South Sudan: On Christmas Eve in Palwar
28 February 2012

Fr. Richard O’Dwyer, S.J. celebrates Mass in Lobone. (Angela Hellmuth for Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Lobone, South Sudan) February 28, 2012 — Every Christmas, a number of Jesuit Refugee Service staff members volunteer to remain at work over the holiday period in order to keep the projects operating efficiently. The experience of being with and accompanying refugees and internally-displaced persons (IDPs) over the festive period is one which is unique and important, reflecting JRS´ values of compassion and solidarity. Fr. Richard O’Dwyer, S.J., Project Director for the JRS Lobone project in South Sudan, reflects on what this experience meant for him during Christmas 2011.

On 24 December 2011, Gunnar Bauer, S.J., my Pastoral Assistant in Lobone, our driver, Julius and I set out for the Catholic chapel in Palwar, about 30 kilometers from Lobone. We left around 3:30 p.m. and arrived, as planned, around 5 p.m. However, just as we reached the chapel there was a terrible metallic sound of breaking and tearing metal from our land cruiser. 

When we got out of the vehicle we were astonished to find our rear left wheel had come out about half a meter from its normal position, but amazingly had not fallen off. I realized how lucky we had been as if it had fallen off during our journey it could have resulted in serious injury. I also realized that it was very likely we would be spending Christmas night in Palwar Village.

Baptizing 25 babies

As part of our celebration of the Christmas Vigil Mass, we were due to baptize 25 babies. We started the baptisms in the early evening, and as dusk began to fade to nightfall, I was struck by the atmosphere in the chapel. There was a wonderful sense of joy coming from the entire congregation, but especially from the mothers of the children being baptized. 

It was clear to me that the catechist in Palwar, Omal Patrick, had done a wonderful job in preparing the mothers for the ceremony and instilling a sense of joy and celebration. Patrick is nearly at the end of a two-year training program at the Catechist Training Centre (CTC) in Gulu, Uganda. He and one other trainee catechist were sponsored by JRS to undertake the training and will be graduating in March 2012 — the first Sudanese to graduate from CTC in more than 20 years!   

The entire ceremony was held by candlelight in a grass-roofed chapel supported on wooden poles. I thought to myself, how appropriate on this particular day, to be operating in physical surroundings which must have been very like the stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago! In the context of the baptisms, it was not difficult to speak to all present about what we celebrate at Christmas time: that God in the person of Jesus was born as a little baby, just like the 25 babies present there that evening. 

This is how God chose to come among us! His parents came from a country village like Palwar. They did not come in a land cruiser from their village of Nazareth to Bethlehem. If they were traveling today in Sudan, they would come on a boda-boda (a motorcycle taxi). As I said this, I realized that the boda boda would also be our means of transport back to Lobone early on Christmas morning. 

God the creator

I asked everyone how they see God, and what their image of God is. One person suggested "God the creator." I walked over and knelt down in front of one of the mothers and her child and stated simply: "Here is our God, Emmanuel, God-with-us, as a little baby!"   concluded the Mass by asking: "Is anyone afraid of these little babies?"  Almost everyone shook their heads and said a definite "no." I then said: "My friends, my brothers and my sisters, neither do we have any reason to fear approaching God, because this is our God, born as a little baby for us, this day." 

As we concluded the baptisms, the atmosphere became even more joyful and happy because all of us, but especially the mothers, had shared an experience of being captured by the mystery of God's presence on this holy night. It was the Christ-child from Bethlehem re-born in a small village in South Sudan amongst joyous women and singing children. It was the best Christmas gift one could have wished for. It was beautifully simple and simply beautiful. 

JRS has been working in Lobone since 2001 and one of the strands of this work involves training and mentoring catechists to work in the Catholic churches. There is a shortage of priests in the area, and so the role of the catechist is very important and involves leading prayer on Sundays and also leading funerals and other ceremonies.