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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinAugust 20, 2004 Issue 

Christianity offers hope in a region with little

Missionaries see pain, beauty, in Chad, Sudan

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

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Christianity is transforming the lives of people in both Sudan and Chad where people are eagerly embracing the faith, said Comboni Fr. Dave Bohnsack of Green Bay and Comboni Fr. Peter Ciuciulla, a native of Sicily.

The two priests, who have been ministering in those African countries for many years, were in Green Bay in August.

Witnessing the faith of these people, who deal daily with disease, hunger and, in Sudan, war has changed them, the priests said.

"You go in a village where you have a few Christians and find the chapel full. I asked, 'Why are you here if you are not Christians?' And they would say, 'Father, you have come to speak the word of God. The word of God is for everybody, not only for Christians. So we are here to listen to the word of God'," Fr. Ciuciulla said with a low whistle. "They should evangelize me."

"They are very religious people," Fr. Ciuciulla said. "They know that somebody is somewhere taking care of them. But they do not have a direct relationship with God. They do not have in their traditional religion a prayer directly to God. They can talk to God only through their ancestors. When you present Jesus Christ - God who himself came to make himself known and who gave his life for us - for them that is like heaven. Now they can talk to God."

When they see Jesus' body on a crucifix, "they see themselves, how they are suffering and see that their sufferings are not foreign or strange for God. God himself is suffering as they are. They feel this very much," Fr. Ciuciulla said.

Christianity then changes how they act, Fr. Bohnsack said. For example, when two neighboring tribes converted to Catholicism, they quit battling each other and instead built a single church where both tribes worship together.

Fr. Bohnsack said his parish has about 2,000 catechumens each year; Fr. Ciuciulla has roughly 3,000 a year in his. They undergo 2-4 years of preparation for Baptism.

The two priests rely on lay catechists who teach the catechism and lead Sunday worship when there is no priest - which is nearly every Sunday.

Fr. Ciuciulla and one other priest serve a parish of 2,900 square miles and 120,000 Catholics. They attempt to go to the community centers in the parish once a year to celebrate Mass and hear confessions.

Fr. Bohnsack and two other priests - both from Africa - served 250,000 Catholics, traveling up to 450 miles to meet with them at 300 centers.

When the priests are at a center, shoeless people walk 25-30 miles to attend Mass. But first, the priests spend 4-5 hours sitting on a chair under a tree or a small shelter as long lines wait their turn to kneel for confession.

During Lent in Chad, Fr. Ciuciulla said, five or six priests spend eight hours daily at three-day retreats in the bush hearing thousands of confessions.

The two priests say most people struggle to survive. The women must either haul water from a central well or buy it from a man going door-to-door. They eat, at most, one meal a day consisting of bread made from ground sorghum flour. They dip the bread in a sauce made from peanuts or cream mixed with vegetables and cooked to the consistency of peanut butter.

Africans are extremely hospitable and always insist that visitors receive the best. So the priests would be treated to chicken or goat, when they were available. It was impossible to refuse, they said, even though the people need the food far more than they did.

The men always eat first in Sudan and Chad, then the women and, finally, the children. Often there would not be enough food for the children, who would dig in the garbage or take left-over food from outdoor restaurants.

Food becomes scarce in June and July. So the Combonis buy and store grain early in the harvest cycle when prices are lowest, then give it to the people when food is scarce and expensive.

Everyone in Chad and Sudan has malaria, including both priests, who experience relapses that include a fever, aching joints and no appetite.

"But, if you don't have a high fever, you keep working and it passes in about a week," Fr. Ciuciulla said.

Malaria leaves the people susceptible to epidemics, such as cholera or meningitis. AIDS is a growing problem. To make matters worse, the Sudanese government won't acknowledge the problem. In Chad, affordable medicines are finally becoming available.

The people live in round houses about 10-feet in diameter, made either of grass, or mud walls with grass roofs. Families consist of eight or nine children and their parents. Because of a high infant mortality rate most families lose two, three or more other children. Both priests said they knew no one who hadn't lost at least one child.

Fr. Bohnsack said most of the people in Nyala were displaced by fighting, so they must rent land from Arabs or hire themselves out to work someone's land.

A few walk days seeking an open area to stake out and grow sorghum and peanuts (the people in Chad also grow corn and millet). But Arab militia sometimes find them, kill them and steal their crops.

One of the non-Arab Muslim tribes is the Dajo. In 2000, Pope John Paul canonized a 19-century Dajo, St. Josephine Bakhita, who was sold as a slave.

After the government recently killed hundreds of Dajo they came en masse to Nyala where the Combonis let them stay in a neighborhood kindergarten compound.

"They're very receptive to listening about Christianity," Fr. Bohnsack said. "I don't know where this will actually lead, but with this antagonism by the government - and they do everything in the name of Islam, literally killing their people for Islam - it could be a moment where they may become Christian."

Chad suffered from 30 years of civil war but has had a stable, democratically elected government since December, 1990, Fr. Ciuciulla said. Even at that, people are still killed if they speak out against the president, he said, although the church is allowed to denounce such human rights violations.

Every year, he said, bishops from Chad's seven dioceses write a joint pastoral letter discussing issues and what people can do to bring about change. But many people are still afraid to speak out.

Both Fr. Bohnsack and Fr. Ciuciulla said people in their native countries have helped a great deal financially to support their mission work. But they both would like to see more done, including convincing people in developed countries to live more simply to bring about a fairer distribution of the world's resources.

Fr. Bohnsack urges people to write letters to their senators and representatives to pass just laws and not just blame corrupt governments for the problems.

He cited problems with the World Bank and, in Sudan, with the World Food Program and UNICEF, which leaves only a little for the people they are meant to help.

"That kind of thing is really hard to see, especially when people really, really need it. And then what we in the church could do for a thousand dollars. We were able to help so many through this difficult period of no food - thousands of people - and the U.N. can't do it with millions of dollars," Fr. Bohnsack said. "It's frustrating."

Working in Sudan has changed his life, Fr. Bohnsack said, making him more aware of the need to live simply and of the importance of prayer and work and their strong faith and belief in the Eucharist, and their refusal to blame or become angry when bad weather destroys their crops.

Both priests noted that people in countries such as Italy and the United States complain all the time.

"It's never enough," Fr. Ciuciulla said. "They always want more and they have everything. I'd like to say, 'Have a look at what's happening on the other side of the world. How can you complain?'"

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