Cardinal Parolin visits the Usratuna center for disabled persons
By Salvatore Cernuzio – Juba, South Sudan
They are ebony in color but crystal-like in fragility. Moses, Juma, Adia, Mam-Ghereng, Emmanuel and Majok – a 2-year-old hydrocephalic child, cradled in the arms of his mother - are six of the approximately 400 residents of the Usratuna center for disabled children.
The word “Usratuna” is an Arabic term which, literally translated, means “our family.” The services provided by the center are offered by OVCI – “our family” - a voluntary organzation founded in Italy forty years ago to promote cooperation and development.
"Whatever you do, do it with love"
In the house in Juba, care is offered not only to the sick (primarily those with spina bifida and hydrocephalus) and also members of their families through the dedication and work of Daniela, Elena, Gisella, Anna, and Tiziana - consecrated lay members of the Little Apostles of Charity, working alongside mainly Italian collaborators.
It is in this village, where one is greeted by the words "whatever you do, do it in love," that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, after Mass at St. Peter's Major Seminary and a visit to the Catholic University, spent the last part of his trip to Africa, which began on 1 July in the Democratic Republic of Congo and ended in South Sudan.
Children: Protagonists of the Cardinal’s visit
The Cardinal’s visit was marked by the presence of children: from those dancing and dressed in festive clothes at the public Masses, to those in the camp for displaced persons in Bentiu and to those lining the wayside, barefoot.
It is also children, albeit the sick ones, who conclude the Secretary of State’s visit of faces and smiles that he brings back to Rome as a gift to pass on to the Pope ahead of his upcoming Apostolic Journey.
The Pope’s closeness
Cardinal Parolin also reiterated the Pope’s affection to the community at the Usratuna center, as he has done during the other places he visited during his trip.
On the Pope’s behalf, he encouraged them, offered them strength and blessed them, paying attention to their physical frailties, their attached IVs, their bandaged arms, or, simply, their fear of seeing a gentleman in white, crouch down to shake their little hands. "No, no, don't cry," the Cardinal says to a little girl hiding in her mother's clothes.
The choir of disabled children
The Secretary of State was greeted at the entrance to the center by a chorus of children wearing orange T-shirts. One of them, without arms, presents to him a bouquet of flowers. It is a symbolic and powerful image. Another curly-haired, blind child sings a tune into the microphone held by a female volunteer, "Welcome, dear cardinal."
The welcome is lively, but as we move on, the impact becomes violent. Cardinal Parolin walks down two corridors where there are mothers with their babies, with obvious disabilities and deformities, sitting on the floor on colored cloths, all lined up ready for the greeting.
"God bless you," the Cardinal repeats, accompanying the gesture with pats and signs of the cross on their foreheads.
Closeness to the mothers and children
The Cardinal then enters the different rooms where some of the therapies take place, including sessions for autistic children. There are two of them, one dressed in pink playing the xylophone in honor of the distinguished guest. "What a good girl!" says Parolin.
Meanwhile, the mothers smile. Some have dull, tired eyes, not even noticing the flies on their children's faces, but when the Cardinal passes by they show him their children.
A little Christ on the cross
Cardinal Parolin tries to greet everyone without forgetting anyone: he leans forward, kneels, extends his hands, pats their cheeks. Only once does he pause, almost as if in contemplation of what looks like a little crucified Christ.
He is a child just over 8 years old. Instead of nails, he has IV syringes; on his head, not the crown of thorns, but a part of his jaw completely displaced to one side; a stretcher instead of the cross. He is under special care; he may not have long to live.
"We rarely have the strength to accompany these difficult cases. Often we also lack spiritual and psychological strength," explains Matteo, a 33-year-old collaborator from the Italian city of Bologna. "People here seem to be more accustomed to death as a natural cycle of life. For us it is devastating."
"They represent Jesus..."
After a stop in the dispensary, Cardinal Parolin moves to the main courtyard and prays an Our Father together with the mothers and children, to whom he reiterates that he went to the Center as a messenger of the Pope, of his affection and desire to be with them.
Immediately afterward, the Cardinal went to St. Mary's College, a college within the Center that helps the family members of the sick to specialize in caring for the disabled.
Chants and shouts, flower petals thrown from baskets, choruses of "Wow! Alleluia!" greeted the cardinal, who encouraged them to continue caring for these little ones who suffer. "They represent Jesus,” he said.
A Church that accompanies
Cardinal Parolin also spoke on themes like suffering women, young people, children, war victims to four students from the Catholic University of Sudan and South Sudan – a reservoir of hope in the country that prepares tomorrow's leaders for a future of peace and reconciliation.
Cardinal Parolin met them while visiting the community of students, faculty, and workers. They are Tuik, Clementina, Christine, Helena who asked where the Church is in situations of suffering.
"The Church is present in these situations; it's a sign of hope," Cardinal Parolin replied, recalling the experience in the Bentiu camp where catechists and missionaries were next to the displaced people. "We are there, we do not abandon, we are beside, we walk even amid difficulties."
We are not alone
This is important, the Cardinal said, because it attests "that we are not alone."
The Cardinal then asked a question "You tell me what the Church does, but I ask: Who is the Church? We are the Church. Of course, there are the hierarchies, the priests, the nuns, but all the faithful are part of the Church. So the question is, what do we do for these people? We really have to commit ourselves."
At the end of the conversation, the Cardinal, with a hoe and watering can, planted a fig tree - a symbol of rebirth for the university, which recently turned 20 years old.
"You have a short past but a long and bright future,” said Cardinal Parolin.