Father Mike Bassano, a Maryknoll priest from the United States, dances with members of a Catholic dance group inside a United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan. (Photo courtesy Father Michael Bassano)
Father Bassano presides at celebrations and helps relieve hunger
By Tom Maguire | Associate editor
The days grow very hot now in South Sudan, where missionary Father Michael Bassano walks among the people and shares their hope that peace will move forward.
Father Bassano, of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, made one of his periodic phone calls to the Sun on Feb. 11 as he prepared to walk to a church meeting. According to one recent report, he said, the temperature reached 104 degrees. It was about 5:30 p.m. there (eight hours ahead of Syracuse); he tries to stay out of the sun between noon and 4 p.m. “I make sure I’m eating well, taking enough water,” he said. “I thank God for the good health, able to continue here with the people.”
Since 2013, he has served as the Catholic chaplain of the United Nations Protection of Civilians (POC) camp outside Malakal on the east side of the White Nile River.
South Sudan has struggled with civil war. Last December, A Do Not Travel advisory was posted for South Sudan on the website of the U.S. Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs. The advisory cites violent crime and armed conflict, with fighting involving political and ethnic groups.
“Hasn’t been any kind of violence around us,” Father Bassano said, adding that there was some sporadic fighting in and around the areas of Juba, the capital. “Hopefully that kind of violence that has killed some civilians will stop,” he said. The POC camp, which is more than 300 miles north of Juba, is waiting to see what happens in April and May with the new transitional government, he said.
If peace takes hold, the displaced people of the camp will return to their homes that were destroyed by the war or occupied by another ethnic group. Even then, issues remain: Will the people have enough places to get water, enough hospitals or clinics? Will they have public services and a way to rebuild their homes?
Food is lacking for the people who, sensing that peace is coming, are returning to South Sudan’s villages from Sudan or Ethiopia. Father Bassano was looking forward to helping distribute 1,316 bags of rice received from the Marykollers’ famine-relief program. Also involved in the effort are the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Danish Refugee Council, and the Humanitarian and Development Consortium.
Some of the rice will be distributed inside the POC camp, Father Bassano said, to people who are elderly or blind or otherwise physically and cognitively challenged.
In African culture one must greet people along the walking route. “I don’t mind that at all,” he said. As he walks about one mile from the “humanitarian hub” to the POC camp, little kids shake his hand and say hello.
He interprets the camp’s developments as signs of hope. He offered a Mass on Feb. 10 in celebration of St. Josephine Bakhita, a saint for Sudan and South Sudan. Father Bassano said St. Josephine was born in Darfur in Sudan and sold as a slave in the 1860s and ’70s; she escaped with an Italian family to Italy and became a Canossian sister.
During the Mass, Father Bassano summoned all the girls named Josephine or Bakhita (25 to 30 of them) to the altar for a blessing, thanking God for them. A choir and dancers participated — “joyful music to celebrate this saint of their people,” he said. “Then we handed out some sweets and some dates, fruit.”
The people, he said, always have a “sense of faith that this is not the end of their lives in the camp. … They celebrated with joy and hope.”
Recently he attended a wedding at the camp’s Presbyterian church, with wonderful singing: “The couple looked beautiful. … These are signs of new life even in camp” for people displaced by war.
Other signs of new life that he sees are the children who will be baptized or those who will receive their First Holy Communion or be confirmed. The children meet Tuesdays and Thursdays in his church. Father Bassano was planning to attend another wedding in a house Feb. 16. “That’ll be interesting,” he said.
Before the readings at Mass, Father Bassano has the children come up for a blessing as the congregation sings a song. His church hoped to construct, by Sunday, Feb. 17, a special place where the children can stay during Mass and study Scripture, talk, and share together. The project features plastic sheets and sticks. “We try to keep things going,” he said.
The parish council has been talking about what to do for Easter. “That gets people excited,” he said.
Father Bassano will stay in the camp for now. “I have always believed that I was sent here to be with the people,” he said. “I felt God calling me to be with the people, be a presence to them to let them know they were not abandoned. … I’ve always prayed and believe when the time comes, I’ll know … to move on.”