Fr Alan in South Sudan: Christmas in South Sudan - Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
05 Jan 2022

“It’s a big shift coming back to South Sudan again. After a few weeks at home in November, sporting a woolly hat, gloves, and my scarf, I’m now back in my shorts and light shirts. All this week the temperature is around the 38C mark, and it isn’t even the hottest time of the year! Still, it’s good to be in Loreto again.

The exams are over and the term has come to an end, so most of the students headed off for the holidays. We only have a small group who either live far away or would be in danger of forced marriage if they went home. It’s quieter around the campus, but there is always something happening. We have already gone on a few day trips to nearby parishes. The rains finished earlier than last year, so the roads are passable, but very dusty. So far, we have taken the students to the parish of Cueibet, which is under the care of Korean, Peruvian, and Egyptian missionaries, and Wulu, where a Spiritan missionary is parish priest. In each place the Church is actively involved in the local community, supporting education through schools, running agricultural projects, working in the hospitals, and of course celebrating the Sacraments with the people.

Fr Alan Neville and Sr Orla Treacy with some of the Egyptian, Korean, and Peruvian missionary community working in the Diocese of Rumbek.

Christmas Mass for us would normally happen in our usual spot under the neem trees next to the school, but one of the priests in town who was at home for holidays was diagnosed with COVID, so we agreed to help out in his parish. Our Christmas vigil and morning Mass were both special celebrations, with families gathering together to welcome the birth of Jesus once again. As Pope Francis said this year, “Jesus is the name and the face of love – this is the foundation of our joy”. There was no shortage of joy as the people sang, danced, and prayed in thanksgiving for the birth of our Saviour.

Our own Christmas dinner was a wonderful affair. Like any family we set out the extra tables and twenty-two of us shared a dinner of goat, sikumawiki (sort of like spinach, but not really), chapati, Irish potatoes (that’s what the locals call them), and tamalaka (a peanut sauce), all made by the students. Nothing is wasted when cooking here. I still haven’t worked my way up to tripe yet. One day maybe, but not this year!

Christmas lunch in Loreto.

The Feast of the Holy Family fell on the 26th, and according to tradition here, that is the main day to baptise children. Normally, four baptisms at any liturgy is more than enough for me, but here we had twenty-two. It was chaotic as you might expect at times, but it was a holy chaos, and the babies were just beautiful. People here cannot afford mobile phones, so cameras going off non-stop was not an issue. The baptisms took place within Mass, so the whole affair took two hours. By the end, I was ready for a cuppa, but the babies were probably the quietest there, content in their mothers’ arms. Another unique tradition they have there is to place a tinsel garland on the priest mid-baptism, so while I was busy anointing, I was being festooned like the prize bull at a cattle show.

"[One] unique tradition they have there is to place a tinsel garland on the priest mid-baptism, so while I was busy anointing, I was being festooned like the prize bull at a cattle show." ~ Fr Alan recalls baptising twenty-two babies, in keeping with local tradition, on the Feast of the Holy Family on December 26th.

As I write this on New Year’s Eve, I look forward to tonight, when we will have a New Year vigil for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. Previously, people would be wary of being out after dark, because of persistent security problems. Thankfully, this year things are calm and people feel safer. 2021 has certainly been a year of mixed blessings, with more than its fair share of challenges. I think we have all felt a little bit more vulnerable, but perhaps more connected too in spite of our self-isolation. There is no doubt we realise that we are more reliant on each other, and we are conscious that the effects of how we live can impact our brothers and sisters.

This year South Sudan benefitted from global solidarity efforts like the Covax vaccination programme. Loreto as a school has gone from strength to strength. A lot has been achieved, but there is still so much more to do. We have also been impacted by climate change, as rainfalls, which are essential to survival in an agricultural country, are disrupted. People will have to make do with what they harvested and we’ll do our part to help too. As we begin this New Year, let us do so with joy and with hope as well. We remember that God came into our world as a vulnerable child, in the simplest of settings, among a people who were struggling, to remind us He came for all of us and that together we are one family.”

Merry Christmas to you all or as they say here, Miet puou dhith banyda.
Fr Alan

Some of the Loreto Rumbek group on a day trip over the Christmas season.

Read more from Fr Alan’s missionary journey in South Sudan: