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Religious men and women live together for a common project

A model for the Church

 Un modello  per la Chiesa  DCM-005
30 April 2022

This article was published in the January 2016 issue

“Did God really call her?” asked Sister Yudith’s niece, her eyes widening, when her mother told her the story of this aunt who lives in Africa and whom now, since she works for some periods in Rome, the little girl and her parents have come to visit in the Eternal City. Our gaze must have been similarly astonished as we listened to the project on which this Spanish nun has been working for some years now in a country torn apart by conflicts and oppositions of unparalleled violence. Solidarity with South Sudan represents an unprecedented paradigm for religious life. Here, there are different congregations of women and men from all over the world who live and work together to provide the most effective response possible to the enormous and urgent needs of this African Country. They work mainly on health, education, pastoral development and agricultural training. Sister Yudith Pereira Rico, an agricultural engineer by training, describes them as “luminous sparks of a miracle in action” (“What I learned at university in Madrid I apply constantly in my missionary work”).

Let us start with South Sudan.

It is the youngest country in the world, being less than three years old. It used to be part of Sudan, and before that Egypt. After three long civil wars in the last century, culminating in independence in December 2013, the struggle for political and economic power sparked the new Country’s first civil war, which continues to this day. Peace and national identity have not had time to consolidate, and so the power struggle has turned into a tribal struggle, close to genocide. We are talking about the most fragile state on the planet, classified at a level three emergency, the highest; a continuous and silent drama that more than two hundred international agencies and NGOs, including a large number of Caritas organisations from different Countries, are trying to alleviate. The average age is 16.8 years and life expectancy is 55. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the world, where one woman in seven dies in childbirth; 50 per cent of children suffer from severe malnutrition; and 41.5 per cent attend primary school, only 2.3 per cent secondary school. Twice as many boys as girls go to school; 8 out of 10 women are illiterate, and at least 40 per cent of women suffer domestic violence.

Education, health, war: from childhood to adulthood, do women always pay the highest price?

The violence suffered by women in South Sudan, as in many other places in the world, is an endemic problem. It is a doubly present reality: not only because of the growing crisis and armed conflict, but also because it is a constant and daily feature of the Country’s culture. It is a problem so deeply rooted that it has, has had and will continue to have devastating consequences on the health, well-being and future of entire generations of women. Yet, although in this scenario of war waged and maintained by men, women are the victims par excellence, they carry on with patience and faith, struggling to survive, to ensure their families survive too.

What is the Church doing?

Through lay people, priests, men and especially women religious, the local Church works assisting victims in camps for displaced people. It conducts programs aimed at overcoming trauma and promoting reconciliation. The stories are terrifying, they leave indelible wounds, so they try to help the victims overcome them and to live with them so that they in turn can become capable of healing others. The Churches - not only the Catholic Church - work directly with women, helping them to rediscover their dignity and to know their rights. There are still many pastoral challenges, such as giving access to the sacraments to women forced into marriage or polygamy. Nevertheless, there is hope, and women survivors of the conflict, of different faiths, are coming together to support their neighbors and families. They are chairing talks between the various tribal communities to promote healing and mutual trust in the face of prevailing insecurity, as a basis for building peace. It is so important to listen to women and think with them to find a solution to armed conflict together. Their presence in institutional peace dialogues would bring about a qualitative difference; not only would they talk about politics and power, but they would also highlight key issues such as education, health and justice, issues that men do not usually talk about.

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

Solidarity is an association of men’s and women’s congregations - there are currently more than two hundred supporters - that responded to the call of the local bishops who asked the religious men and women present in the country to do something, particularly in hospitals and schools. This is the first time that there is officially a common project resulting from a formal and substantial agreement between the General Union of Male Superiors and the General Union of Female Superiors. In Spain, there was some collaboration in the work in favour of migrants, but it was not a project that started from the top. After the request from the bishops, there was - and this lasted a few years - a careful preparatory phase aimed at studying situations and possibilities. Since the outcome was positive, the project officially began in 2008. Our work is primarily to build centers and training schools for teachers, nurses, midwives, pastoral agents and agricultural staff. Our work is about empowering people, preparing them to participate. Solidarity, which currently has five inter-congregational mixed communities serving the people of South Sudan, has been able to imagine and implement a prophetic form of religious life to meet the needs of the country. We are together! Let me give you a simple example, here when we go on a journey, we pray to our founder to assist us; with Solidarity we say, “may all the founders assist us!”.

Women and men religious living, deciding and working together: a beautiful innovation!

Solidarity not only brings together the strengths of the different congregations, collaborating with the bishops in their evangelising mission, but is also a community that gives a real testimony 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 general in the missions in Africa there is a lot of collaboration between the orders (while in Europe, which I know, it is very different). In any case, Solidarity takes a further step. Africans, Americans, Asians and Europeans, men and women live, collaborate and work together both at a governmental level and in the communities. From Rome, we deal with communication, relations with other congregations, agencies, fundraising, recruitment; but all the decision-making is done there. It is actually a miracle. We work together, and we work very well together! It is a model, a paradigm of religious life that works. We are truly complementary. What is a problem for us is not a problem for the religious, and vice versa. By living and working together we all learn, for example, to relativize. We learn every day. Everyone does everything, and there are no male and female roles. Even the religious men cook (some are exceptional cooks!); we share all the domestic work and care of our homes. Obviously, you have to learn how to live together. Nevertheless, I am convinced that religious training helps a lot. Unlike priests, when a man enters a religious order, he is usually taught to cook, to clean; as a religious, you have no one to serve you, so you have to learn! I think, after all, that the first requirement for being there together is to be happy with your vocation, with what you are doing.

How has your variety been received by the local population?

The fact that we are religious men and women together is really an advantage in many ways; above all, because we have different origins, from all over the world. To consider is that in South Sudan there are huge tribal problems, so paradoxically our variety ends up being an asset. A variety that is also present at the level of lay volunteers, both male and female (we need it so much!). Of course, the population had to get to know us, but after overcoming initial mistrust, the response was very positive. The idea, after all, is to hand over the project to the local Church at the end, not to be there forever. Perhaps we could then import the model into other countries!

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

The real problem - in the West as in Africa - is that of fear. If there is fear, faith is lacking. Prudence is something different, I am talking about the fear that leads to witchcraft and devotionism. We must get rid of it. There are two ways of experiencing faith; the first, thinking that you have to deserve it, the second, discover that you are loved. By discovering that you are loved, you give thanks. To choose to believe is to accept that God loves you. Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical: God is love!


Who is she

From the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus-Mary, Yudith Pereira Rico has a background as an agricultural engineer and holds a master’s degree in Education and studies in Theology and Spirituality. She lived 17 years, from 1995 to 2012, in West Africa directing educational, pastoral and women's promotion projects in Guinea and Cameroon. In January 2014, she became head of the international office of Solidarity with South Sudan.