By Giada Aquilino
A time of grace dedicated to reflection and prayer, to ask God "for a future of peace and prosperity for the people of South Sudan". In the words of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, this is the meaning of the spiritual retreat currently underway in the Vatican, at the Casa Santa Marta.
The retreat brings together the highest civil and ecclesiastical authorities of this young African country, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.
Opening the meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the Cardinal brought the Pope's welcome greeting to those present. Pope Francis will meet the participants on Thursday afternoon, at the end of the retreat. This two-day visit to the Vatican was approved by the Pope following a proposal presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Community, Justin Welby, who thought it could be a "spiritual, ecumenical and diplomatic" initiative, said Cardinal Parolin.
Respect and trust
The Vatican Secretary of State described the retreat as an "opportunity" for encounter and reconciliation in the spirit of "respect and trust" for those who "at this moment have the special mission and responsibility to work for the development" of South Sudan. In 2013, the country plunged into a bloody civil war, which left at least 400,000 people dead.
Taking part in the retreat in the Vatican are members of the Presidency of the Republic of South Sudan who, according to the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan signed last September in Addis Ababa, include: Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Republic; the Vice-Presidents designate Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, Taban Deng Gai, and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio, widow of the Sudanese leader, John Garang. Also participating are members of the Council of Churches of South Sudan. The preachers at the retreat are Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, and Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, President of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar.
The Pope's concern
While still on his way to Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, sent his greetings and thanks to the Holy Father for his hospitality "in his home" to the participants, underlining Pope Francis' concern for South Sudan, and hoping that the Holy Spirit would “rest" on all the leaders of the country, whether present at the retreat or not.
The Archbishop of Canterbury also recalled the commitment of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, who visited South Sudan at the end of March.
In his remarks at the retreat, Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator dwelt on the true meaning of a spiritual retreat, understood as a time "to meet God" or, even better, as a time “for God to meet us".
The Lord, he explained, "will speak to us here", not by "cell phones", or "through Twitter or Facebook or Instagram", but in a retreat of healing, purification and mission as "artisans of peace". The invitation is to speak "to one another" from the depths of our hearts, enlightened by the Spirit, never forgetting the 13 million inhabitants of South Sudan, so that the peace agreement may be signed, above all, "in our hearts".
Meditation on the national anthem
The President of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, in the second part of the Wednesday afternoon session, extended his reflection to the South Sudanese national anthem, "South Sudan Oyee!". He urged those present to listen to the anthem during the retreat. In it, he explained, God is mentioned twice, at the beginning and at the end.
The people of South Sudan, said Fr Orobator, are people "of faith", who with "one voice" pray, glorify and express trust in the Lord, in "peace and harmony". The country’s greatest resource and wealth, he added, is not in its land, water or oil: it is its people. He recalled the day of independence from Khartoum, on the 9th of July 2011: in all South Sudanese people, of every ethnicity, there was joy, euphoria, jubilation because the nation "was born", with hopes for peace, justice, prosperity, freedom, he said.
Yet in the country today there are "7 million people", "almost half of the entire population", who are reduced to extreme hunger, schools are being abandoned because of inter-community violence and between clans; 4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, taking refuge in refugee camps.
Fr Orobator concluded with an invitation to recover the "dream" of the national anthem, going beyond “hostility” and “misunderstanding”, choosing between war and peace: choosing "life", for a reconciliation that is not only "personal", but "national".
These are the words of the National Anthem of South Sudan, on which participants at the retreat were called to meditate:
We praise and glorify You
For Your grace on South Sudan,
Land of great abundance
Uphold us united in peace and harmony.
We rise raising flag with the guiding star
And singing songs of freedom with joy;
For justice, liberty and prosperity
Shall forever more reign!
Oh great patriots
Let us stand up in silence and respect,
Saluting our martyrs whose blood
Cemented our national foundation,
We vow to protect our nation.
Oh God, bless South Sudan!