of the empowerment of people, of preparing them for action. Solidarity, which now has five mixed intercongregational communities that serve the people of South Sudan, was able to imagine and to bring into being a prophetic form of religious life to respond to the country’s needs. We are together! I shall give you a simple example: when we set out on a journey we pray to our founder to help us; with Solidarity we say “May all our founders help us!”.

Women and men religious who live, decide and work together: what a splendid innovation!

Solidarity not only unites the forces of the various congregations collaborating with the bishops in their evangelizing mission, but it is also a community which bears a real witness of unity in diversity, of inclusion and equality between men and women. This is an important witness for the Church and above all for the divided and discriminatory society of South Sudan. Of course, in African missions there is generally great collaboration between the orders (whereas in Europe, an environment with which I am familiar, it is very different). In any case Solidarity is taking a further step. Africans, Americans, Asians and Europeans, men and women live, collaborate and work together, both at the level of government and in the communities. From Rome we look after communications, relations with other congregations, agencies, fund-raising and recruitment. By contrast, all the decision-making takes place in South Sudan. Effectively it is a miracle. We work together and we work very well together! It is a model, a paradigm of religious life which works. We are truly complementary. What we find a problem is not one for the men religious just as what they find problematic is not so for us: in living and working together we all learn, for example, how to relativize. We learn every day. We all do everything: there are no male roles and female roles. The men religious cook too (some are exceptional cooks!), we share all the domestic work and the care of our houses. Obviously you have to learn how to live together. But I am convinced that religious formation is a great help in doing this: unlike priests, when a man enters a religious order he is usually taught how to cook and clean; as a man religious you have no one to serve you so you have to learn! I believe moreover that the first prerequisite in order to be able to be there together is to be happy with one’s own vocation, with what one is doing.

How did the local population react to your variety?

The fact that we are men and women religious together really is an advantage in many ways. First of all because we have different origins, we come from all over the world. Only think that in South Sudan there are enormous tribal problems, hence paradoxically our variety ends by being a value. Variety is present also at the level of lay volunteers, both male and female (we are in great need of them!). Of course the population had to get to know us: but once the initial diffidence had been overcome, their response was very positive. Moreover the idea, in the end, is to hand the project over to the local Church, not to be there for ever. Then we might even be able to export the model to other countries!

To conclude, what do you think is the most pressing problem?

The real problem – in the West as in Africa – is that of fear. If there is fear, faith is lacking. Caution is something different, I am speaking of the kind of fear that leads to witchcraft and religious superstition. We must free ourselves of it. There are two ways of living faith: thinking we must merit it or discovering we are loved. In discovering you are loved you give thanks. Choosing to believe is accepting that God loves you. Benedict xvi wrote an encyclical entitled God is Love [Deus Caritas est]!”

A Spanish Religious of Jesus and Mary, Yudith Pereira Rico has lived in West Africa for 17 years, directing educational and pastoral projects and projects for the promotion of women in Guinea and in Cameroon. Since January 2014 she has been in charge of the international office of Solidarity with South Sudan.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 7, 2019