Remembering Blessed John Paul’s words in Sudan

VATICAN CITY — In his weekly editorial for Vatican television and radio, the papal spokesman marked the independence of South Sudan by reminding listeners of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Sudan in 1993 and the extremely strong words he used to defend the rights of Christians in the predominantly Muslim nation.

I was with Pope John Paul for that visit in February 1993 when we spent just eight hours in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, at the end of a week-long trip that also included Benin and Uganda.

The 50 or 60 journalists traveling with the pope had only a couple international phone lines and telex machines to use to file our stories. I remember feeling fairly panicked that I wouldn’t be able to file my story before we had to head back to the airport for the flight back to Rome. In those days, before everyone had fast internet connections, it usually didn’t matter if we had to wait a day to file.

Pope John Paul II was greeted by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when he arrived in Sudan in February 1993. (CNS/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano)

But Pope John Paul was blatant and bold as he denounced the persecution of Sudanese Christians. He said their names were written “on the palms of the hands of Christ, pierced by the nails of the crucifixion.”

There were soldiers carrying guns everywhere. It was the first time I’d seen military with weapons standing in plain sight on the platform where the pope was celebrating Mass. (It was also the first and only time I’ve seen camels grazing at the edge of a field where a papal Mass was being celebrated.)

In the end, I only got one story out from Khartoum, but it included news of the pope’s meeting with President Omar al-Bashir, who is still in office. The pope told al-Bashir, who came to power in a 1989 military coup, that the measure of a national government’s maturity is the way it respects human rights and protects its minorities.

And Pope John Paul told church workers that when he looked at what was going on in Sudan, “I see clearly a particular reproduction of the mystery of Calvary in the lives of the majority of Christian people.”

As Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, pointed out in his editorial, it’s been more than 18 years since Pope John Paul visited the African nation, “an estimated 2 million people have died and 4 million were displaced, but now there are hopes that the war really is over and that the new Republic of South Sudan, desired by an overwhelming majority of its inhabitants, can start a new chapter in peace.”

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